Sunday, January 27, 2013

On learning languages

Rammohun Roy (1772-1833) mastered several languages, Bengali of course, Sanskrit, English, Hindi, Arabic, Persian, Greek, and Hebrew.  He had a quick and strong memory, and a tremendous power of concentration - he is said to have read Valmiki's Ramayana in one sitting.  Presumably these gifts were what enabled his facility with languages.

Thomas B. Macaulay (1800-1859) was also a polyglot.  I suppose we produce just as many polyglots today, but their influence seems is limited compared to the 19th century.  I noted previously that per Wiki, Macaulay knew English, Greek, Latin, French, German, Dutch and Spanish.   His letters show that he knew Italian, too; (Life and Letters of Lord Macaulay, by his nephew, G.O. Trevelyan, M.P.)in his letter from Calcutta, February 8, 1835, he writes "I was enraptured with Italian during the six months I gave up to it; and I was little less pleased with Spanish. But, when I went back to Greek, I felt as if I had never known before what intellectual enjoyment was."  He also picked up some Portuguese - his letter, Calcutta, July 25, 1836 - "I have picked up Portuguese enough to read Camoens with care; and I want no more."

Macaulay too had a quick and strong memory and a tremendous power of concentration.  In the same letters, though, Macaulay reveals a little of how he used them, and hence this note.

Macaulay's letter of November 26, 1836:

"In little more than a year I shall be embarking for England and I have determined to employ the four months of my voyage in mastering the German language.....My way of learning a language is always to begin with the Bible, which I can read without a dictionary.   After a few days passed in this way, I am master of all the common particles, the common rules of syntax, and a pretty large vocabulary.   Then I fall on some good classical work.  It was in this way I learned both Spanish and Portuguese, and I shall try the same course with German."

Macaulay's letter of March 8, 1837

"I intend to learn German on my voyage home, and I have indented largely, (to use our Indian official term), for the requisite books.  People tell me that it is a hard language; but I cannot easily believe there is a language which I cannot master in four months, by working ten hours a day."

Macaulay's letter of December 18, 1837

"My departure is now near at hand.  This is the last letter which I shall write to you from India.....I intend to make myself a good German scholar by the time of my arrival in England.  I have already, at leisure moments broken the ice.  I have read about half of the New Testament in Luther's translation, and am now getting rapidly, for a beginner, through Schiller's History of the Thirty Years' War.  My German library consists of all Goethe's works, all Schiller's works, Muller's History of Switzerland, some of Tieck, some of Lessing, and other works of less fame.   I hope to despatch them all on my way home."

(Macaulay must have then become aware of Goethe's praise of Shakuntala. I suppose it lowered his opinion of Goethe.)