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I believe, nevertheless, that there is a little truth in the bold assertion; for, I know that, in many instances, years spent in the study of grammar do not even enable students to read with facility a book previously unseen. The science of grammar is an essential branch of education, it gives us all we can desire in relation to a language, except the art of speaking and writing it fluently. Composition implies and requires grammatical accuracy, but it goes far beyond it. It discusses, even in its simplest form, the elements of style and of various forms of sentences, all equally grammatical; it decides on the most appropriate. But viva voce composition, if encouraged at all-and it seldom is in our schoolsis only taught after the whole of the grammar, accidence and syntax, has been laboriously studied. Thus, the pupil in too many instances has a necessarily confused idea of the intricate rules some grammarians have devised, without being able to write the simplest letter, or take part in the most ordinary conversation. I even go farther than that, and say that a great many will not understand the simplest phrases addressed to them in the language they are supposed to have learned. In fact, incredible as it may appear, French and German, especially the former, are often taught with an English pronunciation by teachers who, however qualified in other respects, are conspicuously deficient in their knowledge of the idiomatical part of the language and of its correct pronunciation. If they attempt an illustration orally, they convey a wrong sound to the mind of their pupil, which it would be best he had never heard. Fortunate it is if the example be correct in structure, for quick illustration, though it is a natural gift possessed by persons of acute perceptions, is also an acquired power, depending upon the amount of knowledge of the subject. These examples, incorrectly pronounced, do indeed a great deal of mischief. They debar, in almost every instance, the student from making a practical use of the language by speaking it; for, if ever he attempt to do so, he will find himself openly ridiculed, his would-be French or German sounding infinitely worse than the Pigeon-English of a newlyarrived Chinaman. This is a somewhat harsh-sounding comparison, but who that has listened to these painful and soon-abandoned efforts of some of our youth can say that it is overdrawn or not to the point. It is an almost hopeless thing for a subsequent teacher to eradicate a vicious accent; his oral illustrations will be misunderstood, and, try as he will, he will only make confusion worse confounded. Of two classes of pupils one often meets
with here, I prefer the one who has received nothing but blackboard instruction, who has been taught, in fact, as if he were deaf and dumb, to the other whose pronunciation has been hopelessly spoiled; though I must confess, that I like neither.
Another grave mistake, which I find to be often made, is to fill the memory of students with a number of words and their derivations, the majority of which, for all practical purposes, is quite useless to them, at least in the commencement of their course. Fluency and correctness of speech are quite consistent with a small vocabulary. It has been calculated that the English language, including the nomenclature of the arts and sciences, contains one hundred thousand words, yet it is surprising how few of this immense number are in common use. To the great majority, even of educated men, three fourths of these words are almost as unfamiliar as Arabic or Hebrew. Strike from the lexicon all the words nearly obsolete—all words of special arts or professions—all the words confined in their usage to particular localities-all the words which even the educated speaker uses only in homeopathic doses—and it is astonishing into what a Lilliputian volume your Brobdignagian Webster or Walker will have shrunk. A distinguished scholar estimates that few speakers or writers use as many as ten thousand words, ordinary persons of fair intelligence not over four thousand. Even the great orator, who is able to bring into the field, in the war of words, half the vast array of light and heavy troops which the vocabulary affords, yet contents himself with a far less imposing display of verbal force. All-knowing Milton, whom Dr. Johnson charges with using a “Babylonish dialect,” uses only eight thousand; Shakespeare himself, the myriad-minded, only fifteen thousand. A small child knows, perhaps, only one hundred words, and in boy or girlhood, unless it belong to the educated classes, will never employ more than three or four hundred. Yet this small vocabulary suffices to produce the astonishing variety of expressions which loquacious children display. Their eagerness in learning to talk, and the perseverance and earnestness with which they apply themselves to the recitation of any form of speech which pleases their fancy, is the source of their success in reproducing whole sentences. Words are not language, except when they are united in idiomatic combinations, and a language may be fitly compared to a tree, but a tree which is not propagated by seeds, but by cuttings, not by words, but by sentences. One frequently notices in India that children of tender years, who have been in daily intercourse with their native
servants, speak the vernacular with greater fluency and far more idiomatically correct than their parents, who have studied the grammar as an initiation, and have learned half the words the dictionary contains. The secret is that the elders have commenced learning at the wrong end.
. I do not depreciate the study of grammar, and I am very far indeed from saying that we know a language when we merely speak it; but our knowledge of the colloquial part of a tongue gives us the master-key to its treasure-vaults ; it helps us to understand many an author, the beauties and nuanceries of whose style we would otherwise not have noticed, and besides affording us endless pleasure, it facilitates our subsequent studies in an immense degree. My regret is, that in the system which prevails in a number of our schools, there is an almost total absence of any attempt at teaching a youth to speak and write a foreign language, and that instead of this, the mind of the student is filled with a maze of intricate rules, and a great number of words for which he has no immediate present use. These are, in the beginning, so much dead-weight, soon to be thrown overboard, and with it the rest of the cargo; with it, also, the desire to master the language which seems to present such insurmountable difficulties. How different would it be, if a more rational and natural system were adopted, if speaking and composition were cultivated. Let the teacher but try, not to begin with definition, but let definition be preceded by illustration, which the pupil also must be encouraged to form himself from his own vocabulary of words in everyday use; and the result will, by this simple means, be already far different from those we now obtain. Instead of at once translating the text-book prescribed by the University, reading books, containing a variety of anecdotes and small stories, ought to be chosen, simple and very easy at first, and gradually introducing a more elaborate and difficult style. If the teacher use these elementary books intelligently, asking his pupils about the subject of the little tale, always speaking the language he teaches, and exacting a simple answer in the same tongue, he will soon perceive the advantage. But he must persevere for a time, and not allow himself to be discouraged by the apparent difficulty he is sure to encounter at first. I own, this method of instructing is the more laborious one, and it requires, next to a good philological training, a thorough knowledge of at least two languages; but it seems to me to be the only way out of our difficulty, and I have, moreover, found it
answer so well in practice that I would not hastily adopt another system, though it should appear a better one at first sight.
An almost endless number of methods has been propounded, in many of which the author rides his particular hobby, and each claiming to be successful in practice. Nearly every method makes this claim, doubtless with sincerity, and perhaps with a certain amount of truth. When we admit this, however, we admit, in other words, that the teacher is of more importance than his method, since it is sometimes moral considerations which determine the progress rather than the intellectual propriety of the course followed. But revolutionary excesses have a natural tendency to exhaust themselves after a time, and so it is that a great many of these systems have enjoyed only an ephemeral fame. An interlinear method was introduced here about nine years ago, purporting to teach French, grammar, idioms, pronunciation, and all, without the aid of a master, by giving an English translation of a questionable French novel; but the absurdity of this plan was so apparent at first sight that the volume commanded but a small sale, and is now almost forgotten.
I think it is erroneously considered hopeless either to attain the true intonation, or to acquire the idiomatic command over the construction of a living language, except by dwelling among the natives. At any rate, the good example of the teacher and some pliability of tongue, joined to exertions on the part of the pupil, can do almost everything to perfect the latter in his accent. The idea seems to prevail here that the best pronunciation of French is to be acquired in the capital. This is a mistake, for the accent of the bourgeoisie in Paris is as vicious as the Cockney English. It is considered that the purest French is heard in and near Blois, Department Loir-etCher. The best German is spoken in Brunswick and Hanover.
We would be unjust if we were to throw the blame for the existing mode of teaching on our colleges and grammar-schools, nor do I mean to say that the mistakes to which I have pointed exist only in our small community. Unfortunately, we meet with them even in some parts of the Continent of Europe. A short time ago, I heard the question put to one of our“ distinguished visitors” from France, whose position enables him to form a correct opinion, whether English was taught as much in the schools of his mothercountry, as the French tongue was learnt here. He slightly misunderstood the question; but his reply was: “Dear me! English is being taught in France in the same way French is taught here; the
teacher knows nothing about it, and the pupil less—if that be possible.” But the existence of errors in other parts, even of the old world, ought not to prevent us to aim at correcting them here; and it is to our highest seat of learning that we must look for redress.
It is a matter for deep regret that, as yet, there has been no provision made at the University of Melbourne, for the higher teaching of at least French and German, and for a lecturership of modern languages. Our Alma Mater only takes upon itself the responsibility of examining for the Civil Service, for matriculation and matriculation honours. The test is a written one, and, however well this may answer for mathematical subjects, it seems totally inadequate when applied to the living tongues. This truth has been so well recognised in Germany, that no Hochschule would dream of applying merely a written test. A viva voce interrogation forms an important part of the examination, and no abiturient will pass who does not satisfy the examiners as to his capability of expressing himself with reasonable fluency of speech. Our American cousins seem to have shrewdly adapted this practical view of the matter, and have provided for a viva voce examination in most of their seats of learning. Their written tests, also, seem to be very searching. I have lately seen a paper of the University of Pennsylvania, which consists of nothing else than a number of sentences to be translated from English into French, beginning with very easy elementary phrases and gradually introducing the more difficult and idiomatic parts of the language. This seems a fair and uniform test, capable, as far as written examination can do so, to determine what progress has been made; and it would be well, I think, if our authorities adopted a similar plan. It would do away, in a great measure, with students passing, or even passing with credit, who have not the slightest real knowledge of the subject. The University should not prescribe or even recommend any text-books, much less make it imperative upon the examiner to frame a number of questions from them. This openly encourages a system of what is called “ cramming” in school phraseology. To a great extent the possibility of it is avoided by the tenor of the German paper for many years past. The examiner has evidently followed his own ideas as much as he could, and yet, in perusing the papers, one sees that he has been hampered. But the French papers have, for a long time, been a subject of complaint. They have been very negligently compiled, apparently with a view only to ascertain whether the textbooks have been studied; and so poor seem to have been the