The More Languages You Know… : Learning Languages in the Ancient World

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Inscription in Old Persian, Elamite and ‌Akkadian languages. It is carved on a column in Pasargadae.

In South Australia, a tribe in Encounter Bay tells this story: In remote time an old woman, named Wurruri lived towards the east and generally walked with a large stick in her hand, to scatter the fires around which others were sleeping, Wurruri at length died. Greatly delighted at this circumstance, they sent messengers in all directions to give notice of her death; men, women and children came, not to lament, but to show their joy. The Raminjerar were the first who fell upon the corpse and began eating the flesh, and immediately began to speak intelligibly. The other tribes to the eastward arriving later, ate the contents of the intestines, which caused them to speak a language slightly different. The northern tribes came last and devoured the intestines and all that remained, and immediately spoke a language differing still more from that of the Raminjerar.

According to one Hindu myth, there was once a very tall tree that grew out from the very center of the earth. It was called the “World Tree” or “Knowledge Tree”, and grew so tall that it almost reached the heavens. The tree decided that it would keep growing so that its head would be in heaven and its branches on the earth, so it could make all humankind gather under it and prevent them from ever separating. The god Brahma discovered the tree’s intentions and as punishment for it being so proud, he cut off all of the tree’s branches and scattered them all over the earth. Where each branch fell a Wata tree began to grow, and with it a new language and culture for humankind.

The need for the ability to communicate in multiple languages is as old as human history itself. In the Ancient Near East, Akkadian was the language of diplomacy. Centuries later, Latin became the dominant language of education, commerce, religion and government in much of Europe until it was mostly replaced by French, Italian and English by the end of the 16th century. Right now, more than half the people in the world are bilingual. Then, we have the polyglots, who are capable of speaking not one or two but at least five different languages fluently. Such a skill is widely looked upon with fascination, if not envy, inviting a wishful yet somewhat defeated sigh of “oh, I wish I can speak (insert language here)”. 

Learning languages, as the ancients tell us, is difficult but not impossible. In fact, it was and has always been necessary. Those ancient historians and mythologists would have learned other languages. Ovid, in compiling his Metamorphoses, one of the most complete work on mythological stories, would have combined his creativity and his knowledge of ancient Greek to be able to describe those mythological scenes in great details. At the time of its extinction, only a few educated Romans with antiquarian interests could read Etruscan language. The last person known to have been able to read Etruscan was the Roman emperor Claudius (10 BC – AD 54) who, in his youth, wanted to be a historian and authored a treatise in 20 volumes on the Etruscans, called Tyrrenikà and compiled a dictionary by interviewing the last few elderly rustics who still spoke the language.

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Sinop bilingual inscription of Kaykaus I

The Roman historian and author Pliny the Elder credited Mithridates VI as the Empire’s most formidable of enemies. Under him, the Kingdom of Pontus – in modern-day Turkey – fought and defeated the late Roman Republic in several battles of the Mithridatic Wars. While he eventually lost, Mithidrates reputation would only grow over the subsequent years and centuries as a one of the greatest polyglots who ever lived. Mithridates made a point of learning the languages of the peoples his vast kingdom ruled over. Pliny noted in Volume 7 of his Natural History: “Mithridates, who was king of 22 nations, administered their laws in as many languages, and could harangue in all of them, without employing an interpreter.” He event went one step further: although his kingdom didn’t stretch that far, Mithridates was also fluent in ancient Persian. Contemporary accounts noted that he spoke the language with Persian prisoners – before he killed them, of course. 

Descended from Ptolemy, one of Alexander the Great’s generals, Cleopatra was part of a dynasty that ruled over Egypt for more than three centuries. In fact, she was the last Ptolemaic ruler of the north African state, reigning for 21 years. She was also highly intelligent, not least in her recognition that learning languages could help her consolidate and grow her power. As with all the Ptolemaic rulers, Cleopatra spoke Greek as her native tongue. But while none of her predecessors bothered to learn the language of the people they ruled over, Cleopatra was different. Either way, speaking the local tongue was what a modern-day politician would call an excellent PR exercise as it kept the populace on her side. This was most probably the reason Cleopatra learned to speak at least another six languages. As Plutarch noted in his history The Life of Anthony: “And her tongue, like an instrument of many strings, she could readily turn to whatever language she pleased, so that in her interviews with barbarians she very seldom had the need of an interpreter, but made her replies to most of them herself…whether they were Ethiopians, Troglodytes, Hebrews, Arabians, Syrians, Medes or Partians.”

Two thousand years ago, learning Latin just seemed to be the thing to do to progress. When the Romans ruled a vast empire whose inhabitants spoke all sorts of different languages, many of those inhabitants wanted to learn Latin as a second or third language. So they signed up for Latin classes, where they learned using textbooks with little dialogues about everyday life. These dialogues are similar to texts used today to teach foreign languages. The dialogues introduced learners to both Latin and the Roman culture. They illustrate how to use the public baths, the banks, the markets, the temples, the lawcourts and so on.

Ancient Latin learners, in fact, did most of the things modern Latin learners do. In addition to learning grammar, they translated Latin texts into their own language, and texts from their own language into Latin. They read Virgil’s Aeneid, although they usually didn’t get very far into the story, and Cicero’s Catilinarian Orations. When they had gained enough vocabulary to be able to cope with reading without a  translation, they read monolingual Latin texts, using dictionaries and commentaries to decipher them and writing translations of the hard words into their copies of the text. And, like many modern learners, some ancient learners eventually became very good at the language and went on to read texts without needing to look up the hard words and write them down.

Before the 20th century, language teaching methodology went back and forth between two types of approaches: language use – that is, speaking and understanding, and analysis – learning the grammatical rules. The Classical Greek and Medieval Latin periods were characterized by a strong emphasis on teaching people to actually use foreign languages as they were used as lingua francas. Later, higher instruction was given in these languages all over Europe and they were also used very widely in religion, politics and business – making them necessary for everyone. Although the “educated elite” became fluent speakers, readers and writers of the appropriate classical language, merely using the foreign language was no longer special as even an uneducated shopkeeper could use them if he practiced enough. Then the ability to analyse the languages became the mark of the “educated” and the practical aspect of the languages gradually disappeared.  

The focus in language study shifted back to utility rather than analysis during the 17th Century. Perhaps the most famous language teacher and methodologist of this period is Jan Comentius, a Czech, who published books about his teaching techniques between 1631 and 1658.  He wrote a complete course for learning Latin, covering the entire school curriculum, culminating in his Opera Didactica Omnia, 1657. In this work, Comenius also outlined his theory of language acquisition. Some of the techniques that he used were very simple: use imitation instead of rules to teach a language, have your students repeat after you, use a limited vocabulary initially, help your students practice reading and speaking, teach languages through pictures to make it meaningful. – basically all the things one would do to teach a language to a very young child. Not surprisingly he also published the world’s first illustrated children’s book, Orbis sensualium pictus. Thus Comenius made explicit for the first time an inductive approach to learning a language, the goal of which was to teach use rather than analysis of the language being taught.  

Comenius’ views held sway through most of the 18th Century; however, by the beginning of the 19th Century the systematic study of the grammar of Classical Latin and of classical texts had once again taken over in schools and universities throughout Europe. Based on the purely academic study of Latin, students of modern languages did much of the same exercises, studying grammatical rules and translating abstract sentences. Oral work was minimal, and students were instead required to memorize grammatical rules and apply these to decode written texts in the target language. This tradition-inspired method became known as the grammar-translation method.

The pendulum then swung back to practical uses of languages when businessman and scholar James Hamilton seemed to find the ancient Roman way of language teaching effective. He, in fact, believed that the Ancients knew how to study language better than modern day students. Hamilton popularized “interlinear translations,” an ancient method of studying Greek and Latin, and applied the system to French, Italian, and German as well. Interlinear translation made the study of texts the dominant focus of the teaching of foreign languages. “Reading,” Hamilton wrote, “is the only real, the only effectual source of instruction. It is the pure spring of nine-tenths of our intellectual enjoyments. . . . Neither should it be sacrificed to grammar or composition, nor to getting by heart any thing whatever, because these are utterly unobtainable before we have read a great deal.”

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Then it became confusing. Innovation in foreign language teaching began in the 19th century and became very rapid in the 20th century. It led to a number of different and sometimes conflicting methods, each claiming to be a major improvement over the previous or contemporary methods. However, anecdotal evidence for successful second or foreign language learning is easy to find, leading to a discrepancy between these cases and the failure of most language programs. This tends to make the research of second language acquisition emotionally charged. Older methods and approaches such as the grammar translation mehod and the direct method are dismissed and even ridiculed, as newer methods and approaches are invented and promoted as the only and complete solution to the problem of the high failure rates of foreign language students.

Most books on language teaching list the various methods that have been used in the past, often ending with the author’s new method. These new methods are usually presented as coming only from the author’s mind, as the authors generally give no credence to what was done before and do not explain how it relates to the new method. It is also often inferred or even stated that older methods were completely ineffective or have died out completely, though in reality even the oldest methods are still in use. Proponents of new methods have been so sure that their ideas are so new and so correct that they could not conceive that the older ones have enough validity to cause controversy. This was in turn caused by emphasis on new scientific advances, which has tended to blind researchers to precedents in older work.

Evolution of Languages and Writings (Time Maps Book 3) by [Fisher, R.K., Fisher, Martini]

Dr. R.K Fisher and I discuss a lot more about the evolution of ancient languages and writings on “Time Maps: Evolution of Languages and Writings” – available through this link.

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