The new old way of learning languages: now all but vanished, a once-popular system of reading Greek and Latin classics could revitalize modern teaching methods.

Author:Blum, Ernest

In this country and abroad, there is a sense of malaise if not crisis about the state of foreign-language education. Critics note that it takes too long to acquire a foreign language, that the results hardly justify the investment of time and effort, and that students are unable to apply what they learn. But this kind of disgruntlement was already rife at the end of the 17th century. John Locke, in Some Thoughts Concerning Education (1692), wrote: "How ... is it possible that a child should be chained to the oar, seven, eight, or ten of the best years of his life, to get a language or two, which, I think, might be had at a great deal cheaper rate of pains and time, and be learned almost in playing?"

Such discontent did not die down in the succeeding years, and by the early 19th century an obscure, peripatetic businessman by the name of James Hamilton interjected himself into the controversy in both the United States and his native Britain. His influence--his attacks on the dominant method of teaching foreign languages and the publication, by his disciples, of classical texts embodying his methodology--extended well into the 20th century. With a fiery, polemical style, he made waves: "Mankind are thirsty for real knowledge and will not long put up with the shadow of it. Either the teacher will find out a mode of communicating a knowledge of the learned languages in a shorter time and more efficaciously than has been hitherto done, or the study of these languages will be relinquished altogether."

Hamilton is the one who popularized interlinear translations of Greek and Latin classics. The system attracted a large following, and the technique was applied to the teaching of French, Italian, and German as well. John Stuart Mill tells us in his Autobiography (1873) that he learned German through the "Hamiltonian System," a term that had become synonymous with interlinear translations. Virtually out of print today, "interlinears" in Hamilton's time and beyond were derogatively branded by their critics as "crutches," "cribs," "ponies," and a number of unmentionable terms.

As for Hamilton, he is a figure on the edge of oblivion. Although he accurately predicted the decline of the "learned languages," his 70-page tract, The History, Principles, Practice, and Results of the Hamiltonian System, which enjoyed a controversial renown when published in 1829, has all but vanished. Today there appear to be only four copies left--three in libraries in Great Britain and one in the United States, at the library of Amherst College.

Hamilton (1769-1831) is important because he was one of the last major proponents of a pedagogical tradition, extending from antiquity, that made the study of texts the dominant focus of the teaching of foreign languages. In this method, teachers explicated the literal meanings of the words, phrases, and sentences of those texts. But by the 18th century, such disclosure was under frontal attack. Teachers had settled on grammar as the main subject matter, and students were expected to provide the meanings of texts by themselves, aided by a dictionary. Today there is an almost total absence of interlinear translations, since the transparency of such texts would preempt students from their main task of parsing the grammar.

The rigorous new demands on language students have not been accompanied by corresponding results. In the last half of the 20th century, an explosion of computer-based studies of large texts, called "corpora," has demonstrated that the number of words needed to read foreign-language books exceeds by several multiples the amount of vocabulary that is acquired by most foreign-language students. This huge vocabulary gap explains why it is impossible for most students to read extensive, sophisticated materials in foreign languages. Even many who are academically involved with foreign languages must depend heavily on dictionaries, consult translations, and accept reading with blind spots because of time constraints.

In view of these endemic problems, the demise of Hamilton's interlinear books leaves an untimely lacuna in our educational system. In essence, the Hamiltonian book was designed as a formatting scheme to maximize the amount of information available to the reader of a foreign language. Hamilton's interlinear format offered a "royal road" to the great texts of Greece and Rome. His format could serve as a template for access to all of the world's important texts in an era when these texts are in precipitous decline.

Unlike most bilingual books, where the translation is on one page and the original text on the opposite page, the Hamiltonian system brought both texts into close contact. For example, Hamilton adjusted the typesetting of the two texts so that a word or phrase of the original fits just above the English equivalent. Hamilton also revised the word order of the original text to conform to the word order of modern languages, overcoming perhaps the greatest difficulty for modern students of classics. Although Hamilton was...

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