How did the ancients and people of the past learn languages?

General discussion about learning languages
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Soclydeza
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How did the ancients and people of the past learn languages?

Postby Soclydeza » Mon Jul 01, 2019 11:22 am

I know that they used tutors, but how did they become proficient in languages (enough for political negotiations and such) given that they A) did not have listening materials aside from using their tutors, B) were not able to travel as readily as we can and therefore had less speaking practice opportunities available, C) languages were much more dialectic/less standardized in certain regions and periods. Did they use any written resources (and have any of these survived)? Anything on specific methods they used? I'm curious.
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Re: How did the ancients and people of the past learn languages?

Postby DaveAgain » Mon Jul 01, 2019 12:06 pm

Non-Romans learnt Latin with bi-lingual texts.

https://forum.language-learners.org/vie ... 69&p=97428
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Re: How did the ancients and people of the past learn languages?

Postby DaveAgain » Mon Jul 01, 2019 12:27 pm

Under Charlemagne a monk called Alcuin was charged with reforming the use of Latin; improving clerical eduction. Some of his writing survives.
Alcuin also developed manuals used in his educational work – a grammar and works on rhetoric and dialectics. These are written in the form of dialogues, and in two of them the interlocutors are Charlemagne and Alcuin.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alcuin#Literary_influence
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Re: How did the ancients and people of the past learn languages?

Postby Cavesa » Mon Jul 01, 2019 3:33 pm

A) if you were rich enough to have tutors, you definitely weren't using them for like one hour a week. The amount of exposure and practice was much bigger, more like that of kids going to a foreign school in their own country these days.
B)those who traveled actually spent more time on the journey and didn't have their experienced spoilt by the locals switching, or availability of any translation device. Nobles, apprentices, soldiers, businessmen,... All those may have been on just a few journeys abroad, but may have profited from them enormously.
C)There were language coursebooks a few hundred years ago. And even older ones. They weren't coming with audio, sure, but I don't think they must have been bad, there were just significantly fewer of them. Also, it was much more normal for educated people to read in foreign languages.

In general, a smaller %of population was educated, but I'd say a much bigger part of those were good at at least one or two foreign languages. I think it is a rather recent disparity, where tons of people have a university degree and no significant language skills.
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Re: How did the ancients and people of the past learn languages?

Postby Jean-Luc » Tue Jul 02, 2019 12:46 pm

At first, the same way you have learned your native language before school... Listening, repeating, writing with tutors like parents.
Classes:
https://www.latinitium.com/blog/latin-c ... man-empire
Wall painted books:
https://mrgoldstein.blogspot.com/2017/1 ... piens.html
Impersonation:
https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2015/01 ... make-tools
Others:
https://www.slideshare.net/isabeldobobu ... e-teaching
http://www.linguatics.com/methods.htm
Last edited by Jean-Luc on Tue Jul 02, 2019 4:02 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: How did the ancients and people of the past learn languages?

Postby Elexi » Tue Jul 02, 2019 1:21 pm

It depends what you mean by 'ancient' - but as has been mentioned above, the people of the period of the Roman Empire had grammar and dialogue books before moving on to texts like Virgil (and as in modern times, many manuscripts of the Aeneid show that they were read for about ten pages before being left to one side).

As the texts below show (one French, one Dutch) people in 1650s London had grammar and dialogue books - just like back then and now.
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Re: How did the ancients and people of the past learn languages?

Postby Jiwon » Tue Jul 02, 2019 4:26 pm

I am not sure how "ancient" you want your examples to be, but here is an example from Choson(Joseon/조선/朝鮮) Dynasty in Korea (1392-1897). They held regular national-level exams in order to pick government translators and interpretors(역관/譯官). Candidates sat for one of the four languages, Chinese, Mongolian, Manchurian and Japanese.

Now to prepare for any exam, both now and then, one needs some kind of learning material. Back in those days, the "Chinese 101" textbook in Korea was Noguldae(노걸대/老乞大). And here is what it looks like.

Image

Underneath each character is a rough Korean transcription of what it's supposed to sound like. After each sentence is a Korean translation of the sentence as a whole. For example, the first line says "Big brother, where do you come from?" followed by "I am from the capital of Koryo."

Apparently, this text book was so popular that they made Mongolian and Manchurian versions, which were also used by the candidates of the national translator exam. They had a separate text book for Japanese, but the format is more or less the same.

But it is also important to note that most of the successful candidates came from families renowned for producing great translators. What this implies is that in those families, children would have been taught the foreign languages by their parents, grandparents and relatives, who were themselves government translators or at least had been trained to be translators. They would have been exposed to tonnes of visual and aural inputs from their family members, probably much more than what average modern students would receive.
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Re: How did the ancients and people of the past learn languages?

Postby Cavesa » Tue Jul 02, 2019 4:48 pm

I'd say that in the "ancient times" (=basically everything from the 19th century back to the ancient civilisations), language learning was less accessible. But when you actually had the opportunity, you may have been much more motivated to not mess up, and also given much more support than what vast majority of the language learners get these days (=three or four hours of group classes a week, with a not self-study friendly coursebook). So, perhaps people with the opportunity to learn may have actually had a larger % of success, compared to us. Because, let's face it, our civilisation is severely underperforming, when it comes to the language learning opportunities and results.
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Re: How did the ancients and people of the past learn languages?

Postby yong321 » Tue Jul 02, 2019 5:19 pm

Another aspect is that the "ancients" that had the opportunity of education spent more time studying classical languages than us on average. Nowadays students spread their time on quite diverse subjects. Not the case in the past.

Due to lack of listening materials, it's indeed a problem in teaching pronunciation. I remember reading literary essays joking about very bad pronunciations of some English words taught by Chinese teachers in the early 1900's.
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Re: How did the ancients and people of the past learn languages?

Postby Speakeasy » Tue Jul 02, 2019 6:01 pm

This discussion causes me to consider the differences in knowledge or performance skills between what was accessible in ancient times and those of the modern era and, with it, the evolution of the word “dilettante” for which the modern meaning is: “a person having a superficial interest in an art or a branch of knowledge.”

When the word first appeared, it was used as a compliment when referring to someone who knew a “great deal” in several branches of knowledge: medicine, mathematics, astronomy, music, and what-have-you. Often, dilettantes were privileged members of society who could afford to devote their time to the acquisition of knowledge and the development of skills, such as playing a musical instrument and learning-everything-there-was-to-know in a field of science. In a broad sense, a dilettante “knew all that was knowable” because the knowledge base itself was very narrow. However, with time, the knowledge base expanded and deepened, giving rise to true “specialists” in increasingly widening fields of knowledge or skill in the performing arts. As a result, anyone possessing what-had-once-been considered a significant level of knowledge, when compared to the superior knowledge and skills of specialists, became to be regarded as having only a superficial level of knowledge and the word took on its modern, pejorative sense.

Ancient students of foreign languages may have developed only a lower-intermediate level of competence in a handful of related languages but would have merited the compliment of “dilettante” by those who either chose not to do so or who did not have access to the knowledge base. In today’s world, my own on-again, off-again, attempts at maintaining an intermediate level in these same languages merit me no more than the modern, pejorative, meaning of the word. :(

EDITED:
Typos, tinkering.
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