Dr Bentley said, “Isaac Newton’s Principia is the book for you. That tells more about the stars than anything else. I have a copy. I’m going to Boston for a few days, but I’ll try to send that over before I leave.”
That afternoon a youngster brought Nat the copy of Principia. Nat was too busy even to open the book then, but all day as he worked he kept smiling to himself. That evening he hurried through his supper, went up to his room, and lighted a candle. Smiling, he opened the book. A whole book about astronomy!
Disappointed he stared at it. He couldn’t read a word. He could figure out just enough to know that the book was written in Latin. Then another idea struck Nat— how long would it take to learn Latin, so he could read Principia? When Dr. Bentley got back Saturday, he’d ask him.
But Nat couldn’t wait that long to ask someone. The next day he asked a Harvard graduate he knew how long it would take to learn Latin.
“Latin?” Elias Wilson said, “It’s mighty hard. All the time I was in school, I had nightmares over Latin. “
Nat showed him the copy of Principia. “How long would I have to study Latin to read this?”
Mr Wilson threw up his hands. “Enough Latin to read that? You’d need at least eight years, I’d say— under a good teacher!”
On Saturday Dr Bentley dropped in at the chandlery, “Well, Nat, how are you enjoying Principia?”
“It’s in Latin.”
“Of course.” Dr Bentley smiled. “Latin is the language of scholars and scientists. Then they can all read each other’s books. A very handy language isn’t it?”
‘I suppose it is handy,” Nat said, “if you know it. But I don’t.”
Dr Bentley stared. “Dear me, I never thought of that!”
“I wondered if I could learn Latin . . .” Nat said.
“Of course! The very thing! Come see me this evening, Nat.”
That evening Dr. Bentley said, “Here you are: a grammar, a dictionary and— by the way, do you know your Bible well?”
“Yes, sir, but it’s in English.”
Dr. Bentley chuckled. “It’s in Latin, too, you know.” He opened a New Testament in Latin. “Think of some passage you know well.”
Nat repeated the opening verse of the Book of John: In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.
Dr Bentley showed him the same passage in Latin: In principio erat Sermo ille, et Sermo ille erat apud Deum, eratque ille Sermo Deus.
Nat said, “I’ve figured out three words already: In is just the same as our word; principio is ‘beginning’; Sermo is ‘word.'”
By the next summer, he had learned enough Latin to begin to translate Principia. . . . he translated Principia— a word at a time, until he had read another sentence. Sometimes he spent a whole evening on two or three sentences.
These passage are from Carry on Mr Bowditch, a juvenile historical novel about the Salem, Massachusetts native, Nathaniel Bowditch, who was a mathematical genius and an astronomer and the founder of modern maritime navigation and whose book, The New American Practical Navigator, is still carried on board every commissioned U.S. Naval vessel.
Nat goes on to teach himself French, so that he can read scientific works in that language as well, by the same method: a dictionary, a grammar, and a New Testament. He does run into problems with pronunciation, though, and must turn to a Frenchman to learn how to speak the words properly so that he can be understood as well as just be able to read in French. At first Nat doesn’t see the importance of pronunciation since he’s mainly after the knowledge that is in books, but his French friend convinces him that it is important.
Nat’s method of learning Latin and French looks nothing at all like how we teach languages to children or adults. And yet as I move forward with Latin and French with Bella and Sophie, I keep wondering if I might learn something from his outside the box methodology.
I recently encountered another autodidact who also taught himself multiple languages using creatively improvised methods, cobbling together a program from the books he had access to as well as the people around him. Daniel Boorstin writes about Heinrich Schliemann, the German archaeologist who discovered the ruins of Mycenae and Troy, in his book The Discoverers:
By his own system he acquired a score of languages, never missing an opportunity to learn or to practice what he learned. ‘This method consists in reading a great deal aloud, without making a translation; devoting one hour every day to writing essays upon subjects that interest one, correcting these under a teacher’s supervision, learning them by heart, and repeating in the next lesson what was corrected on the previous day.’ Within six months, he reports, he had acquired ‘a thorough knowledge of the English language,’ as part of the process having ‘committed to memory the whole of Goldsmith’s Vicar of Wakefield and Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe.’ In only six weeks devoted to each, he learned to write ‘and to speak fluently’ French, Dutch, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, and some others. When he traveled through the Middle East, he acquired a practical knowledge of Arabic.
The spoken word interested him most. He never forgot the cadence of spoken Greek, which he first heard when a drunken miller, a dropout from the Gymnasium, came into the grocery store where Schliemann was working and melodiously recited lines from Homer.
When he was a young man in Amsterdam, Russian merchants were coming there for the indigo auctions. Except for the Russian vice-consul, Heinrich found no one in Amsterdam who knew Russian, and when the vice-consul refused to be his teacher, he employed his usual system in a crash program to teach himself. He hired an old Dutchman to be his audience as he declaimed Russian two hours each evening. When the tenants of his boarding house complained, Heinrich did not change his system but he had to change lodgings twice before he was satisfied with his fluency in the language.
Bella plugs away at the Latin lessons slowly but steadily; but she will grab the Latin version of one of her favorite books, Winnie Ille Pu or Hobbitus Ille, and just flip through until she finds a passage she recognizes and then try to figure out which words mean what. As she gets older will she drift towards Bowditch’s or Schilemann’s sort of approach to language learning, immersion in a familiar text with just a dictionary and grammar to help her piece together the language?
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