Monday, July 7, 2014

Learning languages with the Bible

"Sometime last year, I noticed that the book of "Genesis" has 50 chapters. Since about 2007, I've used "Genesis" to help me start learning a language. For many English speakers familiar with the King James translation, this might seem odd since, with its archaic grammar (thee, thy, knoweth, etc), it seems harder than in fact it is. The sentences are generally short, the vocabulary fairly elementary and even the repetition, which can be off putting when read in one's mother tongue, comes in truly handy when learning a new language."
- 50 languages in 50 weeks
Well... yes...

I have spoken about this earlier. A lot of people are shunning the Bible as language teacher, because it is the Bible. Too Christian. Too religious. Too old-fashioned.

But I also said something else. From a language point of view, the archaism doesn't matter. I can LEARN the language in the old form, and then UPDATE my skills by reading modern literature, watching television shows and listening to radio.

The Bible has another marvelous quality... it is the most translated book in the world.
"In 1999, Wycliffe Bible Translators announced Vision 2025—a project that intends to commence Bible translation in every remaining language community by 2025."
"The full Bible is available in 554 different languages.
The New Testament is available in another 1,333 languages.
At least one book of the Bible is available in a further 1,045 other languages."
- wycliffe.org
So... would you avoid learning a language just because the only source is the Bible?
I hope not.
After all, that's how cardinal Mezzofanti learned languages... ;-)

Mezzofanti was well known for being a hyperpolyglot who according to Russell 1858 spoke at least thirty languages "with rare excellence",

    Hebrew, Rabbinical Hebrew, Arabic, Chaldee, Coptic, Ancient Armenian , Modern Armenian, Persian, Turkish, Albanese, Maltese, Greek, Romaic, Latin, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, French, German, Swedish, Danish, Dutch, Flemish, English, Illyrian, Russian, Polish, Czechish, or Bohemian, Magyar, Chinese.

He was reported to have spoken nine other languages fluently, and with dozens of others he is said to have had at least basic knowledge.
On Hyperpolyglot Cardinal Mezzofanti & Reading Familiar Texts in a Foreign Language

Giuseppe Gasparo Mezzofanti is celebrated as the greatest linguist the world has ever seen. He was born at Bologna 1774 as a son of a carpenter. He started his education in one of the free schools of the area, but the priest of the congregation noticed quickly his talents and send him to get better education. His formal education ended 1797 when he was admitted to priest's orders.

Of the details of his progress in the study of languages during these early years no accurate record is preserved; but it is known that, like most eminent linguists, he was gifted, even in childhood, with a very wonderful memory, and that, partly under the various professors in the university, partly by the aid of foreign residents in the city, partly by his own unassisted studies, he had acquired, before the completion of his university career, the Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Arabic, Spanish, French, German, and Swedish languages.

He continued to study languages through his whole life.

A letter of his, dated in 1804, to the celebrated Orientalist, John Bernard de Rossi, whose personal acquaintance he subsequently formed during a short visit to Modena in 1805, enclosed a composition in twelve languages, which he submitted to the judgment of his correspondent; and by 1812 Mezzofanti's reputation as a linguist was thoroughly established.

The war of which Northern Italy was so long the theatre afforded Mezzofanti many opportunities of extending his stock of languages. In the hospital of Bologna, to which he was attached as volunteer chaplain, were to be met — among the invalids of the Austrian, Russian, and French armies — Germans, Hungarians, Bohemians, Wallachians, Servians, Russians, Poles, and Croats. Partly in the desire to offer these sufferers the consolations of religion, partly from his love of the study itself. Mezzofanti labored assiduously to turn these and all similar opportunities to account; and several instances are recorded in which, without the assistance of a grammar or dictionary, he contrived to establish a mode of communication with a stranger who was utterly ignorant of every language except his own, and eventually to master that language sufficiently for all the purposes of conversation.

He has left an account of his mode of study during these years, which is not a little curious and interesting.

"The hotel-keepers," he says, "were in the habit of notifying me of the arrival of all strangers at Bologna; and I never hesitated, when anything was to be learned thereby, to call upon them, to interrogate them, to make notes of their communications, and to take lessons in the pronunciation of their several languages. There were a few learned Jesuits too, and several Spaniards, Portuguese, and Mexicans residing in Bologna, from whom I received valuable assistance, both in their own and in the learned languages. I made it a rule to learn every strange grammar, and to apply myself to every new dictionary that came within my reach. I was constantly filling my head with new words. Whenever a stranger, whether of high or low degree, passed through Bologna, I tried to turn the visit to account, either for the purpose of perfecting my pronunciation, or of learning the familiar words and turns of expression. Nor did all this cost me so much trouble; for, in addition to an excellent memory, God had gifted me with remarkable flexibility of the organs of speech."

Every visitor of Bologna related fresh marvels regarding his prodigious attainments. Tourists from every nation, whether of Europe or of the East, united in representing him as perfect, each one in his own language.
Lord Byron, about 1820, pronounced him "a walking polyglot, a monster of languages, and a Briareus of parts of speech."
M. Molbech, a Danish traveller of the year 1820, reports the number of his languages at "more than thirty," and testifies to his speaking Danish " with almost entire correctness."
French, German, Spanish, Polish, Russian, Greek, and Turkish travellers concur in the same report, not only with regard to their own, but also to many other languages.
During all these years — except , and Rome — he had resided altogether at Bologna, and from 1830s in Rome.

He never left Italy. He lived from his birth to 1830s in Bologna and from thereon in Rome, and only made a short visit to Pisa, Leghorn (Livorno) and Florence (Firenze).

His residence in a great center of languages, such as Rome, and especially the facilities of intercourse with the various races represented in the College of the Propaganda, gave a new impulse to Mezzofanti's linguistic studies. The reports of his visitors at Rome are still more marvellous than those of the Bolognese period.

An eminent German scholar, Herr Gorres, who had much intercourse with him in the year 1841, writes thus: "He is familiar with all the European languages; and by this I mean not only the ancient classical tongues and the modern ones of the first class — such as the Greek and Latin, or the Italian, French, German, 'Spanish, Portuguese, and English — his knowledge extends: also to the languages of the second class, viz., the Dutch, Danish, and Swedish; to the whole Sclavonic family — Russian, Polish, Bohemian, or Czechish; to the Servian, the Hungarian, the Turkish;, and even those of the third and fourth classes — the Irish, the Welsh, the Wallachian, the Albanian, the Bulgarian, and the Illyrian. The Romani of the Alps and the Lettish are not unknown to him; nay, he has made himself acquainted with Lappish. He is master of the languages which fall within the Indo-Germanic family — the Sanscrit and Persian, the Kurdish, the Georgian, the Armenian; he is familiar with all the members of the Shemitic family — the Hebrew, the Arabic, the Syriac, the Samaritan, the Chaldee, the Sabaic — nay, even with the Chinese, which he not only reads, but speaks. Among the Hamitic languages, he knows Coptic, Ethiopic, Abyssinian, Amharic, and Angolese."

What is especially notable in this marvellous gift possessed by Mezzofanti is that his knowledge of each among this vast variety of languages was almost as perfect as though his attention had been devoted to such language exclusively. The reports of all the great students of language concur in describing him as speaking even their own tongues always with the precision and, in most cases, with the fluency of a native. His pronunciation, his idiom, his vocabulary, were alike unexceptionable. Even the familiar words of everyday life, and the delicate turns of conversational language, were at his command; and in each language he was master of the leading dialects, and of the provincial peculiarities of idiom, of pronunciation, or of expression.
In French, he was equally at home in the pure Parisian of the Falubourg St. Germain or in the Provincial of Toulouse.
He could accommodate himself in German to the rude jargon of the Black Forest or to the classic vocabulary of Hanover;
and he often amused his English visitors with specimens of the provincialisms of Yorkshire, Lancashire, or Somersetshire.
With the literature of those various countries, too, he was well acquainted. He loved to talk with his visitors of the great authors in their respective languages; and his remarks are described as invariably sound and judicious, and exhibiting careful and various reading, often extending to departments with which it would never be supposed that a foreigner could be familiar.
A Dutch traveller, for instance, Dr. Wap, was surprised to find him acquainted with his own national poets, Vondel and Cato.;
a Dane, with the philological works of Rask;
a Swede, with the poetry of Ochsentsjerna.
To a Sicilian he would repeat whole pages of the poetry of Meli;
and an English gentleman was astounded to hear him discuss and criticise Hudibras, of all English writers the least attractive, as well as the least intelligible to a foreigner.
He was in the habit, too, of amusing himself by metrical compositions in the various languages which he cultivated, and often wrote for his visitors a couplet or two in their native language, as a little memento of their interview.
Dr. Wap, the Dutch traveller just referred to, speaks in high praise of some extempore lines in Dutch by which Mezzofanti replied to a sonnet which Dr. Wap had addressed to him;
and the well-known Orientalist, Dr. Tholuck; having asked Mezzofanti for some memorial of his visit, received from him a Persian couplet, after the manner of Hafiz, which he composed (although not without some delay) during .Dr. Tholuck's visit.

After his removal to Rome, although he had already passed his fiftieth year, he added largely to his stock of languages. His most notable acquisition during this period was Chinese, which he acquired (partly at the Chinese college in Naples, partly among the Chinese students of the Propaganda) in such perfection as to be able not only to write and converse freely in it, but even to preach to the young Chinese ecclesiastics.
During the same period he acquired the Abyssinian, the Californian, some of the North American Indian languages, and even the "impossible" Basque.
It was in Rome, and especially in the Propaganda, that he displayed in its greatest perfection his singular power of instantaneously passing in conversation from one language to another, without the slightest mixture or confusion, whether of words or of pronunciation.

Mezzofanti died on the 15th of March, 1849, and was buried in the Church of St. Onofrio, beside the grave of Torquato Tasso.

It is difficult to determine with accuracy the number of languages known by Mezzofanti, and still more so to ascertain how many of these he spoke, and with what degree of fluency in each. During his lifetime, as we have seen, report varied considerably at different times; nor was he himself believed to have made any very precise statement on the subject.
To a Russian traveller, who visited him before the year 1846, and who begged of him a list of all the languages and dialects in which he was able to express himself, he sent a paper in his own hand containing the name of God in fifty-six languages.
Father Bresciani, in the memoir which appeared soon after the cardinal's death in a Roman journal, states that in the year 1846 Mezzofanti himself informed him that he was able to express himself in seventy-eight languages.
Marvellous as these statements may appear, they seem fully borne out by inquiries (with a view to the preparation of a biography) which have been made since the death of the cardinal. Reports have been received from a vast number of individuals, natives of different countries, whose collective testimony, founded on their own personal knowledge of Mezzofanti, places beyond all question the fact of his having spoken fluently considerably more than fifty different languages.
There are others among the languages ascribed to him, regarding which it is difficult to institute any direct inquiry; but, judging from analogy, and relying on the well-known modesty and truthfulness of Mezzofanti, we need not hesitate to accept his own statement; the more so as among his papers is a list of no less than a hundred and twenty languages with which he possessed some acquaintance, unaccompanied, however, by any note specifying those among the number which he spoke, or the degree of his knowledge of each.
His English biographer, Russell, comes to the following results:
- 30 languages frequently tested, and spoken by the cardinal with rare excellence
- 9 stated to have been spoken fluently, but hardly sufficiently tested
- 11 spoken rarely and less perfectly
- 8 spoken imperfectly; a few sentences and conversational form.
- 14 studied from books, but not known to have been spoken.
- 39 dialects spoken, or their peculiarities understood, many of which might justly be described as different languages.

This list adds up one hundred and eleven, exceeding by all comparison everything related in history.

- McClintock and Strong Biblical Cyclopedia

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