8 August 2013

A Few Baskets of Strawberries

William Mathews (1818-1909), "Study of the Modern Languages," in Hours with Men and Books (Chicago: S.C. Griggs, 1878), p.265:
The question is not whether a knowledge of French and German is desirable per se, but whether it is not too dearly purchased. Is it worth the heavy tax which our youth pay for it? Cannot the weary days, weeks, months, and even years, which are spent in acquiring what, after all, is usually but the merest smattering of those tongues, be more profitably spent upon English literature and the sciences? There is hardly any subject upon which so much illusion prevails as upon the supposed ease with which a modern language can be mastered. We hear it daily remarked that French and Italian are very easy, and that German, though presenting some difficulties, is by no means hard to acquire. Now the truth, to which, sooner or later, every student is forced to open his eyes, is, that the acquisition of any language, as Mr. Lincoln said of the crushing of the Rebellion, is "a big job." The mastering of a foreign tongue, even the easiest, is the work, not of a day, but of years, and years of stern, unremitting toil.
Ibid, p. 268:
He is a poor economist who looks only at the value of an acquisition without counting the cost. If a young man can begin his studies early and continue them till his twenty-first year, by all means let him study French and German. But in no case would we have him study those tongues at the expense of utter ignorance or the merest surface-knowledge of his own language and its literature, and of the physical sciences. That the two latter branches of knowledge are far more essential than the former to both his success and happiness, we cannot doubt. Unfortunately, the majority of our young men are compelled to plunge into business so early that they are forced to elect between the two acquisitions; they cannot have both. For such persons to choose the French and German, and neglect the sciences and their own noble tongue and its literature, is as absurd as it would be for a laborer to stint himself all the year in meat or bread that he may enjoy a few baskets of strawberries in April. We yield to no one in our admiration of Montaigne, Pascal, Molière, Cuvier, and Sainte-Beuve, or of Goethe, Schiller, Lessing, Richter, and Heine; but we do, nevertheless, echo most heartily the words of Thomas DeQuincey, himself a consummate linguist, when he declares that it is a pitiable spectacle to see young persons neglecting the golden treasures of their own literature, and wasting their time on German, French and Italian authors, comparatively obscure, and immeasurably inferior in quality.