Edward Gibbon: better for your English than Google
Gibbon, the historian and author of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, neglected his studies at Oxford and as a result at the age of sixteen was sent by his father to Switzerland. There, at Lausanne, under the supervision of a French tutor, he writes in his autobiography of suffering what we would now call ‘cultural shock’, of being a stranger in a foreign land. As he says, he had lost the use of speech and hearing. Ignorant of French, he could neither ask nor answer a question in the language. He disliked everything about the place. He had exchanged the cheerful open fires of home for the “dull, invisible heat of a stove”. Any native Englishman, he writes, would be disgusted with the appearance, the “general aspect”, of his lodging. Many a student sent to England to study English will sympathise with Gibbon when he says, “My condition seemed as destitute of hope as it was devoid of pleasure.” Full of self-pity, he felt himself to be an exile and a prisoner. No doubt many of my own students have felt the same way.
But Gibbon persevered. Living with his tutor’s family, he had to listen and speak in French. Discouraged at first by his slowness, he writes that after a few months he was astonished by the rapidity of his progress: “My pronunciation was formed by the constant repetition of the same sounds… ease and freedom were obtained by practice… and before I was recalled home, French, in which I spontaneously thought, was more familiar than English to my ear, my tongue, and my pen.” His success was achieved after a stay of about five years, at the age of twenty-one.
By the third year of his stay he had become a serious student, working on his own and designing his own study systems. In contrast with modern learning methods, he recommends the use of translation. In his case, he would translate Cicero into French and then, the next day, translate his French back into Latin and compare his work with the original in order to check his accuracy and style . He says that in time he became less ashamed of himself and more satisfied.
Although I have never been keen on translation as a method of language learning, I think there are benefits in Gibbon’s method, especially for intermediate and advanced students working on their own without the benefit of conversation with a native speaker. As a system, its major advantage is that it is active, needs more mental effort than reading, a largely passive activity. The second translation back into the original jogs your memory and provides the necessary repetition. Comparing your work with the native text shows immediately just how much you have retained and, depending on your mistakes, whether or not the whole process should be repeated.
Don’t start with Shakespeare. Start with any passage that you can read with great ease, perhaps a dialogue or a simple anecdote, a hundred or so words long. A book written in English for very young children will make an ideal starting point. Of course, the more advanced the student, the less easy the passage should be. As fast as your pen will move, translate into your own language. Put aside for an hour or two, or until the same time next day (no longer). Translate back into English. Compare with the original. How did you do? Congratulations! Do the exercise daily. Use progressively longer and less easy passages.
It worked for Gibbon. It should work for you.