One section of Milton’s Tractate of Education (found in the Harvard Classics Volume 3) that I found interesting was his emphasis on input when it comes to language learning. While Milton wrote about the study of Latin and Greek, I believe that his ideas are just as important for studying any modern language. Here’s an extended passage from his writing that I really enjoyed:
“forcing the empty wits of children to compose themes, verses and orations, which are the acts of ripest judgment and the final work of a head filled by long reading and observing, with elegant maxims, and copious invention. These are not matters to be wrung from poor striplings, like blood out of the nose, or the plucking of untimely fruit: besides the ill habit which they get of wretched barbarizing against the Latin and Greek idiom, with their untutored Anglicisms, odious to be read, yet not to be avoided without a well continued and judicious conversing among pure authors digested, which they scarce taste, whereas, if after some preparatory grounds of speech by their certain forms got into memory, they were led to the praxis thereof in some chosen short books lessoned throughly to them, they might then forthwith proceed to learn the substance of good things, and arts in due order, which would bring the whole language quickly into their power. This I take to be the most rational and most profitable way of learning languages”
Essentially, Milton is arguing for an input-based approach to learning a new language. If students are forced to create material in a language before they are very familiar with the patterns and expressions of that language, we should not be surprised when unnatural expressions occur. If we should pick a fruit before it has had sufficient time to mature, we shouldn’t criticize that fruit for tasting sour.
While we may not consider the “untutored Anglicisms” and “wretched barbarizing” of Latin by students as a major problem today, we do see the same situation when non-native speakers are forced to produce language. Chinglish flourishes in China, where businesses and agencies are eager to produce signs, advertisements, and menus in English. Unfortunately, those doing the producing often have only a “scarce taste” of the language, resulting in awkwardness, confusion, or hilarity. When production of the language happens before the learner has had sufficient exposure to the language, these native-language based errors are inevitable.
The solution that Milton proposes is getting a high level of exposure to the language being studied. By thoroughly studying fine examples of how the language is used, over time the learner will get these forms into memory, allowing them to gain a more natural command of the language. I agree with Milton that this seems “the most rational and profitable way of learning languages”, and I cannot argue with Milton’s own success. He was appointed Secretary of Foreign Languages on Cromwell’s Council of State and is credited with command of Latin, Greek, Hebrew, French, Spanish, and Italian, and at least familiarity with Old English and Dutch.
So before rushing to test our students and force the production of awkward speech and writing, we should encourage them to spend more time with a language, gradually becoming acquainted with its substance, subtleties, and nuances.