OF LEARNING A LANGUAGE.
The first thing required in reading an author, or in hearing lectures of a tutor, is, that you well understand the language in which they write or speak. Living languages, or such as are the native tongue of any nation in the present age, are more easily learned and taught by a few rules and much familiar converse, joined to the reading some proper authors.
The dead languages are such as cease to be spoken in any nation; and even these are more easy to be taught (as far as may be) in that method wherein living languages are best learned, i. e. partly by rule, and partly by rote or custom. And it may not be improper in this place to mention a very few directions for that purpose.
I. Begin with the most necessary and most general observations and rules which belong to that language, compiled in the form of a grammar; and these are but few in most languages. The regular declensions and variations of nouns and verbs should be early and thoroughly learned by heart, together with twenty or thirty of the plainest and most necessary rules of syntax.
But let it be observed that, in almost all languages, some of the very commonest nouns and verbs have many irregularities in them; such are the common auxiliary verbs — to be, and to have — to do, and to be done, &c. The comparatives and superlatives of the words — good, bad, great, small, much, little, &c.; and these should be learned among the first rules and variations, because they continually occur. But as to other words, which are less frequent, let but few of the anomalies or irregularities of the tongue be taught among the general rules to young beginners. These will come in afterwards to be learned by advanced scholars in a way of notes on the rules, as in the Latin Grammar, called the Oxford Grammar, or in Ruddiman’s notes on his Rudiments, &c.
Or they may be learned by examples alone, when they do occur; or by a larger and more complete system of grammar, which descends to the more particular forms of speech; so the heteroclite nouns of the Latin tongue, which are taught in the school-book called Qucb Genus, should not be touched in the first learning of the rudiments of the tongue.
II. As the grammar by which you learn any tongue should be very short at first, so it must be written in a tongue with which you are well acquainted, and which is very familiar to you. Therefore I much prefer even the common English accidence (as it is called) to any grammar whatsoever written in Latin for this end. The English accidence has, doubtless, many faults; but those editions of it which were printed since the year 1728, under the correction of a learned professor, are the best; or the English rudiments of the Latin tongue, by that learned North Briton, Mr. Ruddiman, which are perhaps the most useful books of this kind I am acquainted with; especially because I would not depart too far from the ancient and common forms of teaching, which several good grammarians have done, to the great detriment of such lads as have been removed to other schools.
The tiresome and unreasonable method of learning the Latin tongue by a grammar, with Latin rules, would appear, even to those masters who teach it so, in its proper colours of absurdity and ridicule, if those very masters would attempt to learn the Chinese or Arabic tongue, by a grammar written in the Chinese or Arabic language.
Mr. Clarke, of Hull, has said enough in a few pages of the preface to his new grammar, 1723, to make that practice appear very irrational and improper; though he has said it in so warm and angry a manner, that it has kindled Mr. Ruddiman to write against him, and to say what can be said to vindicate a practice, which, I think, is utterly indefensible.