* System to study
|LIFE OF CARDINAL MEZZOFANTI|
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II. On the curious question as to the system pursued by the Cardinal in the study of languages, I regret to say that little light seems no,w obtainable. The variety of systems employed by students is endless. The eccentric linguist, Roberts Jones, described in the Introductory Memoir, as soon as he had an opportunity of comparing the vocabulary of a new language with those which he had already studied, proceeded by striking out of it all those words which were common to it with any of the languages already familiar to him, and then impressing on his memory the words which remained. M. Antoine d'Abbadie told me that, in the unwritten languages with which he had to deal, his plan was to write out, with the aid of an interpreter, a list of about five hundred of the leading and most indispensable words, and a few conversational forms ; and then to complete his stock of words " by the assistance of an intelligent child who knew no language but the one which he was studying ; —because children best understand, and most readily apprehend, an imperfectly conveyed meaning." Some students commence with the vocabulary ; others, with the structural forms of a language. With some the process is tedious and full of labour : others proceed with almost the rapidity of intuition. In comparing the various possible systems, it has not unnaturally been supposed that the process which, in Cardinal Mezzofanti, led to results so rapid and so extraordinary, might be usefully applied, at least in some modified form, to the practical study of languages, even on that modest scale in which they enter into ordinary education. But unfortunately, even if such a fruit could be hoped from his experience, it does not appear that the Cardinal possessed any extraordinary secret, or at least that he ever clearly explained to any of his visitors the secret process, if any, which he employed. One thing at least is certain, and should not be forgotten by those who are always on the look out for short roads to learning, that, whatever may have been his system, and however it may have quickened or facilitated the result for him, it did not enable him to dispense with the sedulous and systematic use of all the ordinary appliances of study, and especially of every available means for the acquisition of vocabularies, and of practice in their exercise. It is true he told M. Libri that he found the learning of languages " less difficult than is generally thought: that there is but a limited number of points to which it is necessary to direct attention ; and that, when one is master of these points, the remainder follows with great facility ;" adding that, " when one has learned ten or a dozen languages essentially different from each other, one may, with a little study and attention, learn any number of them." But he also stated to Dr. Tholuck " that his own way of learning new languages was no other than that of our school-boys, by writing out paradigms and words, and committing them to memory." (P. 278.) Dictionaries, reading-books, catechisms, vocabularies, were anxiously sought by him, and industriously used. The society and conversation of strangers was eagerly—in one less modest and simple it might almost appear obtrusively—courted, and turned to advantage. A constant and systematic habit of translation and composition both in prose and verse was maintained. In a word, nothing can be clearer than that with Mezzofanti, as with the humblest cultivators of the same study, the process of acquiring each new language was, if not slow, at least laborious; and that, with all his extraordinary gifts, the eminence to which he attained, is in great part to be attributed to his own almost unexampled energy, and to the perseverance with which he continued to cultivate these gifts to the very latest day of his life. He understood thoroughly, as all who have ever attained to eminence have understood, the true secret of study—economical and systematic employment of time. The great jurist D'Aguesseau composed one of his most valuable works in the scraps of time which he was able to save from his wife's unpunctuality in the hour of dinner. Mezzofanti made it a rule, even amid his most frequent and most distracting occupations, to turn to account every chance moment in which he was released from actual pressure. No matter how brief or how precarious the interval, his books and papers were generally at hand. And even when no such appliance of study were within reach his active and self-concentrated mind was constantly engaged. He possessed a rare power of self-abstraction, by which he was able to concentrate, all his faculties upon any language which he desired to pursue, to the exclusion of all the others that he knew. In this respect he was entirely independent of books. When the great mathematician, Euler, became blind, he was able to form the most complicated diagrams, and to resolve the most intricate calculations, in his mind. Every one has heard, too, of cases like that of the .prisoner described by Pope :—
But Mezzofanti's power of mental study was even more wonderful. He had the habit of thinking when alone, in each and all of his various languages in succession ; so that, without the presence of a second individual, he almost enjoyed the advantage of practice in conversation ! The only parallel for this extraordinary mental phenomenon that I know, is a story which I have somewhere read, of a musician who attained to great perfection as an instrumental performer, although hardly ever known to touch an instrument for the purpose of practice. This man, it is said, was constantly practising in his wind ; and his fingers were actually observed to be
always in motion, as though engaged in the act of playing.
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