Alexander, Hartley Burr Letters to Teachers, and Other Papers of the Hour Chicago: The Open Court Publishing Company 1919

The question of foreign-language study is ultimately–as far as the schools are concerned–a college-curriculum question. Were it not for the fact that the grade schools are feeders of the colleges and that the colleges require foreign-language study, there can be no serious doubt that such subjects would drop from the common schools; the Mockett law could never have been passed in Nebraska had there been no German taught in the State University. There is, to be sure, a minor non-college problem presented by parochial schools in which foreign languages are used or taught for the sake of preserving religious solidarities; but even conceding that this problem is of some moment, its present proportions make it, by comparison, insignificant. It is the policy of the colleges with respect to language study that really determines, and doubtless will continue to determine, the complexion of our education. An illustration in point is the recent experience of a university instructor. A high-school principal from one of our smaller towns entered a summer-school course in Anglo-Saxon; before the end of the term he revealed his motive. “Several years ago,” he said, “we dropped Latin, when the University ceased to require it, and substituted German. Now we are dropping German,–and, don’t you think, for the sake of knowledge of English, we ought to put in Anglo-Saxon?” Of course, the man was but one of God’s fools misplaced; but his state of mind illustrates the primary responsibility of the college, and shows, too, that his folly was not altogether of his own making. Clearly, the whole question must. be handled from the college point of view.

And what, from the college point of view, is the value of the study of foreign language? There are a number of trite answers, most of which, judged by the test of time, have proved unconvincing. The oldest and worst of these is that the study is disciplinary, that no matter how’ little mastery is attained by the pursuit of language study it has somehow exalted the individual’s power of clear thinking. As a matter of fact there is nothing of this kind in foreign-language study comparable in value or effect with the study of mathematics or logic or a rigorous English grammar; while, on the other hand, it is the disciplinary conception that has virtually killed the pursuit of the classical languages for the upgrowing generation. Again, it is urged that the study of foreign languages aids mastery of English; and this is in a measure true, though not economically true. To study either Latin or French (which are the most helpful of foreign tongues in this respect) for the betterment of one’s English is very much like going to Rome in order to arrive at London: the best and surest path to an acquaintance with one’s own tongue is a deep familiarity with its native literature.

Again, and more tellingly, there is the practical reason, of acquiring a language for use. We certainly desire scholars and scientists in our nation, if we desire to remain among the civilized. But no scholar or scientist can expect to attain a first place in his subject if he have not a usable acquaintance with Latin, French, and German; and in the not distant future Italian and a number of other modern tongues will be in the same category. This is recognized in our best schools, where knowledge of these languages is requisite to the attainment of the highest degree, that of doctor of philosophy. Next in importance to the scholarly and scientific need is the commercial. Here it commonly extends but to the acquisition of one foreign tongue; and what that shall be is largely predetermined by the intention of the student. Unquestionably, where the intention is not for a definitely foreseen career, French is the most valuable of foreign tongues, being virtually the lingua franca of the civilized world. After French, for Americans, Spanish is first in value,· not only because of our Spanish-speaking possessions, but because of our necessarily growing intercourse with our southern neighbors. German would fall in a third place in this series, and there is some probability that Russian may soon pass it in importance. Besides the scholarly and the commercial, a third practical support of language study is the increasing significance of our diplomatic representation. The diplomatic service will never, of course, engage a large proportion of the educated; but it will certainly offer careers of increasing attractiveness to young men gifted for it, and in that gift there must be an aptitude for foreign tongues. Combined, these practical reasons are alone sufficient to ensure the continuance of foreign-language study in our higher schools; they are not, however, sufficient to justify the requirement of language study of any student who knows his own mind in the matter. The real crux of the language question is elsewhere.

It has been phrased by Lord Bryce, in a recent address, perspicaciously. Education is a response to our natural human curiosity, our desire to know. Knowledge is broadly of two kinds,–of men and of nature, of human thought and of the human environment. It is to science that we turn for the latter kind of knowledge; science is our key to nature. It is to the humanities that we turn, and must turn, for our knowledge of men, and for our participation in the whole complexitiy of that subtle hereditament which we name civilization. The humanities, in widest sense, mean knowledge of books; and we might truly say that the laboratory and the library are the material emblems of these two fundamental branches of the tree of knowledge.

Now knowledge of books is a matter of reading (which needs to be said only because it is so often forgotten); and reading is an art which can be profitably pursued only by those who have acquired the power to select,–just as the laboratory is useful only to those who understand its instruments. Nor is the making of a good reader less arduous than is the making of a good experimentalist; it presupposes not merely a continual training, but also some natural calling. Granted the taste and the industry, there remains but the opening up of the privilege of books,–and this is what the liberal college aims to provide.

The privilege of books, in any meaningful sense, is the privilege of the best books. Many of these (and may the praise of posterity long be to their makers!) are in the English tongue, by right of creation; but many more are in other languages, languages which must be learned–partially, as languages are always learned–in order. that they may be partially understood. I know, of course, that the English-speaking world is now rich in translations of foreign masterpieces, and many of them superb translations; and I know that a very great treasure may be derived from the study of these works in translation: if any question this, one need but mention King James’s Version, and he is answered. But it is also true, as everyone who has ever really caught the spirit of a foreign tongue will attest, that at the best a translation is but a pale reflection of its original; or if (as at times happens) it better the original, it is essentially another work. It is hard to say this convincingly; but if we accept Lord Bryce’s criterion, that the best judge is the man who has first made the acquaintance of a work in translation and has afterwards learned to know it in the original, we shall discover that the testimony to the worth of the effort is virtually unanimous.

Nor should it be necessary to repeat the obvious in saying that we do not make acquaintance with the ideas expressed in a foreign tongue merely for their formal (or, as a scholastic might say it, their intellective) value: the power of a conception comes from the vigor of the context in which it is set, and a main part of that context is inevitably conveyed by the color of its native dialect. Philosophy, be· cause it seeks the universal, should suffer less than other types of literature from this defect; but even in Jowett’s splendid English something of his natural glory is faded from Plato.

It is for the sake of literature, and knowledge of literature, that we encourage the study of foreign languages, as an essential part of a humanistic education; nor has the study any other justification be sides knowledge of literature which will perpetuate it beyond the bare limits of practical necessity. But it needs no other. Literature–imaginative, political, historical, philosophical–is a thing of such supreme importance to civilization that every effort and every premium we can give to the cultivation of its tradition is but small measure of its value; and I mean by this value, not merely its returns to the individual who acquires the knowledge, but its far richer returns to the whole society in which that individual lives. Colleges exist for the training of literate citizens, for the reason that literate citizens are indispensable to the good state.


But, the value of foreign-language study conceded, there remains the question what language or languages are the best selection for him who would be both an educated man and a qualified American citizen. No average mortal can expect to become intimately familiar with more than two or three languages including his own (which requires honest study for its mastery quite as distinctly as do foreign tongues). Here, in the problem of selection, is our real difficulty, for it is here that differences of opinion are real; On the general question of the retention of some foreign-language study the sense of the community is virtually a determined affirmative.

The problem of selection itself may be approached from several different angles, even when the appraisal is to be made purely with reference to literary values (literature in the broad sense which includes historical and speculative as well as aesthetic writings). There is, first, the educationally practical question of economy of time, or of returns in attainment for effort expended–a question of no small importance when curricula are crowded with subjects as is the case today. There is, second, the question of the intrinsic values of the literatures involved, that is, as to which bodies of human expression in foreign tongues are best worth while. There is, third, the related, but rather more psychological question, of the qualities of languages as forms of expression, and hence as to the particular tone which each can give to the learner’s thought and expression. Each of these questions has ramifications, which I shall endeavor to suggest, taking them in order.

The question of what languages are most economical, yielding the surest return for the effort expended, must be considered both from the point of view of the teaching and the learning. It is entirely clear that the profit of pursuing the study of a foreign tongue is in great measure determined by the proficiency with which it is taught. This, in itself, operates as a practical limitation of undergraduate choices. In the University of Nebraska choice for lower classmen is limited to Latin, Greek, French, German, Italian, Spanish, and certain Scandinavian and Slavonic languages. It is quite conceivable that a man might enter the University preferring Hebrew or Chinese–and for very good reasons–to any of these; but the fact that these languages are not taught would bar him from their profitable study. This aspect becomes one of great importance when we turn from actual college courses to high-school preparation for colleges; for very few of our preparatory schools teach more than two non-English tongues. This matter of preparation is of prime importance to the learner: a language once begun is a language to pursue, be the beginning in the home or the school. The main reason for the undergraduate teaching of Danish, Swedish, and Bohemian is that so many of our youth have a partial acquaintance with these tongues from their parents; and this is also the main reason for the emphasis that has been laid upon German in Nebraska. It is a perfectly good reason, from the point of view of economy of effort, just as, from the same point of view, it is wise to advise a boy who has begun Latin or German in the high school to continue with the same language in college, until he has a usable acquaintance with it.

Apart from such consideration the question of economy resolves into one of difficulty and aptitude. The charge of excessive difficulty is one of the overused arguments against the classical languages. If it be merely a matter of learning to read texts, it is true that French or German is easier to learn to read, for the boy of average aptitude, than is Latin or Greek. But if we add the requirements of conversational acquaintance in the modern tongue, which is usually urged as a large factor in its value, then the scale of difficulty almost certainly tips in the other direction: it is easier to learn to read either classical language than it is to learn to read and speak fluently either modern tongue,–that is, for the average boy knowing only his mother tongue to start with. Further, it is certainly easier to get effective preparatory teaching in Latin than in modern languages; partly because it is a language read and not spoken and partly because long experience has reduced its teaching to something like pedagogical precision. Again, a small acquaintance with Latin is of more general value than is a small acquaintance with any other language,–I refer to Latin grammar and to certain elementary forms of expression current with English; so that, on the whole, if but a single year could be devoted to language study Latin is by all means the language to recommend. Of modern languages, French, by common experience, is the easiest for the unprepared American to acquire, and judged by the test of economy, it should properly stand next to Latin in the high-school curriculum. It may be repeated here, as said above, that it is also these two languages that are of most service for the betterment of the student’s English–which may surely be regarded as an added economy.

On the whole, a judgment of foreign tongues with respect to their literary significance (for the American citizen) fortifies this evaluation. Literatures must be judged for the complete range of their expression, historical and political as well as aesthetic and philosophical. No sane critic will deny that for aesthetic and philosophical value alone no literature equals the Greek; nor will any sound critic question the fact that Latin owns a similar primacy in the domain of history and politics, while it may be regarded as a strong rival for the second place with respect to artistic and philosophical significance. It is probable that even now there are more books and documents in Latin than in any other language, taking the world over; and Latin possesses the unique value of opening to the student two of the greatest periods of human history–the period of pagan and imperial Rome and the great period of mediaeval Christianity. Second to Latin, in all respects, stands French. It succeeded Latin as the language of diplomacy; it became, and still is, the model of polite letters; it contains more books of first importance–many of them, as the works of Leibniz and Rousseau, written by men who were not born Frenchmen–than any other modern tongue; and its literature embraces a greater range of ideas significant for civilization than does that of any other modern tongue. From the point of view of literary art, French is, with Latin, a rival for the second place after Greek; and as a language of great prose, in spite of the fact that the greatest of prose writers, Plato, was a Greek, French is more important than is Greek.

In this evaluation I have not considered English; I have contemplated only foreign languages. But in order to appraise the whole group of study languages with which a student may hope to make acquaintance, it is worth while to set English in the measure. If we take as a measure the poetic masters in a language concerning whose position critics are virtually agreed, Greek, again, obtains a triumphant first place, with Homer and the three tragedians in a class for which the only later candidates are Virgil, a Latin, Dante, an Italian, and Shakespeare and Milton, two English poets. In a second class, which should still include “world poets” (if the term be not too vague) the Greeks are numerous; Horace is the most conspicuous Latin, Petrarch, the Italian; France is represented not only by her three classical dramatists, but properly also by the mediaeval authors of the romantic cycles; Germany, by Goethe; while England is dubiously represented by Byron,–in a place which, in my opinion, ought to belong to Shelley. From a mere regard of supreme masters–Homer, Dante, Shakespeare—Greek, Italian, and English are pre-eminent. But a language is not school-learned for the sake of a single author, no matter what his mastership; literatures must be taken as wholes. And again, there is some artificiality in comparing the ancient with the modern. In a quite precise sense, the literatures of modern languages are represented by the vernacular books of the last three centuries, and taking these, all in all, French, English, and German (in the order named unless the weight of the two great English poets may put English first) are the literary as well as the scholarly tongues of the western world. German literature became important at a period (the middle of the eighteenth century) considerably later than either of the others, and it suffers somewhat in comparison from the fact that so much of its significant work is so in a scholarly rather than an aesthetic sense; so that on the whole, it is for the sake of scholarship that its study is of chief importance to the American of today.

There still remains for consideration the third standard of evaluation, with respect to the qualities of languages as instruments of thought and expression. This is a field in which it is easy to become mired in thick dispute; many of the proffered reasons are really but prepossessions. Thus, there is the traditional (since Renaissance times) assumption that there is some special virtue in a complexity of inflectional (forms, an assumption proceeding from the fact that the classical tongues are highly inflected. A similar virtue is often urged for German, namely its power of word-formation by a process which is essentially agglutination. As a matter of fact, it may be reasonably argued that both inflection and agglutination are marks of primitiveness and awkwardness in speech. The general trend of Indo-European tongues has been from inflectional to analytical forms of expression, and this is as true of Hindustani and modern Persian as it is of French and English–all of them highly analytic forms of speech. Such a tendency setting in with the beginnings of modern civilization and keeping equal pace with the advance of general culture, ought surely to be regarded as a sign of linguistic progress, rather than decadence; and if so regarded, English, as the most analytical of Occidental tongues would be viewed as the most · developed, with French a close second. By the same standard, German would be more belated than are the Romance languages, or than are most of the Teutonic dialects.

But the true tests of linguistic perfection are the logical and aesthetic qualities of languages, that is, the range of ideas and the grace of expression of which they are capable. These are qualities exceedingly difficult to identify apart from the fact of their presentation in actual works,–logic is a fact of effective philosophical and scientific writing, grace is the fact of poetic style. If there be any general criterion of the range of ideas of which a language is capable, that criterion must be the size of its vocabulary. Words which are living words are expressions of distinctions, and that tongue which owns the greatest body of words is the one which knows the most distinctions. This we realize the moment we contrast the vocabulary of a civilized tongue with that of a savage speech; the difference in the range of ideas is just what makes the one civilized and the other savage. Judged by this standard alone, English is by far the richest of languages, being as preeminent in the modern world as was Greek in the ancient. However, it would be dangerous to assume that quantity of speech-material is the sole criterion of effectiveness, or that there are any important conceptions untranslatable from one modern tongue to another; and we know, as a matter of fact, that the agglutinative genius of German, enabling the ready and picturesque formation of words, is a fair compensation for its lesser, as it were, official vocabulary.

The final test of linguistic excellence is grace, the capacity for an elevated style. This is the quality which it is peculiarly the function of genius to develop and make manifest: as Longinus phrases it, sublimity of style is the echo of a noble mind; and it is, therefore, peculiarly indiscerptible from the masterpieces in which it is present. Nevertheless, there are certain indications of a purely linguistic character by which the grace of a tongue may in a way be defined. Euphony is one of these indications, determined by both the sounds that enter into the composition of words and the rhythms of verbal phrase. From the point of view of the singer, the vowel is everything; and if singing-quality alone were to be taken into account, Italian and Norwegian would carry the palm among modern European tongues. But it is a mistake to identify linguistic euphony with musical quality in this artificially musical sense; modern languages are not primarily singing languages, nor are men birds. Swinburne, it is said, could not tolerate the art of music, and Swinburne is the greatest recent master of English euphony. The qualities that go to make the literary euphony of which he and other great writers are masters are the qualities of articulation and modulation in sound, coupled with range and flexibility of rhythm. Excellence in these characters depends not only upon vowel but also upon consonantal variety, and again upon what I should call the cleanness of the sound elements–that is, upon absence of gutturals and nasals and moderation of sibilants; Greek is certainly the model language in such sonant excellence, and among modern European tongues, I should again rank English first: English has long outgrown the gutturals which still deform German; it is badly weighted with sibilants (its greatest euphonic defect), but they are dominantly less obnoxious than the German combinations of stops and sibilants, which give a mouthy awkwardness to German; while, as compared with French, our sibilants are fairly offsets by their nasalizations. With respect to rhythm, English is again first. Rhythmic freedom is partly dependent upon syllabic accent, but mainly upon syntactical freedom; and in respect to syntactical freedom analytical languages possess great advantages,–and English certainly is the freest of all. French, through its loss of formal accent, loses in range, though it gains in rhythmic subtlety, and is in this sense the fair complement, as it has been the honored teacher, of English. All in all, for sonant articulation and rhythmic flexibility English is the first of modern tongues, at least among the western European. Spanish is, in my judgment, its nearest peer, and German certainly the most backward of the great western languages.

But grace of speech is by no means merely a matter of euphony. The variety of relational forms–pronouns, prepositions, conjunctions, verbal auxiliaries, etc.; the number and quality of the idioms; the development of diction levels, from the concrete and homely to the archaic, poetic, and abstract; all these are crucial factors in the instrumental beauty of languages. English is a backward language in the first respect, its weakness in relational forms being made awkwardly emphatic by its weakness in the range of gender forms and usages; in the other two particulars, the closely connected qualities of idiomatic and dictional variety, it is a very advanced language. It is virtually unique among European tongues in being a double language, both in respect to vocabulary and idiomatic structure; for in English the Teutonic and Romance elements are, as it were, wedded like man and wife, each preserving its individual distinction, while the two are yet one in their mutual cooperation and sympathy. This is an advantage so huge that it outweighs all defects, and makes of English an instrument of the intelligence superior to Greek itself.

English being so composed, the fundamentally important question is from what linguistic sources may it be most beneficially influenced; especially, are habituated to French forms of clothing; we take on both with native unconsciousness. German, on the other hand, has offered the most stubborn and awkward materials for adoption. It is difficult to acclimate even a German word in English speech, while all of the efforts that have been made to reproduce Germanic literary modes in our tongue have been experimental and fruitless. Both Spanish and Italian have been vastly more influential upon English speech than has German. Nor is there any reason to anticipate a change in this respect. The Teutonic foundation of English is limited to the homely and very finite range of sensuous affairs, concerned, as a philosopher might say, with the vegetative and passional functions of the soul; the classical and Romance expansion of the tongue has been almost wholly an affair of the intellective soul, descriptive of things of the mind. German itself, in ante-bellum days, drew liberally upon these same sources for similar service. But it is exactly in respect to things of the mind that civilization grows and must continue to grow. We make no rash assumption, therefore, in insisting that it is of the utmost importance, for the health of our mother tongue, that she continue her wholly fruitful intimacy with the classical tongues and their offspring.

The upshot of the whole matter is that viewed from every angle, the foreign languages best worth cultivation, for the sake of literature, are the classical and Romance tongues, and in particular, Latin, French, and Greek. I put them in this order, for this is the order in which I should recommend them to a student asking my advice. If it should be asked what language I would make fourth, I should say German; for while I regard Dante and Cervantes as more significant figures than Goethe, in the whole of European literature, yet the great scholastic and scientific literature of Germany gives to German an unimpeachable preference as compared with Italian and Spanish. Furthermore, the student who has learned French and Latin will acquaint himself with Italian and Spanish with minimum effort.


A phase of the question of foreign-language study to which I wish to advert briefly is its social and political value. In the broad view, higher education is encouraged in states because it is valuable to the states, and not merely a private advantage to individuals. Language study is a feature of curricula for the same sound reason. It is advantageous to the community to have in its midst men familiar with what has been thought in the historic past and with what is being thought in the living present, the world over. This advantage alone would call for the widest range of language study which we can make effective; and I certainly hope that the near future will see, not only the languages of western Europe, but those of eastern Asia, subjects of college encouragement. A capable Chinese scholar is an ornament to any community, and a thoroughly useful citizen.

But there is still another, and possibly subtler reason, for encouraging the cultivation of variety in foreign-language study. The United States has been called “the Melting Pot,” which can only mean that the amalgam from which the future American citizen is to be cast will not be precisely of the color of any of the metals cast into the crucible. We cannot expect this future citizen to be melted down to the hue of the Revolutionary Anglo-Saxon, nor, I think, should we wish it. Rather–if we have that faith in our common humanity which we so vociferously express–we should hope to derive some essential brilliance from each element added to the compound.

Such result will be best attained if we permit and encourage each immigrational wave to bring with it and to cultivate the best that it has originated in its first home; and that best–we can say it without hesitation–will be found in its noblest literature. Familiarity with the best that has been expressed in every human tongue–that is a social good for which we can well afford to expend time, money, and effort; and it is a good which the United States, as a community, may attain with perhaps less effort than any other great nation, just because our population is an undispersed Babel. Traditions are not made in a day, and traditions which are ideals purified out of centuries of experience are treasures not to be disregarded. Our task should be, by every reasonable means, to encourage the preservation of the best in the ideals of all peoples who come to us; and this can most effectively be done by keeping alive in them the knowledge of the best in their native literatures.

I think, of course, that we should insist that the study of English–language, literature, history–be made primary in every form of the education of the American citizen; and I am in favor of laws prohibiting parochial or other private education in exclusively foreign tongues or without state supervision. But it would be social imbecility not to keep alive and vigorous the pursuit of the broadest possible range of literary studies.