How did ancient people learn foreign languages?

Oct 2014
17
Brussels
#1
Most ancients who spoke foreign languages learned them from daily interactions and immersion and so did not really "study" foreign languages, for example traders, or people living in areas with several languages.

However was there some formal ways of teaching foreign languages? One thing that comes to mind is that many Ancient Romans learned Ancient Greek and there was probably some sort of instruction in it in Rome. How was this done? Are there any surviving works that describe this process? Is there any modern research that looks into this?
 

Otranto

Ad Honorem
May 2013
2,083
Netherlands
#2
Most ancients who spoke foreign languages learned them from daily interactions and immersion and so did not really "study" foreign languages, for example traders, or people living in areas with several languages.
And of course mercenaries. Xenophon used interpreters but he also uses some Persian words in his Persian Expedition. Possibly he could manage a very basic conversation? I suppose interpreters started out as merchants as you say, and then increased their knowledge in their new function. Perhaps there were some formally educated, I'm curious to the answers of more knowledgeable people.

However was there some formal ways of teaching foreign languages? One thing that comes to mind is that many Ancient Romans learned Ancient Greek and there was probably some sort of instruction in it in Rome. How was this done? Are there any surviving works that describe this process? Is there any modern research that looks into this?
Roman children, in the beginning at least, were put in the care of Greek slaves and taught by Greek teachers. If not for Cato perhaps Latin would not have become the dominant language of Roman literature.
 
Likes: bedb
Aug 2014
951
United States of America
#3
You can read Quintilian to learn somethign about how ancient Romans learned other languages. He recommends learning Greek first, which is quite the contrast to today as typically students learn Latin first, then Greek!
 
Oct 2014
17
Brussels
#4
I have been doing some more research on this and found that there are some language learning manuals that survive.

[ame=http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hermeneumata]Hermeneumata - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia[/ame]

Does anyone know more?
 
Jan 2019
2
USA
#5
They moved around a lot. I speak Spanish because I lived in Venezuela for 2 years. I speak Italian because I was born that way. My Russian and Japanese were at one time fluent because I lived there. I haven't lived there in years so have forgot most, no scratch that, I have forgot nearly all of it.
 
Mar 2017
854
Colorado
#6
Immersive language learning has been around forever, of course.

Formal learning started with scribes. At the time of Thutmoses III, he had Egyptian scribes that could write & read Hittite, and the Hittites had scribes that could write & read Egyptian (trust but verify). Elite scribes could write & read multiple languages ... taught to them in formal schooling. Did they send scribes to foreign countries for immersive learning as well? Dunno ... seems practical.

Thutmoses III was 1400 BCE.
 
Mar 2017
854
Colorado
#7
For the love of Ptah, I meant Rameses II ... Rameses II had a treaty with the Hittites after the battle of Kadesh (1259 BCE)

(Typing too fast ... no excuse ... sorry)
 
Mar 2017
854
Colorado
#10
Take this for what it's worth. I rewatched one of those BBC YouTubes about the battle of Kadesh. It was one of the better ones, but even the BBC twists facts to make things "more interesting."

Kadesh is important because there's a treaty that was signed at the end between Egypt & the Hittites that survives ... in both places, I think. Similar to the Rosetta stone, 1/2 is in Hittite & 1/2 is the same thing in Egyptian hieroglyphs.

They talked about scribes being taught multiple languages ... and also scribe exchanges. So, an Egyptian scribe would be taught Hittite in a "school", and then would be sent to learn immersively in a Hittite city .... and vice versa. They implied this was common practice for a scribe learning any language.

---

Cleopatra spoke over 10 languages (Plutarch finishes with "and many more") and is reported to have slipped between them fluently when speaking to foreign ambassadors. OK, she was a natural polyglot, but I doubt she learned immersively ... much too risky to be sending a Ptolemaic princess all over the empire. I would imagine she learned by formal schooling from tutors in the Museo (that was the whole point of the Museo & the Great Library --> educate Ptolemies).

I'm betting that long before Cleopatra, the Greeks came up with some formal method of language education.

Caesar, in addition to all his war commentaries, wrote a book on Latin grammar (it's the reason his war commentaries are still translated by Latin students today: they're easy to translate). I think the way I learned Latin is pretty much the way Caesar describes it.
us ūs ui um ū ..... ummmmm .... 4th declension ... maybe? Singular .. probably?
 
Last edited:

Similar History Discussions