Learning languages the Schliemann Way

Wed, Jun 13, 2018

Heinrich Schliemann bucked contemporary opinion in the 19th Century and, taking Homer seriously, uncovered Troy - sort of - and ‘gazed on the face of Agamemmnon at Mycenae. Again, sort of.

Schliemann’s largely excoriated today for his methods, showmanship, sharp practice, and wild claims about the pre-classical Mediterranean. I think it’s futile to judge the past by today’s standards – I think Schliemann was a great man, warts and all.

Schliemann's discovery, the 3,500 year-old golden 'Mask of Agamemmnon', from Mycenae

Schliemann's discovery, the 3,500 year-old golden 'Mask of Agamemmnon', from Mycenae

A wealthy hard-nosed businessman and a romantic in thrall to Homer, Schliemann began the career that made him a millionaire, after a few false starts, with the import/export business B. H. Schr̦der & Co. The company was suffiently impressed by him to send him to St Petersburg. He quickly learnt Russian and by the time he died he could converse in fifteen languages РEnglish, French, Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese, Swedish, Polish, Italian, Greek, Latin, Russian, Arabic, and Turkish as well as German.

Schliemann’s method of learning languages was a peculiar one of his own devising, and he claimed he could learn a language in six weeks.

Each time he wanted to learn a new language, Schliemann would buy a translation in the target language of a book he knew well and owned, in a German version, and read the two alongside each other. He said that he barely bothered with grammar, and by the time he finished the book once, he reckoned he knew about half the words. Another careful read through and he knew the language well enough to hold regular conversations.

Tremendous - but, I thought, he was mostly learning Romance languages wasn’t he. Well, no. Russian; Dutch. Ok, well, Indo-European languages? Not entirely. Arabic, after all, is a semitic language and has a very un-Roman script.

So could this work for my efforts to learn a bit more than arigatou gozaimasu, sumimasen and konichiwa in time for Japan? I’ll have to find a suitable book.


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