Spare No Tupperware: Erasmus on living in the language

Like most people, I read some Erasmus this morning.  A friend had asked for a particular passage in Erasmus’s booklet De Ratione Studii (roughly, “On Study Habits”); after finding the passage, I was intrigued enough to read the book from the beginning.  Several pages in, I found a delightful, Indwelling-Language-evoking passage in which Erasmus discusses internalizing both language and general knowledge.

Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536) knew a thing or two about indwelling language.

Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536) knew a thing or two about indwelling language.

First my transcription of the Latin text from a 1518 edition I found at Google Books. Skip this if you’re not into Latin:

Illud minutius, sed tamen haud indignum, quod admoneatur. Adiuvabit non mediocriter, si quorum necessaria quidem, sed subdifficilis erit memoria, Veluti locorum, quos tradunt Cosmographi, pedum metricorum, figurarum grammaticarum, genealogiarum, aut si qua sunt similia, ea quam fieri potest brevissime simul & luculentissime in tabulas depicta, in cubiculi parietibus suspendantur, quo passim et aliud agentibus, sint obvia. Item si quaedam breviter, sed insignite dicta, velut apothegmata, proverbia, sententias, in frontibus, atque in calcibus singulorum codicum inscribes. Quaedam anulis, aut poculis insculpes, nonnulla pro foribus, & in parietibus, aut vitreis etiam fenestris depinges, quo nusquam non occurrat oculis, quod eruditionem adiuvet.

Haec enim etiamsi singula per se pusilla videantur, tamen in unum collata acervum, doctrinae thesaurum lucro augent . . . . Postremo illud non ad unum aliquid sed ad omnia simul plurimum conducet, si frequenter alios quoque doceas. Nusquam enim melius deprehenderis quid intelligas, quid non.


Now my loose translation:

What I’m about to suggest is less important [than frequently rereading books, mentioned previously], but nevertheless well worthy of mention: It will help no small amount, if there is anything that is necessary, but somewhat difficult to remember—like place names, metrical feet, grammatical patterns, family trees, or the like—to draw these briefly but eye-catchingly on boards and hang them on your bedroom walls. This way you will always come across them, even while you are doing other things. Likewise, whatever has been said succinctly, but with distinction—like sayings, proverbs, or mottoes—write on the front and back covers of all your books. Some of these you should engrave on your rings and dishes; some you should paint outside your house door and on the walls, or even on glass windows, so that you always have in front of you something that may help your learning.

Even if these things seem tiny by themselves, when gathered into one big pile, they will greatly increase the the treasure of your learning . . . . Finally, if you want to get a handle not just on one thing but on the totality of things, it will help tremendously if you frequently teach others. In no other way will you better identify what you understand and what you don’t.


This pretty much speaks for itself, but I’ll add that there is a lot of fun and value in simply labeling things around your home in your target language. (Be sure to check with your housemates and, if applicable, your HOA, before painting catchy quotes on your walls and windows.) I’ll also point out that, before this passage, Erasmus emphasizes that the best way to become a good speaker of a language is through lots of interaction with fluent speakers and lots of reading. The little things in the quoted passage are extra ways to keep living in the language while you’re not conversing or reading.  The closing bit about teaching others merits a post of its own.

In the meantime, happy labeling!

For more about easily making your target language part of your everyday life, see “On the Go, In the Language: Introducing #indwelli,” “Your Language Learning Happy Place,” “Do What You Feel Like,” and “What Is Your Favorite Thing To Do?

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