On the utility of the study of languages
The advantage[s] resulting from the study of languages are seldom duly appreciated. People in general seem to think, that the acquisition of any language but their own, is a mere exercise for school-boys, and one from which little benefit can be derived even to them, further than it serves to keep them from being idle. Most persons, indeed, if they should be going abroad, endeavour as a matter of course to get a little smattering of the language of the country they intend to reside; but as to any benefit that can accrue from the study of languages abstractedly, setting aside all considerations of this kind, they imagine there can be none. Now this is a great mistake. For so far from the study of languages being of use only as it enables a man to converse with people of different countries, I should say that this is one of the least advantages to be derived from it. I will mention what appear to me far more important ones.
In the first place, then, the study of languages, when properly conducted, tends to produce and keep up a habit of mental application, of discrimination of nice differences, and of diligent perseverance; at the same time that it strengthens the memory, and exercises the understanding. The acquisition of a language is not, as some suppose, a mere mechanical thing; or, at most, only an effort of memory. I grant, indeed, that in many instances it is so. As when people take half a dozen lessons in French before they set off for Paris, to enable them to ask for a glass of wine or a cup of coffee on the road. But this is not learning a language. We might as well say, that to get by heart the names of the different gases, salts, and metals, was learning chemistry. To learn a language, is to become acquainted with its character and structure; so as to be able to analyse every sentence grammatically, and to trace every word composing the sentences, to its proper root, and resolve it into its component parts. Now, I say, this cannot be done by a mere effort of memory, but requires the undivided application of all intellectual powers. In fact, no study, not even mathematics, is so calculated to exercise the reasoning faculties, and to produce distinctness and accuracy in thinking, as this we are considering.
A second advantage resulting from the study of languages is, that it enables a person thoroughly to understand and relish the writings of wise and good men who have lived in remote ages of the world, which no translation, however good, can possibly do. Translations may serve to give a general idea of an author’s meaning and powers, and to convey the facts of history; but it is impossible they should carry with them the beauties of an author’s style, and the full force of his expressions; to form a correct judgment of these, a book must be read in the language in which it was written…