You have no doubt heard the story of the Trojan War. The Illiad and the Oddysey are two of the most enduring and influential works of literature in the Western world, influencing popular culture to this very day. Swift-footed Achilles, the mighty Ajax, and beautiful Helen, are all household names, without hardly anyone not knowing who they are. These stories were created by Homer, an ancient Greek poet, who most likely based himself on accounts passed down orally for generations. Even three thousand years after the supposed events took place, they remain well-known to myriads of people from around the world.
For a long time, it was thought that these stories were works of pure fiction. Yet there were always people who thought that they were based on real events, real people and real places. One of these believers was Heinrich Schliemann.
The Life of Heinrich Schliemann
Heinrich Schliemann was a true rags to riches story, a man of German origin who became wealthy by being a shrewd businessman. A polymath, today he is most remembered mostly as an archaeologist. He was a real-life Indiana Jones, travelling the world, living through many adventures and discovering great ancient treasures.
As a kid, he grew up on stories of the Illiad and the Oddysey and the great adventures that the heroes of these tales had to go through. Unlike most other people who listened to these stories, he took them at their word. To him, Troy was a real place which was now buried somewhere on the Aegean coast of Turkey. Pondering every detail about it in the myths in his mind, he decided that he was going to find it.
What is not so well-known is that he was also a great linguist who managed to master many languages. Wherever he traveled, he tried to learn the local language, amazing the locals and using this knowledge to great advantage in his business dealings. Being and eccentric man, he would often note down things in his diary in different languages, which resulted in him keeping his diary in at least 12 languages.
What is most remarkable is that he managed to do this in a world without quick travel, without the internet and starting off as a poor errand boy.
Schliemann’s Language Learning Method
Schliemann simplified the process of learning a foreign language by developing a method that he applied consistently. Supposedly the system that he developed allowed him to learn any language in around 6 weeks. He applied this method every time he was about to learn a new language. When one of the elements of this method couldn’t be found, he always came up with a work-around.
The main parts of the method consisted of constant writing in the target language, reading out loud in it, and trying to get as much native input as possible. Schliemann was a self-directed learner and one of the main elements of this learning were books in the target language. The key to this was one little book: “The Adventures of Telemachus”.
This book was about the adventures of Telemachus, the son of Oddyseus and his quest to find his father. Since it was set in the times of the Trojan Wars, the subject matter was very interesting to Schliemann and never grew old. Reading it over and over again, he ended up memorizing the story in the book by heart.
The first thing that Schliemann would do when starting to learn a new language, is to try to track down a copy of that book (or some other book that he had read previously in another language and knew the story well) in his target language. That way, he could compare the two texts and learn new words and grammar structures by reading along in a new language, as well as in a language he already knew.
Another part of his system was using the newly acquired vocabulary in context. He would pick a subject that interested him a great deal and then write a text on it. This he would then send to a teacher to be corrected. Once he got back the corrected version, he would try reciting it out loud and committing it to memory. Supposedly he started off with having a real bad memory, but through practice his capacity for memorization improved a great deal.
A very important element of his system was trying to get as much native input as possible. He would try to engage with native speakers as often as he could. For example when he was living in the Netherlands, he started learning English. In order to acquire a better accent, he would go to English language sermons and just listen. After a while, he would start repeating the sermon quietly under his breath: a technique known as shadowing.
While in the Netherlands, he also decided to learn Russian. However there was a problem. He could locate only one person who actually spoke the language, the Vice-Consul of Russia Mr. Tannenberg. Unfortunately, trying to convince him as best as he could, Heinrich did not manage to get lessons with him. What he did instead was to hire someone who did not speak a word of Russian just to sit there and listen, while Schliemann would read out loud some of his writings in Russian. At least that way, he could practice his spoken Russian and pretend that he was having a conversation with another person.
Real-Life Indiana Jones: Schliemann’s Adventures
The ability to speak Russian opened up new possibilities to Schliemann. He moved to Russia and became a businessman there, growing very rich in the process. While living in St. Petersburg, he became a Russian subject and got married and had a family. However growing restless, he decided to go on another adventure, moving to America and partaking in the gold rush. While there, he added to his riches, became an American citizen and even started a bank.
After those wild years, Heinrich moved back to Russia, but kept feeling a strange pull. The dreams of his childhood were calling him, beckoning him to solve one of the world’s greatest mysteries. Tired of a meaningless life, Schliemann decided to concentrate on his real passion: finding Troy. Unfortunately, this had a negative effect on his family relations. He grew estranged to his wife and when she told him that she did not want to leave Russia and follow him, he decided to divorce her.
After the divorce, he moved to Athens and then after piecing together ancient clues, to the place where he thought Troy was located. What followed is stuff of legend, in a way more fantastic than fiction. Heinrich Schliemann, a man who started his life literally in the gutter, succeeded where many had failed and discovered the ancient city of Troy, buried beneath a hill in the northwestern part of Turkey. Not satisfied with this remarkable find, he continued his digs at other places tied to the legend of the Trojan War, uncovering great treasures in the process.
This story is no doubt fascinating, but we kind of digressed from the real point of this post, language learning. How we can apply the methods of this real-life Indiana Jones to improve our own language learning?
Schliemann was bad at languages when a kid at school. He even commented on this in his autobiography. In order to overcome this, he tried to come up with a more effective method, one which would incorporate lots of practice with the target language. Keep in mind that Schliemann came up with his system in the 19th century and that if he were living in the 21st century like us, he would probably do some things differently. However the principles that he came up with are still sound and very applicable.
The 7 Principles
How to apply:
1) Read native material from the beginning
One of the main parts of Schliemann’s method was reading. One of the first things he would always do when starting a new language was to find a book he had already read (usually the “Adventures of Telemachus”), but in the target language.
By doing this, he was able to read along and get new vocabulary and grammar intuitively. He would also try reading things out loud.
You can do this as well. For example, Assimil uses the same principle where it starts off with parallel texts, one in a language you already know and the other in your target language. Or you can also buy books which have parallel texts, one in your native language and the other in your target language.
2) Writing on subjects of interest as often as possible (apply the vocab you learn)
Reading books allowed Schliemann to pick up a lot of vocabulary quickly and intuitively, however he still needed to apply it in context. So he would try to write essays on subjects that interested him, using the new vocabulary.
He would then send these essays to a native speaker for correction. After getting the corrected version, he would read it out loud and try to memorize it.
This is something very easy to do. After you have a list of words and their meanings, try to use them in some sort of a text. Start off with simple texts and move on to writing harder texts as you get better and better. Get them corrected by native speakers and then learn from your mistakes.
3) Engaging with native speakers
During those times, it was not always easy to get access to native speakers. There was no television, no radio and no internet. Schliemann looked hard to try to find them.
He knew that if he was to get better, he needed to speak in his target language. When he didn’t manage to find one, he would pay someone just to sit there in front of him and listen while he read his essays out loud to him.
Now it’s much easier to find native speakers. If you don’t find them in real life, you can find them online.
Shadowing or repeating things was also a big part of his method. For example when learning English, he found a church where the service was conducted in that language. He would go there every Sunday religiously. ☺
However he was not there for the moral lessons, but instead to listen to native speakers. He would sit there and listen and once he got better he would silently repeat the preacher’s sermon word for word.
Shadowing is pretty easy to do now as well. There is plenty of native material out there which you can shadow.
5) Creating an immersion environment
Schliemann would always try to create an immersion environment for himself when learning a language. He would often write in his diary in the language of the country he was travelling in or learning. He would also often force himself to do things in his target language.
You too can try to create an immersion environment for yourself. Watch television shows in your target language, have radio playing in the background, or maybe do such an easy thing as switching the language of your operating system in your phone to your target language.
6) Create a plan and stick to it
Schliemann had a plan and stuck to it. There were different aspects of his method and he would reproduce those in every new language he was learning. This would allow him to learn things quickly.
For example, for learning Russian, Schliemann tracked down different types of material: grammar, dictionary, translation of Telemachus. These would then serve as his learning resources.
He also always tried to get native input and start using the language in spoken form as soon as possible.
The key to you getting better is creating a plan. How do you learn best? Different people have different learning patterns and so not every plan fits everyone. However you need to figure out what works best for you, then set a schedule and stick to it.
7) Be consistent and work hard
One of the most important aspects of Schliemann’s method was the fact that he was consistent. He would set a schedule and stick to it. He tried to study at set periods every day.
However he would also try to use every opportunity to learn. For example, when starting out working, he would often deliver parcels to the customers of his firm. While doing that, he would always bring his language learning materials with him and learn on the way.
If you want to improve in your language learning, you need to be consistent. Set goals and try to achieve them. Use your target language as often as you can and get as much practice as is possible for you.
If you do this, maybe one day you will turn into an Indiana Jones type adventurer just like Heinrich Schliemann!
How To Learn A Foreign Language