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The Value of a Knowledge of English
A WELL-KNOWN college president has said that the end of all education is to get a knowledge of one's own language. This may at first seem like a strange statement, but a little consideration of it will convince one that it is essentially true. If one knows the language of arithmetic, he has a good knowledge of the subject; if he knows the language of physiology perfectly, he must possess a knowledge of the subject; and the same is true of other branches of knowledge.
Language is the key that unlocks the door to the storehouse of the knowledge of all past ages. It is also the means by which the knowledge of the present may be recorded. It is by means of language that we communicate our thoughts, and it is through an understanding of language that we are able to understand the communications of others. When we consider how much information we may gain, and how much pleasure is brought to us through language, we may be able in some measure to realize how important it is.
Ability to use and enjoy correct and beautiful English is a great accomplishment. If this fact were understood, and the same time and effort put upon the study of English that is put upon the acquiring of other accomplishments, the result would be most surprising and gratifying.
You have been learning to use language from your infancy. Every time you speak you use language, and you are constantly adding to your understanding of language by listening to the conversation of other people. From hearing words used, you learn how to use them to express your thoughts, and thus your language stock is increased. In written language you have also had much practice. You have written letters, a form of composition which almost every one employs, and you have probably written exercises, stories, and descriptions. The study of English composition, then, will not present a new subject, but one about which you know considerable; and it will thus be a continuation of what you have already begun.
When one person is conversing with another or writing something for another person to read, he naturally wishes to have what he says understood. For this purpose he endeavors to use such language as will most clearly express the facts or thoughts he wishes to present. The person who has but a limited number of words at his command, and who does not know how to use those he has so that they will be most effective, will often have difficulty in making himself understood. When speaking he may, by repeating and explaining, make his meaning understood; but when he writes he will find it a difficult task to express his thoughts so that any one can derive benefit or pleasure from reading what he has written. The importance, then, of acquiring the ability to use language effectively, even in the common intercourse of everyday life, is apparent. As a person's world enlarges, as he takes a more active part in the affairs of life, and mingles more with people, he will require a larger knowledge of
the language he is to use in his business and social intercourse with others.
Composition writing is often considered a difficult and unpleasant task, but it should not be. Most people like to talk of what they hear and see, or of what they think and feel. Such a sight as a group of boys and girls standing, looking at one another silently, because talking is too laborious a task, cannot be imagined. Talking is a form of composition; it is composing or expressing thought in words, just as written composition is. Written composition is dreaded as something more difficult, because the writing of one's sentences requires more attention to the language used, and to the rules that govern sentence structure. It is a mistake to regard it in this way, for there is no effort that gives more satisfaction and pleasure than writing about what one sees or thinks, if attempted in the proper way and with the right spirit. It is to help pupils to gain an understanding of what may be done with language, and to aid them in getting such a knowledge of it as will enable them to experience pleasure and delight in its use that this book is written.
Making and Interpreting Language Read the following selection to learn the writer's experience with the robins and what his opinions of them are:
THE ROBIN 1 The robin has a bad reputation among people who do not value themselves less for being fond of cherries. There is, I admit, a spice of vulgarity in him, and his song is rather of the Bloomfield sort, too largely ballasted with prose. His ethics are of the Poor Richard school, and the main chance that calls forth all his energy is altogether of the appetite.
1 From "My Study Windows," by James Russell Lowell, by permission of Houghton, Mifflin & Co., the publishers.
He never has those fine intervals of lunacy into which his cousins, the catbird, and the mavis are apt to fall. But for a' that, and twice as muckle's a' that, I would not exchange him for all the cherries that ever came out of Asia Minor. Whatever his faults, he has not wholly forfeited that superiority which belongs to the children of nature.
He has a 'finer taste in fruit than could be distilled from many successive committees of the Horticultural Society, and he eats with a relishing gulp not inferior to Dr. Johnson's. He freely feels and exercises his “right of eminent domain.”
His is the earliest mess of green peas; his, all the mulberries I had fancied mine. But if he gets the lion's share of the raspberries, he is a great planter, and sows those wild ones in the woods, that solace the pedestrians and give a momentary calm even to the jaded victim of the White Hills. He keeps a strict eye over one's fruit, and knows to a shade of purple when your grapes have cooked long enough in the sun.
During the severe drought a few years ago, the robins wholly vanished from my garden. I neither saw nor heard one for six weeks. Meanwhile, a small foreign grapevine, rather shy of bearing, seemed to find the dusty air congenial, and, dreaming perhaps of its sweet Argos across the sea, decked itself with a score or so of fair bunches. I watched them from day to day till they should have secreted sugar enough from the sunbeams, and at last made up my mind that I would celebrate my vintage next morning.
But the robins, too, had somehow kept note of them. They must have sent out spies, as did the Jews into the promised land, before I was stirring. When I went to the vine with my basket, at least a dozen of these winged vintagers bustled out from among the leaves, and alighting on the nearest trees, interchanged some shrill remarks about me of a derogatory character. They had fairly sacked the vine. Not Wellington's
ans made cleaner work of a Spanish town; no Federals or Confederates were ever more impartial in the confiscation of neutral chickens. I was keeping my grapes to surprise the fair Fidele with, but the robins had made them a profounder secret to her than I had intended.
The tattered remnant of a single bunch was all my harvest. How paltry it looked at the bottom of my basket, as if a humming bird had laid her egg in an eagle's nest ! I could not help laughing; and the robins seemed to join heartily in the merriment.
a native grapevine close by, blue with its less refined abundance, but my cunning thieves preferred the foreign flavor. Could I tax them with want of taste ?
The robins are not good solo singers, but their chorus, when, like primitive fire-worshipers, they hail the return of light and warmth to the world, is unrivaled. There are a hundred singing like one. They are noisy enough then, and sing as poets should, with no after thought. But when they come after cherries to the trees near the window, they muffle their voices, and their faint pip, pip, pip! sounds as if far away at the bottom of the garden, where they know I shall not suspect them of robbing the great black-walnut of its bitter-rinded store.
They are the feathered Pecksniffs, to be sure; but then how brightly their breasts, that look rather shabby in the sunlight, shine on a rainy day against the dark green of the fringe tree! After they have pinched and shaken all the life out of an earth-worm, as Italian cooks pound all the life out of a steak, and then gulped him, they stand up in honest self-confidence, expand their red waistcoats with the virtuous air of a lobby member, and outface you with an eye that calmly challenges inquiry.
“Do I look like a bird that knows the flavor of raw vermin? I throw myself upon a jury of my peers. Ask any robin if he ever ate anything more ascetic than the frugal berry of the juniper, and he will answer that his vow forbids him." Can such an honest breast cover such depravity? Alas, yes! I have no doubt his breast was redder at that very moment with the blood of my raspberries.
From “My Study Windows.” – LOWELL.
To understand the author's thought, and his purpose in writing this sketch, you must have certain knowledge. First, you must know the meaning of the words used, for unless you understand the sense in which the words are