A recent post from Steve Kaufmann reminds us that people have been learning new languages for a long, long time. It bothers me, it has bothered me for some time that after thousands of years of people learning languages where they needed to, somehow, recently we seem to have come up with so many ingenious ways to mess it up. When I say bothered I don't mean a foaming at the mouth kind of bothered, the kind that some types of grammar pedants get into every time they spy a misplaced apostrophe or similar. The botheration has reached a point where I feel like writing about it though.
As Steve points out:
The invention of printing was even more recent, and it helped spread the written word. But for most people around the world, things did not change. Most people could not read until the previous century.
Now it seems a common concept that Chinese is especially difficult but if you go back a little in history it was not so clear cut, in fact learning fluency in spoken Chinese did not seem to be such a big deal assuming that you had access to native speakers of course, Take Giles, Herbert Allen, 1845-1935 for example you can read a transcription of an introductory lecture to Chinese he gave.
Giles does not seem think that colloquial (spoken) Chinese is particularly hard:
Colloquial Chinese is a comparatively easy matter. It is, in fact, more easily acquired in the early stages than colloquial French or German. A student will begin to speak from the very first, for the simple reason that there is no other way. There are no Declensions or Conjugations to be learned, and consequently no Paradigms or Irregular Verbs.
In a day or two the student should be able to say a few simple things. After three months he should be able to deal with his ordinary requirements; and after six months he should be able to chatter away more or less accurately on a variety of interesting subjects. A great deal depends upon the method by which he is taught.
Giles does think that the written language is very hard but bear in mind that at that time written Chinese would be much further removed from the spoken form than today. If Giles is correct then why would I find so many people on forums who are still of the opinion you must learn the written alongside the spoken form right from the start.
Writing has become connected with the concept of education, to the extent that to some it would seem un-educated not to learn to read the target language, one put down I received was "I don't want to be illiterate like you seem to". But if we assume that the thing that makes Chinese particularly hard is the written form then why not delay that until you have gained some spoken ability (I learn reading now).
Steve introduces the education element:
Somewhere along the line governments decided that everyone should go to school and read text books. Soon people thought that learning only took place in classrooms.
Gradually our view of language learning changed. School teachers, text book publishers, and linguistics theorists took over.
Ironically Giles actually wrote a book entitled Chinese without a teacher, being a collection of easy and useful sentences in the Mandarin dialect, with a vocabulary, you can read it online. This book is mostly a collection of phrases, not much help in isolation I guess Giles seems to have written it for those in China who needed an intro to get started, I am pretty sure that Giles himself would freely admit that it was poor a substitute for being in China and getting stuck in. The point is that at that time there was no alternative for those not in China so for a little while (relatively speaking) textbooks would have evolved and improved somewhat, would have been presented by teachers in classrooms etc. Now we are at the point however where recent (and not so recent) advances in technology provide a much, much better solution, lots of people don't appear to have noticed (maybe they have a vested interest in not noticing?).
People have been learning languages by listening for thousands of years, when that is an option (which it wouldn't have been for most that read Giles's book) I would suggest that it should be the main option.