1. RECORDS OF THE METHODS ADOPTED
Nearly 300 years ago, a German boy, along with his friend, arrived in the small Danish colony on the eastcoast of India, Bay of Bengal, in south India. He was the first ever Protestant missionary to India, a tribe of whom it is said in the Word of God, "How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!" (Romans 10:17). He was not the first one who tried to learn an Asian language for practical ends. There were many others before him, but he is one of the few early missionaries who kept some record of the methods they adopted in learning foreign languages. In this short paper I wish to record the statements made by the first ever Protestant missionary, Bartholomaeus Ziegenbalg, as to how he learned an Indian language that was foreign to him.
2. ZIEGENBALG IN INDIA IN EARLY 1700s
Bartholomaeus Ziegenbalg, a Lutheran missionary from Germany, came to India on July 9, 1706, when he was only 24 years old. He and Pluetschau were commissioned as missionaries by the King of Denmark. Ziegenbalg made Tranquebar (anglicized form of Tharangambadi in Tamil), a very small Danish colony on the east coast close to Nagapattinam in Tamilnadu, his home in India.
3. HARDSHIPS OF LIVING IN INDIA: INDIAN SUMMERS
Ziegenbalg began his life in Tranquebar first with the help of interpreters and translators. However, he was determined to learn the local language Tamil, and master it in such a way that he would be able to use it for the translation of the Bible and to communicate with the natives in their own language. This lofty aim, however, ran into several difficulties. One of the major difficulties was the climatic condition. Ziegenbalg wrote: "My skin was like a red cloth. The heat here is very great, especially in April, May, and June, at which season the wind blows from inland, so strongly that it seems as if the heat comes straight out of the oven" (Lehmann 1956:19).
4. SITTING ON THE FLOOR WITH CHILDREN IN A SCHOOL
Ziegenbalg began to learn to write Tamil letters immediately after his arrival. The missionaries invited the local Tamil teacher to come and stay with them and run his school from their house. Ziegenbalg would sit with the young children in this school on the floor and practice writing the letters in the sand, a very traditional practice that was in vogue even in early 1950s in Tamil villages. One missionary who came to Tranquebar later wrote that these two early missionaries "settled down with all earnestness, with childish composure to the languages" (Lehmann 1956:23).
5. FOCUS ON VOCABULARY AND MEMORIZATION, AND USE OF TRANSLATIONS
Ziegenbalg wrote in a letter: "We did indeed have a Malabar (Tamil) teacher of our own. However we did not know where we should get the vocabulary and an understanding of the construction of this language, since the school master could show us reading and writing but knew no Portuguese and could not explain anything to us. (Portuguese was the language of communication, not English, at that time among the Europeans in India. - Thirumalai) After this we got acquainted with a Malabaree (Tamil) who . . . besides his own language spoke Portuguese, Danish, Dutch, and German well. Him we employed at fixed pay as our translator, and through him daily acquired many Malabar (Tamil) words, up to several thousands, and memorized them well (emphasis added - Thirumalai). After that, we busied ourselves to get the declensions and conjugations, and began to read books in this language. God let everything progress well. Then the Commandant recommended to us a grammar in the Portuguese language, written by a missionary of the King of France. We obtained a number of books in the Malabar (Tamil) language, prepared by Catholics, which almost led us into dangerous heresies but not into an understanding of the language or a Christian style of writing. We had no means of knowing with what words and expressions we should explain spiritual matters in order not to give them a heathen flavour. The best book, so necessary and so useful, was their Gospel-book. This we examined first of all and took all the vocabulary and expressions to make ourselves well acquainted and use them in our daily conversations. After that we worked through other books so that I , B.Z., in eight months had come so far that with God's grace I was able to read, write, and speak in this very difficult language and even understand the conversation of others" (Lehmann 1956: 24).
6. LONG SCHEDULES!
Ziegenbalg reported that during the first three years of his stay in India, he hardly read any books in German or Latin. He gave the following schedule of his language lessons: "from 7-8 a.m. he would repeat the vocabularies and phrases which he had previously learnt and written down; from8-12 he read only Malabar (Tamil) books which he had not previously read. This he did in the presence of an old poet (Tamil Pandit) and a writer who immediately wrote down all new words and expressions. The poet had to explain the text and in the case of linguistically complicated poetry put what had been read into colloquial language. At first he had also used the translator Aleppa, whom he later gave up to one of his colleagues. Even while eating he had someone read to him and from 3-5 he read some more Tamil books. In the evening from 7-8 he had someone read to him from Tamil literature in order to save his own eyes. He preferred authors whose style he could imitate in his own speaking and writing. 'Thus it has happened that I sometimes the read the same author a hundred times, so that there was no world or expression in him which I did not know or imitate. Such practice in this language has given a sureness and certainty'" (Lehmann 1956:24).
7. ASSESSMENT OF PROFICIENCY
Learning and mastering the language of the people, to whom he was called to bring the Gospel of Jesus Christ, became the primary focus for this early missionary. Through learning and mastering the foreign language he was able to understand and describe better their belief systems and social structure. Lehman (1956: 30) writes, "The prerequisite for directly obtaining information about the teaching and life of those about him was the knowledge of the language and the ability to have linguistic contact with his surroundings. With this equipment, Ziegenbalg used every opportunity: when visitors came, in conversations at home and outside, through extensive reading, through a large correspondence on his journeys, and through street preaching."
Ziegenbalg realized the importance of local language for evangelism and preferred direct engagement with the nationals. He was not an armchair theologian or evangelist. He wrote in 1711 about those who suggested methods of evangelism from their seats in Europe, "They are only debating with themselves without a real opponent. Otherwise, they would soon have found out that the mentally active and eloquent Tamilians would set up ten arguments to their one!" (Lehmann 1956:30).
Because he learned and used the local language, Ziegenbalg was able to look deeper into the theology of the people group and find out their strengths and weaknesses. Ziegenbalg wrote once why he started translating some Tamil didactic works: he wanted to see how far these people, "even without the Holy Scriptures, would be able to come to the knowledge of the moral law by (their) intelligence . . . thus he raised the question of original revelation and the natural knowledge of God" (Lehmann 1956: 32).
Zieganbalg's competence and performance in Tamil was criticized later on by his rival Catholic priests, in particular by the Italian Jesuit Beschi, who is considered to be a great scholar-poet in Tamil. However, native-like performance in a foreign language does take time for the adult learners, even when they are best motivated to learn their target language. What is noteworthy is the single-minded devotion of Ziegenbalg to learn a foreign language which is diglossic (extreme differences between the spoken and written forms of language; in Tamil, which Ziegenbalg learned and mastered, the spoken and written forms of the language are radically distinct from each other; so, in some sense, Ziegenbalg was actually learning and mastering two languages!).
Bartholomaeus Ziegenbalg died in 1719 in Tranquebar, at the age of 37 years, leaving behind his young wife with two small sons. After ten weeks, the youngest boy died. His wife gave birth to a third son five months after Ziegenbalg's death. This child also died in Tranquebar.
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