I was talking to one of my students this morning about the Rosetta Stone, which he had seen over the weekend on a visit to the British Museum. The stone has become an emblem (indeed, a trademark) of universal understanding, and was consequently so thickly surrounded by tour groups that he could not get a particularly good view.
The Rosetta Stone was the key to deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphics, since it presented an identical text (the Memphis Decree, announcing the divine cult of the new emperor Ptolemy V) in three parallel versions:one in Greek, one in demotic Egyptian, and one in hieroglyphic.
This neat matching of texts is rare in the history of the decipherment of ancient and unknown languages, but the principle is fundamental. In the decoding of the ancient script known as Linear B for example, found on the island of Crete at Knossos and other sites and dating from the late Bronze Age, it was the discovery of tablets in the same language on mainland Greece (at the ancient city of Pylos) which provided the key to understanding, since certain cartouches, common on the Cretan tablets, were wholly missing on the new finds, and the young British amateur philologist, Michael Ventris, was able to surmise that these were place names. This provided the underpinning to the identification of the language as Greek (a notion dismissed by earlier scholars).
We might seem to be a long way from such detailed detective work in a school of modern languages. But many of the mental processes associated with learning a known language are analogous to those associated with deciphering an unknown one. Later in the day I was speaking to another student, a Russian, about her determination to avoid using a dictionary more than was strictly necessary during her stay, and to proceed by inference and other compensation strategies. She told me that day to day in the office she relied on dictionary apps and electronic translation aids – our own universal Rosetta Stones, to muddy the metaphor – and that this was inhibiting her natural uptake. In order to learn, properly to understand, it is necessary sometimes to take the hard route, to do the hard mental work. To make a best guess and refine it.