Scriptorium: How to Write a Foreign Language without a Teacher

Scriptorium, another of the wonderful methods created by hyperpolyglot (and all-round superhero) Professor Alexander Arguelles, fills a much-needed gap in the autodidact’s repertoire of tricks in learning a foreign language. The name comes from Latin and referred to the room where monks would copy and illuminate their manuscripts, and this original meaning is related to the current method in that the learner (scribe) must copy out large quantities of text.

This article will explain what Scriptorium is, why every foreign language learner should know about it (even if they choose not to use it), and how to go about using it. I’ll finish by summarising some of the more obvious limitations and advantages.

 

What? 

Scriptorium is one of the few methods that allows the learner to improve his/her writing without a teacher (the other I recommend is CI Clouds). The basic idea is to copy a pre-existing text and yes, while we could theoretically copy a whole book to improve our knowledge of a foreign language, Scriptorium is a considerably more fun and productive method. In copying, the learner must produce content (output), but is also engaging with the text passively in that the student must receive input. 

 

Why?

Writing in a foreign language is important to most learners, and while I don’t believe it is the most crucial skill at the beginning, once a strong foundation has been built in reading and listening, speaking and writing should be practice. However, traditionally, a student would improve his writing by way of composition. However, unfortunately as autodidacts, we don’t have the luxury of paying a teacher to mark our work, so we must find creative ways to remedy the problem.

So, how do we improve our writing without a teacher? Is it possible if no one ever checks our work? How can we be sure that we haven’t made a mistake? Well, Scriptorium solves these problems in its very unique way. What’s also wonderful about this method is that it’s so easy to use; there is almost no set-up involved. For those of you who are familiar with the other methods featured on this site which often feature basic editing tech, this might come as a relief. The student of Scriptorium, much like the Medieval Benedictine monk, only needs a plume, sheepskin, and a mixture of gum, carbon and water for the ink (pen and paper will also do if you can’t find these). You’ll also need a foreign text; this could be a textbook or a reader, but I’m currently using the method every morning with the Art of War, written in classical Chinese over 2000 years ago).

This method is also wonderful for practising speaking. The relationship between the two active skills of speaking and writing has been touched upon elsewhere in my articles, but a quick look through the methods on the home page will reveal that most of the articles appear in two categories. This is not a coincidence. 

Lastly, Scriptorium, while useful for languages with similar scripts to one’s native language, prove to be even more useful for language with a completely different script from your own (Chinese, Japanese, Arabic, Greek, etc).

 

How?

So, now that we have established what Scriptorium is and why it’s useful, let’s look at the few simple steps of putting it into practice:

 

Step 1: Find a suitable text. I prefer using a text I’m already familiar with, and for that reason, I use Assimil during the second and third stages of study (see forthcoming article about my roadmap for learning any language). If you don’t have access to this text, most texts are suitable. Try and look for a textbook with fairly short sentences as the exercise may prove too difficult if the learner has to deal with complex sentences that contain several embedded subordinate clauses (much like this one).

 

Step 2: Read the foreign sentence aloud. Can you memorise it? If not, read it aloud again until you are fairly confident that you can reproduce it without looking. This reading-speaking repetition provides excellent practice in spoken language. 

Once you have memorised the sentence, write it in your pad. Always leave an empty line below for correction:

Step 3: Compare your work with the original. Write the corrections below the original:

Step 4: Repeat until you’ve finished the text. A dialogue of around 10-15 lines should take about 30-45 minutes. 

 

Conclusion

Scriptorium is a wonderful method that may have the potential to negate the need of a teacher for writing assignments. It is free and also offers the student instant feedback (instead of having to wait for corrections). It forces the learner to pay attention to the details of language and therefore enables the learner to be a more competent all-around user of the language. The method is very easy to learn and can be set up immediately.

It is, however, a very slow and intense method. Some learners may be put off by the high level of concentration needed to use it. The writing itself demands no creativity as the script is pre-prepared and this limitation may frustrate those who enjoy more flexible approaches to writing. 

Whether or not it is suitable for you, it is an excellent method, especially for those of us without access to a teacher, and should at least be tried. 

 

Today’s Challenge: Find 3 different books that you use to study a foreign language. Try using a variety, such as textbooks, readers, and even novels. You may even want to use a text that you actually want to study for non-linguistic reasons (as I do with classical Chinese; I actually want to retain the information rather than just learn the language).

So, give it a go and let us know what you think in the comments! Also, please share to help support the site!

About Me

My name is Neil and I have been teaching English professionally for almost 20 years, the last ten of which at my language school. 

Apart from a diploma in teaching English as a foreign language (Cert Tesol), I have a BA in modern and Classical Chinese. I also speak Spanish, Italian, and French, and read Latin. 

Besides continuing my daily studies of these languages, I have also set myself a language goal of one new language a year. I’m looking forward to starting Japanese or German on the 1st January 2021.

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