Studying history is like learning a new language

The two biggest mistakes you can make learning a new language or studying history are thinking, “They’re exactly like me,” and, “They’re nothing like me.” It’s so natural to drift between these two extremes in both scenarios and yet I think that the more we’re conscious of our tendency to think in this way, the greater our chance of overcoming it.

Have you ever tried talking to a native speaker in a language you’ve been learning for a few months? You probably started off with the basic greetings, how are you, my name is… etc. Then, if you were brave, you probably tried saying something a bit more complicated. That’s probably when they started laughing at you. Or, if they were polite, asked you to repeat yourself because they didn’t understand. You almost certainly fell into the trap of saying something in the way of your native language. Maybe this was some kind of pronunciation you haven’t quite gotten hold of yet, or maybe it was how you tried to construct a sentence, the point is, it made no sense in the actual language you were trying to speak. We make this mistake all the time learning new languages—we think they’ll be like our own. If we’re not sure of something, we improvise—usually with what we’re most familiar with. This is why it’s important not only to keep studying the language but, I would argue, it’s even more important to actually talk with native speakers. Your study is how you think the language works, but talking to native speakers tests how much your understanding of it matches everybody else’s. The sooner you can engross yourself in proper speakers, the sooner you’ll be able to let go of your prior assumptions and learn the language for what it truly is.

See, history’s a bit trickier though. We have the same problem in a sense—we can study about the past and read it through the lens of thinking people back then were like us. The catch is there’s no-one who can really tell you what it was like back then. All the native “livers” of the past are long dead; there’s no authority to correct you. That’s bad enough when things are ambiguous or unknown—at least then reading our own perspectives into the past is some way to fill a gap—it gets worse though when the evidence points the other direction but we persist regardless. We might like the tales of some of those Ancient Romans and Greeks until we hear of their massacres, treatment of women, infanticide, occasional human sacrifice and general xenophobia. What’s worse though is when we study the history of the people we self-identify with, our nation or, if you’ve got one, religious or philosophical group. I guarantee you every group you could identify with has done terrible things in the past, and you’re very likely to overlook that or make excuses for it. “They weren’t that bad really, they’re just misunderstood. Really they’re just like you and me.” Sure. You keep telling yourself that. The past doesn’t care how you use it but that’s not going to change what actually happened.

Let’s go back to languages for a second for the other end of the spectrum. It’s so easy, once you realise you’re bringing your own language to another, to try to cut it off completely; no comparison whatsoever. I’ve lived this myself and seen it in others and it seems to go one of two ways: either you find something you’re not sure how to say so you just freeze completely and can’t get anything out, or you find some “rule” in the language and you use again and again, even when it’s not meant to be done. These errors, ironically, are likely to evoke even more ridicule from native speakers. You can’t win. It’s a trial by fire one way or another and so my advice is simply to try. What your goal is, or at least should be, is to get closer to speaking it properly. That will mean making mistakes on either end of this spectrum but the worst you can do is say nothing. At least if you try, you can be corrected. And if you’re mindful of which end you’re drifting towards, at least you’ve got a chance of steering back to where you need to be.

How does this work out in history too? Same starting point as well. If you think everyone back in the day was different to yourself then you’re going to miss the common threads of humanity that connect us across thousands of years. You might think you have nothing in common with a Roman Emperor until you realise, like we did last week, that one of them struggled with sleeping in. You might think the legions of Rome or the hoplites of Sparta were made up of merciless, invincible soldiers who never felt fear or grew tired. The glimpses we can get, once we start looking, however, show us they probably faced many of the same troubles during and after conflict as the soldiers of our own times. But there’s another problem in seeing the past as fundamentally different besides just overlooking things we have in common. We’re naturally in-group, out-group oriented and we very much like having an “other” we can define ourselves against. The danger in considering the past through the lens of complete alienation is that we can use our present worldviews to cast the past as their opposite to thereby reinforce what we currently believe. Only by taking the familiar with the unfamiliar can we truly understand the past and learn from it to properly inform us for the future.

But why does any of this matter to an up-and-coming author though? See, you can say that the story is completely in my hands and so I can adhere to history as much as I like, and you’d be right. But if I don’t realise how I’m seeing the past, I’m not making that decision, someone else is. If I completely read the present day into the past or make it so alien I end up doing the same thing anyway just inverted, I’m not truly engaging with the past. I’m missing out on the potential of what’s actually there and just settling for someone else’s perspective. If I try my best to discover the past as it actually was, I have a much richer toolkit to work with. I can still play with the perspectives of historians and expectations of audiences, but I’ll be doing so knowingly, and adding my own perspective to the mix as well. Doesn’t seem like a bad plan when you phrase it like that, does it?

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