Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Prendergast, Thomas (1806-1886)

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PRENDERGAST, THOMAS (1806–1886), inventor of the ‘mastery’ system of learning languages, was born in 1806. His father, Sir Jeffery Prendergast, born at Clonmel in 1769, was in the service of the East India Company, becoming colonel of the 39th native infantry in 1825. He served in the Mysore war, was knighted in 1838, was promoted to be a general in 1854, and died in 1856, having married in 1804 Elizabeth, daughter of Hew Dalrymple of Nunraw, North Britain.

Thomas was nominated a writer in the East India Company's service on 23 June 1826, and became assistant to the collector of Tanjore, Madras presidency, in 1828. He was acting head assistant to the collector of Nellore on 16 Jan. 1829, and head assistant on 9 Feb. 1830. In 1831 he became acting sub-collector and joint magistrate of Nellore, in 1833 acting assistant judge at Guntoor, and on 8 Aug. 1834 assistant judge of Tinnevelly, where he remained until 1838. He was afterwards for many years collector and magistrate at Rajahmundry until his retirement on the annuity fund in 1859. On his return to England he settled at Cheltenham, and soon became totally blind. Despite this misfortune, he devoted himself to literary work, and invented what he called the mastery system of learning languages. This system is based upon the process pursued by children in learning to speak. They are impelled by instinct to imitate and repeat the chance sentences which they hear spoken around them, and afterwards to interchange and transpose the words so as to form new combinations. By frequently repeating conversational sentences Prendergast had himself acquired the Madras vernacular, Tamil, and Telegu. The system was to some extent a development of the Ollendorffian, but Prendergast elaborated its details on original lines. His success was considerable, and the various manuals in which he practically expounded his views went through numerous editions. He died at Meldon Cottage, The Park, Cheltenham, on 14 Nov. 1886, and was buried in the new cemetery on 18 Nov. His son, Sir Harry North Dalrymple Prendergast, G.C.B., V.C., was commander in Burmah in 1883–6.

His published works are: ‘The Mastery of Languages, or the Art of speaking Foreign Tongues idiomatically,’ 1864, 3rd edition, 1872; ‘Handbook to the Mastery Series,’ 1868, 5th edition, 1882; The Mastery Series, French, 1868, 12th edition, 1879; The Mastery Series, Spanish, 1869, 4th edition, 1875; The Mastery Series, German, 1868, 8th edition, 1874; The Mastery Series, Hebrew, 1871, 3rd edition, 1879; The Mastery Series, Latin, 1872, 5th edition, 1884.

[Dodwell and Miles's Madras Civil Servants, 1839, p. 226; Times, 19 Nov. 1886, p. 6; Academy, 20 Nov. 1886, p. 345; Cheltenham Chronicle, 20 Nov. 1886, p. 2.]

G. C. B.