Learning languages in the Victorian era

Daniel Ausema’s steampunk serial

I suspect that for most of us when we imagine a steampunk-era education, the image that comes to mind is one of two things: a private tutor in a wood-lined library in the family manor or hard desks in a sparsely ornamented classroom run by a strict teacher.

There’s no doubt truth in these images, but as a language teacher myself, I wanted to dig a little deeper into how languages were taught in Europe in the Victorian era. I discovered a history of idealism and two competing ideas about teaching language, as well as theft and betrayal.

Prior to the Victorian era, the idea of learning another language meant one thing, whether with that tutor in your family library or in an austere classroom with a harsh taskmaster. It required intense learning of the grammatical rules of the other language paired with rote translation of texts, specifically those texts seen as literarily or historically significant. And here all the images we have of knuckle-rapping and joylessly belligerent teaching come to bear.

It’d be like expecting a traveler to an English-speaking country to learn the language by studying grammatical distinctions between the present perfect and pluperfect and then translating Shakespearean speeches. Much as I love Shakespeare’s monologues, they would hardly prepare someone to talk with strangers on the streets today–or even in Victorian-era London.

So in 1835, the French teacher Jean Manesca published a radical new approach. He had been using the approach for a number of years by then, teaching French in the United States, and had shared his ideas with some others who adapted them to their own language teaching. His argument was that the grammar-translation approach might be good and fine for learning to read an ancient language like Latin or other languages no longer spoken, but it was terrible for learning to speak a living language.

Manesca advocated a style of teaching that was supposed to mimic the way we learn languages naturally as children…although in truth the rote way he laid it all out, sounds scarcely more engaging than the strict grammarian approach. (Incidently, a very similar divide continues to exist in language teaching theories, though the specific approaches on both sides have grown more sophisticated.)

The key point for our steampunk interests was the idealism that lay under it…and the theft that would soon follow.

Jean Manesca wrote that “teaching ought not to be a torment; a mental acquisition which is desired, should not be purchased at the price of any mental or corporeal suffering…” which goes against our image of the cruel Victorian teacher…

One of Manesca’s followers, Don Carlos Rabadan, adapted Manesca’s approach to Spanish. In his Spanish-English textbook he wrote, “For if pleasure alone be our object, without regard to its great utility, what can be more gratifying than to be able to converse fluently with [people] of different countries?”

I love this sense of idealism that underlies Manesca’s approach. Language wasn’t an end in itself, but a vital part of improving the world, bringing an enlightened peace. That it didn’t, well, is to be lamented, but making space for this kind of grand ideal in our steampunk stories is one way to give them added dimension. And maybe even weaving in the failure of such an ideal…

For all his influence, however, Manesca did not become famous. Instead Henri Ollendorff, a German who taught Latin, took Manesca’s lessons and translated them (often directly, with no changes in examples or sequence) into Latin.

Soon, elite tutors bragged of the Ollendorff method. It was seen as a sign of sophistication to have learned with the Ollendorff method, which came to be used for German, French, Italian, Spanish, Latin, Greek, and Arabic. Several popular editions of his books were published in the 1840s and beyond. As for the Manesca method? No one spoke of it. (In fact, at the time of this writing, Manesca’s only appearance in Wikipedia is on Ollendorff’s page, with a dead link to a page yet to be written about Jean Manesca.)

I have not been able to uncover any reaction from Manesca to Ollendorff’s theft and fame, though his son Louis was very critical of Ollendorff. I like to imagine how they might have greeted each other, though. An idealistic gratitude that at least Manesca’s approach was spreading? Or a bitterness that the upstart had stolen his chance for fame?

Either one could make a very cool layer in a steampunk story. No need to make it specifically about language teachers, but that dynamic of idealism, innovation, theft, and adaptation are all so central to the technological and societal changes of the Victorian era. How cool to incorporate some aspect of that into our steampunk stories!

Much thanks to the Boston Language Institute’s blog (https://bostonlanguage.wordpress.com/2015/02/03/jean-manesca-the-first-modern-foreign-language-teacher/), which started me looking into Manesca, his followers, and imitators.

Daniel Ausema is the author of Spire City and one of the original Steampunk Cavaliers. Find him on Twitter @ausema.

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