Ollendorff’s Method: The Plagiary of Manesca?

Old Letter With Handwritten French Text

Although Jean Manesca only published his landmark language instruction manual in 1835, by the 1820s his carefully devised system had already been crystallized into a definite form, and students who assiduously frequented his courses found that by the end of their studies their notes had become a complete record of the Manesca method of learning French.

The story goes that one Mr. Albert Brisbane, Esq., who in 1825 studied French with Manesca in New York, subsequently went to Paris and during his sojourn began to study German with a certain Mr. Heinrich Ollendorff, using, upon agreement with the teacher, the notes from his French course as a guideline for the new German adventure. “Mr. Brisbane states that during his studies with Mr. O., the latter repeatedly borrowed his French Course, and, as he at that time supposed, to prepare himself for the ensuing lessons. A few years later, in 1835, Mr. Ollendorff published his book, which, with some unimportant alterations, is merely a copy of the French Course of Mr. Brisbane: the character of the exercises, the method of communicating the lessons, &c. are changed.”

The author of this indictment of plagiarism is Louis Manesca, son of Jean, who in 1870 published “The Serial and Oral of Teaching Languages; Adapted to the French” (free e-book), an attempt to restore Manesca’s method to its rightful position in a “market flooded by … imperfect productions.” According to Louis Manesca, the imitators were “not only appropriating to themselves the fruits of my father’s labors, but in addition, they are mutilating and spoiling his beautiful and philosophical method; it is destined to be ruined in their hands, if good works are not prepared to take their place.”

Despite Louis Manesca’s efforts to restore his father’s fame, the reputation of “Ollendorff’s method” grew throughout the 19th century and was applied not only to German, but to French, Italian, Spanish, Latin, Greek, and Arabic as well, both by Ollendorff himself and by others who directly acknowledged their intellectual debt to him. In the long run Ollendorff became part of popular culture – in the 1890 short story “Griffiths the Safe Man,” Rudyard Kipling wrote: “‘Where is the other gentleman?’ said the policeman, syllable by syllable, in the Ollendorffian style.”

Brisbane – who would greatly profit from his time in France and go on to achieve fame as a utopian socialist heavily indebted to the French philosopher Charles Fourier – further elucidates the details of the fateful meeting between him and his German teacher in his biography:

“I told this gentleman that I had a method for teaching languages which I wished to follow; that I would like him to make a trial of four lessons, after which he could consider whether or not it pleased him to continue according to my system. We began: I writing in French the words I wanted and he giving me the German. When this was done, I directed him how to ask me questions, which I replied to. Thus I began training Mr. Ollendorff in Manesca’s method. It was of course very natural that he should want to offer suggestions of his own, but as I insisted on no deviation from the plan we had set out on, at the end of the fourth lesson he accepted my offer to suspend study for a few days to consider what he should do. At the expiration of the allotted time he came back decided to continue. I pursued German with Mr. Ollendorff until I had run through the hundred and twenty lessons written down under Manesca’s dictation and had obtained a very fair knowledge of the language. As my teacher would often borrow my exercise-book to prepare his lessons in advance, it is perhaps but fair for me to mention here that it was those lessons which were the origin of the work printed later called “Ollendorff’s Method.” It is a copy – almost verbatim – of my manuscript up to the twentieth or thirtieth lesson, when certain innovations are introduced. But Ollendorff’s method as it was first known is an imperfect imitation of Manesca’s.”

Especially upon reading the rest of Brisbane’s biography, in which he lauds Manesca’s qualities as a teacher and the efficacy of his method, and in which we see the end results of the method – and that is that Brisbane’s time in France paved the way to his future success as an author and intellectual – it seems unfortunate for us that posterity has handed the victory to Ollendorff over Manesca.

Manesca Meets Spanish

Rabadan Book - Manesca

The foreign language teachers to whom Jean Manesca addressed his seminal “Oral System of Teaching Living Languages Illustrated by a Practical Course of Lessons in the French through the Medium of the English” immediately took notice of the manual and its innovative method; some of those who read the book even took up the author’s challenge to transfer his method – constructed on teaching the French language to speakers of English – to the teaching of other languages.

One of the first direct children of Manesca’s method was Spanish teacher Don Cárlos Rabadan’s “Manesca’s Oral System of Teaching Living Languages; Illustrated by a Practical Course of Lessons in the Spanish Language, Through the Medium of the English” (free e-book).

Rabadan must have been one of the very first teachers to employ Manesca’s method, as at the time that his book was registered in the Library of Congress – 1846 – he writes that he had already been using the method in his own lessons for 16 years. He is a satisfied customer, asserting that “under its guidance, success has never failed to crown my expectations.” He is not alone in this evaluation, as “many meritorious teachers, and other men of learning, acquainted with Manesca’s system, recommend it, not only as the best ever discovered, but also as the only true and safe mode which a teacher can make use of to impart to his scholars a complete knowledge of any foreign language.”

Obviously Rabadan used a modified form of Manesca’s system – that is, he transferred the French teacher’s pedagogical philosophy to the teaching of his own native language, Spanish. His manual is every bit as hefty as the 500-plus page original – Rabadan churns out 1029 pages of lessons and explanations, although his pages are about half the size of Manesca’s. Despite the imposing volume of the work, the author assures readers that “there can hardly be found another language so easily acquired as the Castilian.”

Aside from its facility, Rabadan touts the importance of Spanish for Americans interested in foreign commerce, as well as the “noble, manly, and majestic character” of the language. He is quite adamant in insisting on the masculinity of Spanish, and even takes a cheap shot at one “competitor” tongue’s supposed lack of this characteristic. As he says, “in harmony and softness, [Spanish] rivals the melodious Italian; but it is entirely free from the effeminacy and monotony which so much detract from the beauty of the latter.”

However, Rabadan’s love and knowledge of his own native tongue does not get in the way of his love and respect for foreign languages in general. He attributes great importance to the study of foreign languages and literature, which as he says, “contributes, in no small degree, to the happiness of the human family. By means of it, many old prejudices are dispelled, and replaced by strong affections, thus exerting a salutary tendency to unite mankind, to discourage war among nations, and consequently to promote commerce, which, being the main spring of our social machine, sets, and keeps in constant motion all the mechanism of which it is composed.”

In this one Spanish teacher’s mind, therefore, the study of foreign languages can be an engine for world peace. But although the acquisition of a foreign tongue is a noble pursuit, it is also an extremely delightful one: “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 men of different countries?”

That’s an assessment that it’s hard to disagree with.

The Meat of Manesca’s Method

manesca2 Last week we introduced some of the pedagogical underpinnings of Jean Manesca’s “Oral System of Teaching Living Languages Illustrated by a Practical Course of Lessons in the French through the Medium of the English”, which, published in 1835, may be the world’s first modern course in foreign language.

The philosophy underlying Manesca’s method leads to a decisive take on the importance of regulating his students’ intake of new knowledge: “The discovery of an artificial system which should imitate, as nearly as practicable, nature’s mode of imparting language to children; a system through which every distinct term should be separately and carefully introduced, and immediately and incessantly combined and practised upon with the terms already known.”

In the 182 lessons which he has painstakingly detailed in his manual, Manesca rigorously introduces one new word, term, or principle to his students at a time. “Je tiens à ce qu’il soit bien entendu que la méthode n’admet, sous aucun prétexte, l’introduction de deux inconnus simultanément” (“I insist that it be well understood that the method does not admit, under any pretext, the introduction of two unknowns simultaneously”).

In the very first lesson of the book – the introductory lesson to the French language- he introduces first the word avez (second person plural of the verb “to have”) and then the word vous (plural or formal version of “you”). The pronunciation and spelling of these words are imparted – one at a time – to the students, who are required to write the words and their English translation on a sheet of paper which they will maintain as a sort of database throughout the duration of the lesson.

The newly acquired knowledge of these two words is then reinforced by the introduction of the question Avez-vous? (“Have you?”). This process of teaching individual words which strategically build towards sentences means that by the end of the preparatory part of the lesson the students will know both the question Avez-vous le clou? (“Have you the nail?”) and its respective answer J’ai le clou (“I have the nail”).

At this point the mouvement – a stalwart of Manesca’s method – begins. From his vantage point at the center of the semi-circle formed by the students’ desks, the teacher asks each of the students the question which has been so carefully constructed, soliciting from each pupil the preconstructed response. Once the series of Avez-vous le clou? J’ai le clou has been reiterated for each individual member of the class, the teacher varies the question by substituting clou with pain (bread). Spelling and pronunciation are duly noted by the students. The question becomes Avez-vous le PAIN? and the answer J’ai le PAIN. On the next round of the mouvement the teacher introduces the adjective bon (good) – Avez-vous le BON pain? and then moves on to the possessive adjective mon (my) – Avez-vous MON clou? By the end of the mouvement the students will have become acquainted with a variety of nouns, adjectives, possessive adjectives and interrogative adjectives – used directly in their appropriate grammatical context.

At home the student is then asked to rewrite each of the questions which was asked during the lesson, along with an appropriate response. He or she is asked only to recopy – studying and memorization are not part of Manesca’s method.

Nor do Manesca’s students need what he deems “useless” grammar books and dictionaries; only three things are required in order to succeed in his method – “reasoning power, judgment, and that disposition of the mind which disposes to attention, and always insures success. But such qualifications are seldom met with in youth under fifteen; nay, they are not always found at a more advanced age.”

Manesca states quite emphatically that because he feels that before the age of 15 students are not equipped with the proper theoretical tools to grammatically understand their own language, language studies should not begin before that age. This position of the pioneering language teacher strikes a strong note of discord with the commonly-held hypothesis that we lose our capacity to learn foreign languages as we grow older, and that childhood is in fact the best time to study other tongues.

The validity of Manesca’s method could certainly be an interesting topic of discussion, but it is fairly clear that many of his ideas are present in modern foreign language courses. Do you recognize any of his method in the way that you have been taught foreign languages?