Jean Manesca – The First Modern Foreign Language Teacher

An Oral System of Teaching Living Languages  Illustrated by a Practical ...   Jean Manesca   Google Books

The modern art of teaching foreign languages was first given form in “An Oral System of Teaching Living Languages Illustrated by a Practical Course of Lessons in the French through the Medium of the English” (free e-book), published in 1835 by language teacher Jean Manesca.

The lessons which make up the 500 plus pages of the tome are distilled from Manesca’s experience as a French language teacher in the U.S., but far from being just an assortment of empirically-created lesson plans, they present a systematic approach which, based on Enlightenment-era emulation of nature, founded a “modern” method of teaching languages.

In the preface to the work, Manesca presents his pedagogical philosophy: “Now, if there were a process through which the acquisition of a foreign language can be rendered easy, safe, and certain, it must be the process which nature follows in teaching us our mother tongue; for it cannot be doubted that she adopts the best means to attain her ends.” For this reason he refuses methods which: 1.) teach by abstract rules, 2.) teach by whole phrases readily made and 3.) propose a series of words to be learned by rote, as a provision for future use.

Manesca argues that nature relies on wants to engender learning. “Man’s wants are the spring which produces, modifies, and directs the current of his intellectual existence; insomuch that the expression of these wants is the first, and the most constant, and the last task to which all his faculties are bent.” He notes how children learn elements of language, one bit at a time, in a process of substitution of elements of pantomimic language which, as they grow older, become inadequate as expressions of their increasing and increasingly-complex wants. As linguistic elements take the place of pantomimic elements, the latter become obsolete.

Manesca’s concrete creation of “an artificial system which should imitate, as nearly as practicable, nature’s mode of imparting language to children,” along with the repercussions that his seminal work had on the world of foreign language teaching, will be subjects for future blogs. The philosophy which he puts forth is at the base of a great deal of modern pedagogy.

For today, just a note on the importance which Manesca puts on the art of teaching foreign languages. It appears that the author received extensive criticism on the length and complexity of his coursebook. He responds firstly by saying that, “if the art of teaching were better understood and appreciated by the public at large, the…objections would have no weight,” and continues by railing against quick fixes as nothing more than commercial endeavours:

“It is a great error to imagine that the elements of human knowledge should be presented to the mind in a restricted and concise view; on the contrary, they ought to be elucidated and disseminated over a wide surface, that no confusion should ensue, that the perceptive powers should have full scope to distinguish every one distinctly, and become familiar with it. All those lean and puny productions which inundate public schools, under the specious title of elements, may be admirably adapted for sale; but they most certainly are mischievous instruments of instruction. Synoptical books may be useful for those who know – for the ignorant they are worse than useless. People who are surprised that a volume as large as this is necessary to display the elements of a living language, have never reflected upon the nature, constitution, and amplitude of the human tongue.”

Moreover, Manesca promises that the work is all on the teacher; speaking to the teachers who will use the book, he says, “I beseech you never to forget, for one instant, that so far as teaching is concerned, this book is not written for your pupils, but that it is exclusively intended for yourselves; insomuch that during the few moments it is to be left in their hands, the first condition to which they must subscribe and most strictly adhere, is that they shall make no use of it besides that which is pointed out for them, in the sequel of this work.”

One thing is certain – teaching is a difficult and meticulous profession, but it also brings great joy to those who practice it. As Manesca says, “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: teaching should be a pleasure, and when both the instructor and the pupil are willing and desirous of success, the method by which they are guided ought to insure their success.”


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