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?


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