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.


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