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.”

The Neuter Maiden: Gender Is Purely Grammatical

As we discussed in a previous blog, some languages have three grammatical genders: masculine, feminine and neuter.

One of the modern languages which most notably uses a three-gender system is German. In their singular form, neuter German nouns are preceded by the definite article das. We have das Festmahl (the banquet), das Auto (the automobile) and das Mädchen (the maiden).

The fact that a banquet and an automobile are neuter may not be particularly troubling, but it would seem that the feminine gender of a maiden should be unquestionable. The truth is – even more so than in German than in the Romance languages – gender is a purely grammatical concept linked to the word and not to its meaning.

The word “maiden” is feminine in each of the principal Romance languages: la señorita in Spanish, la damoiselle in French, la signorina in Italian, a senhorinha in Portuguese and domnișoară in Romanian. Each of these words has a masculine correspondent: el señorito, le damoiseau, il signorino, o senhorinho and domnișor.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word maiden as “an unmarried young girl or young woman,” and notes that it is of archaic usage. To capture the archaic aspect of the word we might have used the translations la doncella in Spanish, la damigella or la donzella in Italian and a donzelain Portuguese, but these words are better off as translations of the English “damsel”, which is perhaps even more archaic than “maiden.” Especially when crossing boundaries between language groups, translations are rarely “perfect”; however the examples we have given will serve to illuminate the differences in the use of gender between German and the Romance languages.

We can use Spanish as an example for all of the Romance languages. In Spanish a man may be indicated by señor, a woman by señora, a young boy or man by señorito and a young girl or woman by señorita. Thus we see how a grammatical root referring to a person (señor-) may be rendered feminine or younger.

In Germanic languages the transition between masculine and feminine is not always so smooth. English is a good example of this phenomenon; “boy” and “girl” are completely different words, as are gentleman and lady, and so on and so forth. It is hard to think of a masculine correspondent of “maiden,” and it is certainly cannot be found by replacing a final -a with a final -o, as is often the case in the Romance languages.

On the other hand, making a word smaller or younger can often be accomplished in the Germanic languages with the addition of a suffix. To make a diminutive in English we often add the suffixes -let or -ling, among other possibilities. German has two standard diminutive endings: –chen and –lein. The word for maiden is formed by adding the first of these to the word die Magd, meaning “the woman” (N.B. In adding the suffix -chen to Magd, an umlaut is added to the vowel. This is typical).

As indicated by the definite article die, Magd is a feminine noun, while its diminutive, das Mädchen, is neuter. This is a standard operation – all diminutives formed with –chen and –lein are neuter, in direct contrast with what happens in the Romance languages, wherein gender is maintained in the forming of a diminutive. Although the use of the neuter gender in German is by no means limited to diminutives, this example should help to clarify the fact that it is a gender with a grammatical meaning linked to the word and not the underlying concept described by the word.

Does thinking of the neuter gender as a purely grammatical construction help in understanding how it works?

Linguistic Gender Crossing

Cross Gender

Last week we discussed the rhetorical figure of chiasmus in detail; however, seeing as the somewhat complicated-sounding term means nothing more than a “crossing” (like the shape of the Greek letter chi), it is often used as well to describe what happens when linguistic genders get crossed.

For those with an interest in language, linguistic gender crossing is every bit as titillating as cross dressing and sex changes. The first type of gender crossing is called chiastic agreement, a special type of agreement between a noun and its qualifiers. A qualifier is any word which specifies characteristics of a noun, such as adjectives, adverbs and possessives. So in the noun phrase “seven new red cars”, new and red are both qualifiers. The number seven, on the other hand, is a quantifier. Agreement between a noun and its qualifiers means that if a noun is feminine and singular, its qualifiers will be feminine and singular as well. So in Spanish we have “siete nuevos coches rojos” but “siete nuevas bicicletas rojas”; coches (car) is masculine and plural, so “new” and “red” are nuevos and rojos, while the feminine bicicletas are accompanied by nuevas and rojas.

Notice that the quantifier – siete – is invariable. Obviously the number seven will always be plural, but, as with all quantifiers in Spanish and most other languages, it has no gender. This is not the case in Arabic, where quantifiers in fact express agreement with the noun which they enumerate; i.e. they will be feminine if the noun is feminine and masculine if it is masculine.

However, the numbers 3 to 10 in Arabic show chiastic agreement, which means that the genders are swapped. So in the Quranic verse في ستة أيام (God created the world in 6 days), the masculine plural noun أيام (days) is qualified by the feminine number ستة (six). If the period had been six years we would have seen six written as ست, which is its masculine version, in chiastic agreement with the feminine word عام (year). All other numbers show normal, homogender agreement.

Although numbers are genderless quantifiers in most other languages, there is one Romance language in which the gender of numerical quantities can be slightly confusing. In Italian, on top of the difficulty of identifying the gender of a noun, one must also learn to recognize those nouns which undergo the equivalent of a sex change when they pass from the singular to the plural.

Two of the words which change gender when pluralized refer to numerical quantities: the masculine singular nouns il centinaio (a group of one hundred) and il migliaio (a group of one thousand) become the feminine plurals le centinaia and le miglia.

Many of the Italian nouns which undergo a similar gender change refer to parts of the body; we have il braccio (the arm, m.) but le braccia (the arms, f.), il ginocchio (the knee, m.) but le ginocchia (the knees, f.), il labbro (the lip, m.) but le labbra (the lips, f.), and l’orecchio (the ear, m.) but le orecchie (the ears, f.). Head, shoulders, knees and toes (testa, spalle, ginocchia e piedi) is all that more difficult to remember in Italian.

All of this probably sounds confusing – nice-looking rules inevitably have exceptions. Remember – grammar, in our own language as well as foreign languages, is a descriptive, not a prescriptive science. To learn to speak Arabic and Italian correctly you not only have to learn your genders; you have to learn when to cross them!