Let Go of the Training Wheels

Kids Bike With Training Wheels Closeup

A couple of weekends ago, driven by an urge to turn lemons into lemonade and at least enjoy all of this snow that New England is being smothered in, we headed up out of Boston and set our sights on the winter wonderland par excellence Vermont.

Upon our arrival in Burlington, we walked down the hill to where the city meets Lake Champlain and set out for a jaunt along the lakefront bikepath. There were a fair number of people out and we had the pleasure of one particularly interesting encounter.

Stopping at a certain point to sit on a bench and enjoy the view of the lake and the Adirondack Mountains on its far side, we ended up engaging in a bit of chit chat with our neighbors. It turns out the amiable couple coddling a tiny infant swaddled in layers of the finest Vermont winter outerwear were proud new grandparents taking their cheerful first grandson on a tour of his hometown. The bikepath, they said, would surely become a favorite place of his; he would probably be taking a bike up and down it “in just a couple of years.”

Looking around at the piles of white stuff and laughing, I asked them if they thought their grandson – who I estimated was hovering somewhere around the quarter-year mark – would need to put chains on his training wheels to accomplish such a feat.

Joking aside, I quickly learned that these grandparents had about as much intention to outfit their grandson’s toddler bike with training wheels as they did with chains. I was assured that by about two and a half years old any child can learn how to ride a bicycle. These two knew – they’d had six kids and plenty of opportunities to optimize the learning curve. Their first child had used training wheels and hadn’t learned to ride a bike until age 6, while the youngest children had starting plummeting down the incline in their yard before they had reached the age of 3.The trick? Never use training wheels.

Training wheels, they explained to me, give the child a false sense of balance, while all he or she really needs is to acquire an idea of how to pedal using a tricycle before being let loose on a two-wheeler. What results from this advice is a seeming paradox. Training wheels – which are supposed to help a child learn how to acquire balance and security – actually impede her from doing so.

Later on, back in the B&B, I was struck by a sudden parallel between riding a bicycle and learning to speak a language. In order to learn quickly and properly you must let go of your security devices – your metaphorical “training wheels.”

The “training wheels” for a language learner are his or her mother tongue. Especially when we are at the beginning of learning a new language, the possibility of failing to communicate and therefore falling off of the bike are rather high. At this point our mother tongue comes to the rescue, says what we were unable to say in the new language, and saves us the embarrassment of “falling.”

In certain situations – for example if you wind up in the emergency room during a trip to Guatemala and urgently need to explain to the hospital personnel what has befallen you – communication in any language whatsoever is all-important. However, when we are studying, our goal should be the acquisition of a sense of “balance” in our new language – that minimal sense of security which allows us to move forward autonomously. This balance can only be acquired if we attempt to rely exclusively on the new language.

It is easy to forget much of we have learned in a foreign language, and in fact it is common to hear, “I studied French for 4 years in high school and don’t remember a word of it!” or “It’s been years since I’ve spoken German and I’ve forgotten everything.” In reality, what we forget are usually superficial elements like vocabulary; if we learn to acquire a knowledge of the elusive inner working of a language – of its fundamental mechanism, which works differently from the way our own language does – this is a lesson we will never forget.

If one lets go of the fear of failure and tries to acquire balance and self-security, speaking a new language really does become like riding a bicycle – once you learn how you never forget.


Albert Brisbane – From Batavia to France and Beyond

Sorbonne Or University Of Paris In Paris, France.

The Sorbonne, more formally known as the University of Paris


Last week, in showing how language teacher Jean Manesca‘s method was likely plagiarized by Heinrich Ollendorf we used direct testimony from Albert Brisbane, who was a student of both teachers and provided Ollendorf with Manesca’s course notes. Beyond his innocent and yet fundamental role in the Ollendorf-Manesca story, Brisbane is of interest to us for another reason: he is an example of just how far meticulous and motivated study of foreign languages can take you.

Albert Brisbane was born in 1809 in Batavia, New York – a small town smack in the middle of Genessee Country in the far western reaches of Upstate New York which at the time was essentially a frontier town; in fact Batavia now bears the nickname 1802 Birthplace of Western New York. At the age of 15, Albert’s father sent him to New York City to study. The meeting with French teacher Jean Manesca was fateful, and at the age of 18 Brisbane set sail for France armed with a solid knowledge of the French language and an enthusiastic curiosity about the Enlightenment culture which had pervaded the teachings of his French instructor.

Upon arriving in Paris Brisbane made a beeline for one of the most prominent institutions of learning in the world at the time – the Sorbonne, more formally known as the University of Paris. From rural Batavia by way of bustling New York, Brisbane had finally arrived at what most have seemed to him the center of the intellectual world. However before long he began to realize that the lessons of the teacher who most interested him at the Sorbonne – Victor Cousin – were nothing more than a translation of German philosophical thought. Kant, Jacobi, Schelling and Hegel were all to be found to the east of the Rhine.

And thus, as the land of his intellectual interest shifted eastward, so did Brisbane’s linguistic curiosities. The meeting with German teacher Heinrich Ollendorf was pursuant to the discovery of German philosophers and it served its purpose – after only a year in Paris Brisbane left for Berlin. However the magic of Germany lasted about as long as had that of France, and in October 1930 Brisbane left on a grand tour which would take him first to Vienna and then as far as Turkey and Greece before eventually bringing him back to Paris.

It was upon his return to Paris that the exemplary student met his final teacher. After having travelled all across Europe, delved into French and German philosophy and hobnobbed with the most avant-garde intellectuals on the continent, Brisbane decided that the way of the future was to be found in a French philosopher. Charles Fourier was one of the earliest socialists and in particular is associated with “utopian socialism,” a branch of early socialism which imagined the creation of future utopian societies based on positivist ideals. We are told that Brisbane paid Fourier five francs an hour to teach him his system – and just as it had with Manesca and Ollendorf, the investment paid off.

Albert Brisbane returned to Batavia after two more years in Paris, and in 1840 he published Social Destiny of Man, a text which essentially translated Fourier’s ideas across linguistic and national boundaries. The book brought Brisbane great prestige, and he quickly built Fourierism into a national movement with branches all across the United States, including in the Federal Government. By 1844 10 Fourierist “Phalanxes” (utopian communities) had been established across the United States and others were in the works.

At the head of a national movement, Albert Brisbane could at this point look back and be happy with the results of his education. His French and German lessons had allowed him to absorb the highest level of European intellectual thought and had paved the way for the series of lessons in philosophy which would become the foundation of an important career. The story of Brisbane’s career up until 1844 is a tale of the utility of foreign languages.

However, at the height of his career, Brisbane left the United States to spend 8 months in France. In his absence the Fourierist movement – which had been at the peak of its inertia – collapsed and would never again recover.

Historian Carl Guarnieri sees in Brisbane’s escape to France at this crucial moment a “lifelong inability to cope with power and responsibility.” However, Brisbane split the rest of his life between France and the United States, and so we might surmise that despite any career disappointments, Brisbane continued to look back gratefully on those French lessons he had received from Jean Manesca as an eager, wide-eyed teenager freshly arrived from Upstate New York.

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.