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.


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?

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.”