I’ve recently finished Otto Jespersen’s How to Teach a Foreign Language, which I found both informative and entertaining. I was going to post only the parts of the book that I found quotable, but that turned out to be difficult, as I found most of the book to be very quotable. I heartily recommend reading the book itself, but I’ll give just a few quotes related to some of the main points Jespersen makes in his book.
In Chapter I, Jespersen touches on the importance of motivation for language learners and dismisses the idea of forcing students to learn languages that are unrelated to their interests:
If all that we desire or all that we can ever hope to attain in any one language is to receive thoughts, to acquaint ourselves with the works of foreign authors, while we ourselves neither expect nor wish to be able to impart our own thoughts in it, it is always a question if it is not better to use translations than to learn the language itself, especially in the case of the dead languages. A translation is, to be sure, no perfect substitute for the original, but on the other hand one has to know the foreign language pretty well in order to get more out of the original than out of the translation. Then how does the balance stand between the debit-side—the work of learning the language—and the credit-side—the extra profit thus to be got from the authors’ works? It is of course a question which must be decided separately for every individual case, and there are many circumstances which may have to be considered; but most people will not lose anything if they read Tolstoi or Omar Khayyám in English.
The objection may be raised that there are also other reasons for learning foreign languages. A student of comparative philology, for instance, studies languages for their own sake, without caring if they can serve him as a means of learning anything that he did not know before, or that he could learn much more conveniently in some other way; he may often be very much interested in languages which have no literature at all, or which are spoken by peoples with whom he never comes into contact. But this study, which may be compared to the study of other means of communication for their own sake, locomotive-construction, railway signal-service, etc.—only that it is probably much more interesting—is clearly a special study, which has nothing to do with the reasons why people generally learn languages. Although it undoubtedly is an advantage for every educated person to know something about the life of language, yet I think it will suffice for me merely to touch upon the theoretical study of languages here and there in the following pages, so much the more as it is never with this end in view that any language is placed on the school programme.
Neither were Latin and Greek introduced into our schools for the sake of training the pupils in logic, no matter how much it may occasionally be insisted upon that exactly this is their real value. But it is not necessary to waste many words on this matter, especially since all competent classical scholars—also those who insist upon a privileged position for the classical languages in our schools—have long ago given up as unscholarly the idea that the Latin (or Greek) language should be more logical in construction than, for instance, French or English. And there is no doubt much truth in what Robert Browning says: “Learning Greek teaches Greek, and nothing else; certainly not common sense, if that have failed to precede the teaching!” But on the other hand it must not be overlooked that everything which is learned with a sensible end in view, and according to a sensible method, tends in itself more or less directly to develop valuable faculties, and that especially the teaching of languages, in addition to the actual results which it gives through the contents of what one reads in foreign languages, is an excellent means of training such important faculties as—
the faculty of observing (of observing correctly, of observing independently),
the faculty of classifying under different points of view that which has been observed,
the faculty of deducing general laws from the material collected by observation,
the faculty of drawing conclusions and applying them to other cases than the ones hitherto met with,
—all, of course, faculties that are nearly related—also
the ability to read in general, to read intelligently, and with reflection.
In the construction of our method of teaching, especially if it is to be used in schools, we must also take these things into consideration. Any instruction in languages which merely consisted in a parrot-like repetition of the words of the teacher or the book, if indeed such a method is conceivable, would not be in place in our schools, and besides, no one, so far as I know, has ever tried to introduce such a pure parrot-method there. The teacher must make the pupils feel interested in the subject; they must have a vivid conception of the reward that their work will bring them, so that it will seem worth while for them to exert themselves. They must feel that their instruction in languages gives them a key, and that there are plenty of treasures that it will open for them; they must see that the literature to which they have gained access contains numerous works which also have messages for them; and they must, to so great an extent as possible in the course of the instruction in a certain language, also have got an interest in the land and people concerned, so that they themselves will make an effort to extend their knowledge about these things.
The pupils really learn most when they continually have a feeling that it is all something useful and valuable, and that it is not too far elevated above that actual life which they either know or are beginning to get some notion of.
We learn languages, then (our native tongue as well as others), so as to be enabled to get sensible first-hand communications about the thoughts of others, and so as to have for ourselves too (if possible) a means of making others partakers of our own thoughts; and if we consider what kind of communications we may be more likely to get through a foreign language than through our own, the highest purpose in the teaching of languages may perhaps be said to be the access to the best thoughts and institutions of a foreign nation, its literature, culture—in short, the spirit of the nation in the widest sense of the word. But at the same time we must remember that we cannot reach the goal with one bound, and that there are many other things on the way which are also worth taking in. We do not learn our native tongue merely so as to be able to read Shakespeare and Browning, and neither do we learn it for the sake of giving orders to the shoemaker or making out the washerwoman’s bill. So likewise in the case of foreign languages, we ought not exclusively to soar above the earth, nor on the other hand exclusively to grovel on the ground; between those two spheres there are large fields in manifold shades where it might be of great value for us to stand in direct communication with other nations.
(Incidentally, I find the passage about “student[s] of comparative philology” very relatable, as I myself am interested in comparative linguistics and learn languages “for their own sake”.)
In chapter II, Jespersen criticizes the artificial and isolated sentences used in many language textbooks:
We may already from what has been said draw some conclusions as to the method which we ought to use. We ought to learn a language through sensible communications; there must be (and this as far as possible from the very first day) a certain connection in the thoughts communicated in the new language. Disconnected words are but stones for bread; one cannot say anything sensible with mere lists of words. Indeed not even disconnected sentences ought to be used, at all events, not in such a manner and to such an extent as in most books according to the old method. For there is generally just as little connexion between them as there would be in a newspaper if the same line were read all the way across from column to column. I shall take a few specimens at random from a French reader that is much used: “My aunt is my mother’s friend. My dear friend, you are speaking too rapidly. That is a good book. We are too old. This gentleman is quite sad. The boy has drowned many dogs.” When people say that instruction in languages ought to be a kind of mental gymnastics, I do not know if one of the things they have in mind is such sudden and violent leaps from one range of ideas to another.
In another French schoolbook we find: “Nous sommes à Paris, vous êtes à Londres. Louise et Amélie, où êtes-vous? Nous avons trouvé la lettre sur la table. Avez-vous pris le livre? Avons-nous été à Berlin? Amélie, vous êtes triste. Louis, avez-vous vu Philippe? Sommes-nous à Londres?”1
The speakers seem to have a strange sense of locality. First, they say that they themselves are in Paris, but the one (the ones?) that they are speaking with are in London (conversation by telephone?); then they cannot remember if they themselves have been in Berlin; and at last they ask if they themselves are in London. Unfortunately, they get no answer, for the next sentence is, “Pierre, vous avez pris la canne.”2
Or take some of the books which are supposed to help Danes learn English. They are no better. In one (which appeared in 1889) we find: “The joiner has made this chair. What a fine sunshine! For whom do you make this bed? Which of you will have this box? I should like to have it. Of whom have you got this cake? I am very fond of cakes. I have borrowed a great deal of books from a public library.”
I could give you almost any number of that kind of specimens. The ones I have chosen are not even of the very worst type, since there is (some sort of) meaning in each sentence by itself. But what shall we say when, in a German reader, to the question Wo seid ihr?3 we find the answer, Wir sind nicht hier!4 The author of that book also seems to have had a very vivid imagination when it came to the use of pluperfects. “Your book had not been large. Had you been sensible? Your horse had been old.” We ask ourselves in surprise, when did this wonderful horse then cease to be old? But that kind of material information is not given in the book; it stops at the sphinx-like remark: Dein Pferd war alt gewesen.5 Could it really have been that kind of schoolbooks that the Danish writer, Sören Kierkegaard, alluded to when he wrote that language had been given to man, not in order to conceal his thoughts, as Talleyrand asserted, but in order to conceal the fact that he had no thoughts?
Now it must immediately be admitted that there may be a big difference in the schoolbooks made, even according to this single-sentence system. It never seems to have occurred to the authors of some of them that there might be a limit to the amount of rubbish that can be offered children under the pretext of teaching them grammar. Others again try to give sentences which are both sensible and in accordance with a child’s natural range of ideas. With respect to the latter principle, there has been steady progress from the times when the sentences either were moral rules of conduct and philosophical profundities, or selections about Greek heroes, etc. But even in the best modern books the exercises are often strangely disjointed (cf., for instance, this exercise from one of the better books: “My brother had not many lessons yesterday. Where had you been? The weather had been fine for a long time. This boy had only been in our house three or four weeks. Has your uncle had many tulips this year? How long had you had this frock?”), and even if they are not so glaringly nonsensical as some others, yet their very disconnectedness makes them bad enough.
It is really easier to write a long connected piece in a foreign language about something that one is interested in than to construct merely eight disconnected sentences for the illustration of a couple of grammatical rules, and without using other words than those the pupils already have had. As impossible, even if not positively incorrect, I consider such sentences as the following, to which any one can find many parallels:—“Tie. Do not tie. Fetch. Do not fetch…. Give. Do not give.”… Judged as thoughts they are unfinished or half-finished ideas. Judged as language, they are also very problematical. Such questions, as “Do I take?” require the necessary information as to what and when. Such fragments of sentences are never heard in real life.
Jespersen also notes the tendency of language textbooks to teach rare and archaic forms:
Grammatical irregularities, viewed from a pedagogical point of view, fall into two entirely different classes, which are too apt to be treated as if they were co-ordinate. In the first place, all languages contain a number of irregularities which play a most insignificant part both in life and in literature, because they occur so seldom. When the users of the language produce them at long intervals, it is generally with the utmost caution, because they merely have a hazy conception of what the proper form of the expressions ought to be. But they are taken up in the grammars, and as soon as one grammarian has caught sight of one of them, it is carefully copied in all succeeding grammars for the sake of completeness. Foreign grammarians are even more inclined than the natives to pay attention to everything of that kind because they have no instinctive feeling of what is rare and what is common. In some English grammars which are used on the Continent, there may still be found I catched, I digged, I shined, I writ, as the preterite forms of I catch, I dig, I shine, I write; in one, I find given as two different verbs I weet, wit or wot, past tense wot, and I wis, past tense I wist. What a big mistake it is to include such musty and impracticable forms, we can best judge from our own language—but in those French and German grammars which we ourselves write there are things which are just as bad as the above offences in English. When I went to school, I learned the following rule about the plural of travail, “Travail has travails in the plural when it means a report from a minister to the king or from a subordinate official to the minister; likewise when it means a machine to hold unruly horses, while they are being shoed.” This rule is thus criticized by Storm: “Now I must say I have read many hundreds of French books in my day, but so far as I remember, I have never come across travails in modern literature! In the sense of report, it occurs in Mme. de Sévigné. An educated Frenchman, when asked if the word was used with that meaning, answered me that he thought it was no longer used. So one would expect that the word had long ago ceased to have any show in modern grammars, but it seems to be continually creeping in again.”
Jespersen also discusses the importance of having students think directly in the target language rather than merely translating from the mother tongue:
I mean that it is rather the exception than the rule for people who read foreign books to any extent at all to have to translate to themselves in order to understand what they are reading, with the exception, perhaps, of some difficult lines here and there. And even in the difficult places, where they have to resort to their mother-tongue in order to understand the meaning, it is generally only one or two words which have to be looked up, so they generally do not even pause to translate the whole clause in which those words have occurred; still less frequently do they stop merely to untangle some involved sentence construction. When a whole population has to make constant use of two languages, the circumstances are no doubt always the same as among the Wends in Lusatia: “They speak both Wendish and German with equal fluency; yet the common people generally refuse when they are asked to translate something from one language to another: ‘he cannot do it,’ or, as one of my informants expressed himself, ‘he is afraid to.’ He can, however, without difficulty repeat in German a tale which he has heard in Wendish, and vice versâ, and likewise he can give the exact translation of single words.”
In Chapter IX, Jespersen talks about the importance of teaching language in context rather than as a series of isolated grammatical phenomena:
A language only lives, and can only live, in a person’s mind, and that it lives there means that its component parts are for him associated with certain ideas, which are recalled when he hears the words, and which in turn summon up the corresponding words when he wants to express them, or when he simply wants to make them clear for himself. But ideas do not and cannot exist except in combinations; an absolutely isolated thought is the same as nothing. It is the same with words; if they are taken out of their natural surroundings, they suffer atrophy and at last cease to perform the usual function of words, namely to produce ideas. So isolated words, such as are given in rigmaroles and paradigms, are only ghosts or corpses of words. Try to run through the words “jewel, stone, cabbage, knee, owl, toys, louse,” and see if a single complete picture has been produced in your mind—but you are no better off when you say the French rigmarole bijou, caillou, chou, genou, hibou, joujou, pou. That, as well as amo, amas, amat, amamus, amatis, amant and all the others, must by virtue of the fundamental psychical law of the life of language become merely empty jingle and nothing else. Now we see the psychological reason why sensible persons can write such sentences in their books as je mourus6 or the entirely parallel “Wir sind nicht hier.” When the mind is occupied with a word as a grammatical phenomenon, the word’s normal power of calling forth ideas is of course lessened in a considerable degree.
In a school in Copenhagen, the story goes that a certain teacher after having asked about the gender of the French substantive mort and then “Why?” got the answer, “Because it comes from Latin mors, which is feminine”; he was not satisfied with that, however, but made the correction: “No, it is because it is an exception.” When we feel scandalized at this teacher’s stupidity, we ought conscientiously to ask ourselves if many of the answers given to the question “Why?” in grammar teaching are in reality much more valuable than this one; the object in most cases is merely to classify the sentences or words under certain given rubrics and to give their names and the respective rules which have been committed to memory, something which can in large part be done with very little real grammatical understanding of the language in question.
In the same chapter, Jespersen cites a useful exercise in which students try to express the same idea in grammatically different ways:
Dr. Walter, in Frankfurt, has still another way of furthering his pupils’ familiarity with the resources of the foreign language; he dictates some of the sentences from what has been read, and lets the pupils themselves find as many different ways as possible of expressing the same thought. I shall reprint one of the sentences from his book, together with the pupils’ variants (marked with letters); they were written down in the course of 25 minutes: “ohne vorausgegangene besprechung” (in the second year of instruction, with, so far as I know, six hours a week); as will be seen, the variations are rather considerable.
The advantage of the English ships lay not in bulk, but in construction.
a. The English were overwhelming, not by the size of the ships, but their power lay in the construction of the ships.
b. In construction, not in bulk, lay the advantage of the English ships.
c. The English ships were superior to the Spanish not in bulk, but in construction.
d. The advantage of the English fleet (squadron) consisted not in bulk, but in construction.
e. The advantage of the English was the light construction of their ships.
f. The English had not large ships, but they were better constructed.
g. The power of the vessels of the English was not caused by the extent, but by the construction of the ships.
h. The English men-of-war could do very much against the enemy, because they were well constructed, and not too large.
i. The English vessels were not large, but well constructed.
k. The advantage of the English men-of-war did not consist in size, but in construction.
l. The advantage of the English men-of-war was to be found in their construction.
I have myself, in teaching advanced pupils, in a similar way, let them re-write a half a page or so of a historical work. It has always interested them, and the comparison of the results, which often presented the most varied expressions for the same thought, was always very instructive.
In Chapter X, Jespersen discusses phonetics and gives an example of how one might teach some basics of phonetics to a classroom of children, as well as how to correct certain mistakes made by second-language learners:
Look at my nose; do I move it when I speak?—No.—But is it not possible to use it without moving it? Now, see if I use my nose when I say a···· [very long drawn out]. Now, I suddenly hold my nose with two fingers, and press the nostrils together. Does that make the sound different?—No.—But now I say m in the same way m···· and pinch the nostrils together in the same way. Did anything happen?—Yes, there was no sound.—Now you can try it yourselves. First you, George; say a···, and then the boy next to you can suddenly pinch your nose together with two fingers. And then say m···, and let Fred pinch your nose again. Can you say m while your nostrils are closed?—No, at any rate the sound soon disappears. All of you try it; say a· just as long as I do, and pinch the nose together several times with your fingers whenever you see me do it; and now likewise with m. That is because the air has to escape through the nose in order that the sound m may be made. It is the soft palate that you use in order to open the inner entrance to the nose, so that the air can escape through the nostrils. You can feel the palate behind the teeth, there it is hard; but if you pass your fingers farther back, you will soon feel that it becomes soft and flexible. See how it can go up and down in my mouth. Look in the mirror, and see how your own palate is. First try breathing in and out silently, and then say a; then you will see how your soft palate suddenly jumps up; that is because it has to close the entrance to the nose, so that no air can get out that way. But when you say m it remains hanging down, so that the air can come out through the nose, the passage through the mouth being closed by the lips. [At this point, you might make a rough sketch on the blackboard, showing a cross-section through the mouth, with the soft palate in the two positions.] In producing n and ŋ, you have the same position of the soft palate as in the case of m. [Try to pinch the nose together.]
Now we have seen how we use the nose and the mouth when we speak, but are they the only things that are necessary in speaking? [If the pupils cannot think of “voice” of their own accord, the teacher may put them on the track by saying: when someone speaks (or sings) very well, we say that he has a good…]—Voice.—Where is the voice?—In the vocal chords.—And where are they?—In Adam’s apple.—[Here it might be a good thing not to despise the anecdote about the apple which stuck in Adam’s throat.] Now we also call that the larynx. In there, there are two vocal chords stretched parallel to each other, and when they vibrate a tone is produced, and that is what we call voice. It is just as when a string of a violin is brought into vibration and gives forth a tone; or a bell or a wine-glass, which is made to quiver violently. Now do we always use the voice when we speak? You do not know; well, then we can experiment. [Whisper a sentence.] Did I use my voice then?—No.—Now try first to say an a··· quite loudly and forcibly (or sing it), and take firm hold of Adam’s apple with your thumb and forefinger; then you will feel it quiver. Have you never tried to touch a piano with your finger tips while someone was playing on it? Then you will have felt the same kind of delicate, rapid, quivering movements as you feel on touching the larynx while the voice is in activity. In both cases you can feel those movements with your fingers which you hear with your ear as a tone. But now whisper an a··· and feel your larynx; do you feel anything?—No, there are no vibrations.—And try to say s··· [by no means the name of the letter, es, but the hissing sound itself.] Is there voice in that? Do you feel any vibration?—No.—Then s is a voiceless sound, but a is a voiced sound. Now, try m··· [not em!] Is it voiced? and n···? Notice that you can sing the voiced sounds [test several of them], but not the voiceless sounds. That f··· is voiceless, and that v··· (with strong buzzing!) is voiced, is easily discovered. In the same way, we have for every voiceless sound a corresponding voiced sound. Say s···, and now produce the corresponding voiced sound with the buzzing element. They are the sounds we have in so and zoo, seal and zebra. We have also a third corresponding pair ʃ and ʒ; ʃ is the sound in shilling, shall, etc.; ʒ is the sound in measure, pleasure, etc. Then we may write down:
f s ʃ voiceless
v z ʒ voiced.
Now pronounce each sound in chorus as I point to the letter, and continue drawing it out until I take the chalk away from the letter. Thereupon the pupils may be tested singly, the teacher skipping from one sound to the other. Exercises may also be given with the consonants between two vowels: afffa, avvva, asssa, azzza; afa, ava, asa, aza.
Now the pupils have already had a little course in elementary phonetics; it interests them and contains nothing that they cannot understand, and nothing that is not useful for them. Nor does it ever really frighten the children; but the very thought of it has actually frightened a number of older teachers, who apparently live in holy terror of trespassing beyond the lines laid out for them in their childhood, and who unfailingly think that everything new must be just as useless, dry and pedantical as most of what they learned in their own schooldays, so they are not inclined to have the bother of making themselves familiar with anything new. In the Danish original of this book, I reprinted as a curiosity a description of the activity of the organs of speech in the production of speech-sounds, which a boy 14 years old, who had never been told anything about the formation of sounds, had written all by himself, without the least instruction or help of any kind (which can easily be seen, among other things, from the fact that he sticks to and analyzes the names of the letters); it shows that this dreaded phonetical science is not so terribly far beyond the horizon of ordinary children after all.
The children always “follow” the teacher so well in these phonetical exercises that it is rather necessary to put a damper on their eagerness to try to produce the sounds than to spur them on. Or, in other words, the teacher has but to organize their natural impulse to imitate the sounds by saying to them, when they begin to whistle and hum: “You may say the sounds yourselves directly, just wait a moment,” and thereupon, after the explanation has been given, by allowing them ample opportunity to pronounce the sounds, both in chorus and singly. Then, both during recess and at home, they will revel to their hearts’ content in the new sounds, and the whole new and amusing world that has been opened to them.
One of the most unbecoming mistakes which Englishmen make in their pronunciation of foreign languages is their diphthongizing of long vowels, since long vowels, in ordinary English, are pronounced with an upward glide, so that the jaw and the tongue are raised higher in the last part of the vowels in see, two, hay, know, for instance, than in the first part. In vulgar London pronunciation, this English peculiarity is carried further, the beginning of the sound being lowered, at all events in the last two sounds mentioned, so that lace sounds like lice, and pay like pie. But even if the best pronunciation does not go to this extreme, yet the glide is there, and this glide is for the native Frenchman or German one of the most striking faults in the Englishman’s pronunciation of the respective languages, so the Englishman had best be on his guard in this particular. If the teacher, after a little theoretical explanation, says the English [ei] and the German [e] alternately a number of times, even the dullest pupils cannot help but get their ears trained to detect this difference, but long and patient training is certainly necessary, both with the class in chorus and with the pupils singly, before this deeply rooted tendency to diphthongize can be checked.
Max Müller once said that the English orthography is a national misfortune, and Viëtor has improved upon this observation by declaring that it is an international misfortune, since it is not only Englishmen but also all educated persons in other lands who have to be bothered with it.
Finally, Jespersen ends by criticizing the way in which examinations encourage short-term memorization rather than true learning, and by summarizing his view of what language instruction should entail:
The worst canker in our school-system is the examinations. Everything is arranged with a view to examinations; the parents, the children, and unfortunately also a number of the teachers care for nothing but the results attained in the examinations; the daily instruction is left to shift for itself, but the authorities will take ample care to guard against the least bit of negligence which might be shown by the examiners.
Examinations compel the teachers to lay undue stress on cramming. “Cram may be defined as the accumulation of undigested facts and second-hand theories to be reproduced on paper, handed in to the examiner, and then forgotten for ever. A crammed examinee differs from a crammed Strasburg goose in not assimilating his nutriment, and this would be a real advantage were it not that the process leaves him with a nauseated appetite, enfeebled reasoning powers, though abnormally enlarged memory, and a general distaste for disinterested study.”
Examinations cause the mental and physical ruin of many more young men than we can afford. As a test of what a young man is worth in life, an examination is without any value whatever; as a test of how much really valuable knowledge he has, it is not worth much; and even as a test of how much he knows of what happens to be asked him on such an occasion, an examination is not nearly as reliable as people like to imagine. And then examinations tend in so many ways to impede instruction which would otherwise be really profitable. The question “will that be required for the examination?” is always, either consciously or unconsciously, present in the schoolroom; it smothers the teacher’s enthusiasm for communicating to his pupils what interests himself most; and it discourages the pupils’ natural thirst for knowledge for its own sake. Just before the examinations, the whole school is seized with its yearly attack of its chronic examination-catarrh. In all departments, it is considered necessary to recapitulate for examinations; for a couple of months, the pupils are transformed into mental ruminants; they receive no new mental sustenance whatever, but have to be satisfied with going through the whole year’s work once or twice more at as rapid a pace as possible. The matter which they have been given does not become more savoury on being served again; all the juice and strength, all that makes it tempting is lost, and nothing remains but what is toughest and dryest.
Where the pupils formerly had to commit to memory paradigms, rigmaroles and rules, which all had to be taken on faith, we let them investigate for themselves and thus get an insight into the construction of the language. And whereas formerly the only exercises were translation from the mother tongue into the foreign language, we now have a whole scale of varying exercises, namely: direct reproduction (repetition of the teacher’s words; answers to questions which are based directly upon the words of the book)—modified reproduction (repetition of sentences with changes of tense, person, etc.; answers to freer questions; asking of questions)—free reproduction (renarration) and finally—free production (letters, etc.). And since there is a sensible meaning in all that is read or said or done, the interest is awakened and held, and the instruction becomes not only varied, but what especially beseems living languages, it becomes in the deepest and best sense of the word really living.
The following footnotes are my own.
1. We are in Paris. You are in London. Louise and Amélie, where are you? We found the letter on the table. Did you take the book? Have we been to Berlin? Amélie, you’re sad. Louis, have you seen Phillip? Are we in London?
2. Pierre, you have taken the cane.
3. Where are you?
4. We are not here!
5. Your horse had become old.
6. I died. [Interestingly, this sentence is now very frequently used in modern-day colloquial English to mean roughly “I died of laughing.”]