Paradigm, No. 14 (September, 1994)


Practical skills or mental training? The historical dilemma of foreign language methodology in nineteenth and twentieth century Germany

Konrad Macht

Universität Augsburg,
Universitätsstr 10,
D-86135 Augsburg,


The nationalist reaction against Napoleon, and the cultural trend towards an idealistic view of human life as set out by Kant and followed up by Fichte, Schelling and Hegel, combined to motivate a new approach to education in Germany at the end of the 18th century. The guidelines for the reform of the Gymnasium in Prussia were laid down from 1809 onward by Wilhelm von Humboldt, Prussian Minister for Cultural Affairs, following a strictly Neo-Humanistic pattern. Young people in Gymnasium (and other school types followed suit very soon) were to be trained to develop their mental powers, their aesthetic awareness and their ethical attitudes in accordance with the great ideals of ancient Greece and Rome. The classical languages were to be given back their central place in education. Modern languages were considered to be of inferior value for the forming of human character, and could remain in the school curriculum only if it could be made clear that they too made a contribution to the mental training of the pupils. Every thought of promoting practical skills that might be of immediate use in everyday life had to be discarded. The sole aim of language teaching was to be the improvement of the mind.

This idealistic, Neo-Humanistic view of education proved to be so powerful that it formed the prevailing framework for scholastic work throughout the 19th and most of the 20th century in Germany. It also determined the mainstream of foreign language methodology. All efforts at ‘reform’ -- and there were many -- must be interpreted as attempts to query the fundamental idealistic, Neo-Humanistic current in language teaching. It is not until the 1960s that a general rethinking of educational goals, with a bias towards realistic qualifications for life, took place. Even so, the dilemma between an idealistic and a practical orientation still remains as an element of tension in German secondary schools, and even within the minds of individual teachers.

The first manual for French in accordance with the Neo-Humanistic trend was published by Johann Valentin Meidinger as early as 1783. Despite a very lively controversy, spiced with personal invective by his rival Simon Debonale, Meidinger’s manual spread throughout Germany at a surprising rate. Ten years later, Johann Christian Fick published the first English manual modelled on Meidinger’s methodology, Praktische Englische Sprachlehre für Deutsche beyderley Geschlechts (Graz, 1793). Despite its title, there was nothing practical about the book. It followed a purely grammar-based approach, presenting in each lesson first a detailed set of rules on a particular grammar item (e.g., the pronouns) followed by portions of sentences to be translated into the target language and by a list of word-equations. Apart from some short anecdotes and poems in the appendix to the book, the learners never read a single sentence in the foreign language; they had to make up the target language synthetically from the rules and word-lists of the book. In that way, the pupils exercised their memories, learnt to make grammatical distinctions in accordance with Latin grammar, and to handle the various elements of language in the translation tasks. Language learning was used as a means to train the intellectual faculties of the pupils. Whatever practical skill might be acquired in the process was a mere by-product.

Meidinger’s methodology remained the fashion for many decades. It brought forth manuals by George Crabb, Neue practische englische Grammatik (Frankfurt, 1803); D. P. Lichtenthal, Kurzgefasste englische Sprachlehre (Wien, 1812); H. E. Lloyd, Theoretisch-praktische englische Sprachlehre (Hamburg, 1816); T. S. Williams, Theoretisch-practische englische Schul-Grammatik (Hamburg/London, 1836), and many more.

A remarkable modification of Meidinger’s simple grammatical pattern was effected by Franz Ahn’s Praktischer Lehrgang zur schnellen und leichten Erlernung der französischen Sprache (Köln, 1834). His book was a stupendous success: in fifty years it was re-edited and reprinted 207 times. Only in 1856 was Ahn’s corresponding English manual published: Praktischer Lehrgang zur schnellen und leichten Erlernung der englischen Sprache (Köln, 1856). Ahn’s innovation consisted mainly in the fact that in the first volume of the manual he replaced Meidinger’s elaborate grammatical rules by lists of model sentences intended to illustrate the grammatical items that were to be practised. The model sentences were then followed by sentences in the mother tongue as practice material. Ahn does not furnish the learner with the explicit rules of grammar until the second part of the volume. Ahn’s manuals of French and English have served many generations of pupils in their efforts to learn modern languages. The memories attached to them seem to be mainly unpleasant, probably due to the drudgery of having to learn by heart large numbers of totally unconnected model sentences void of any real meaning, e.g.,

You always interrupt me when I am speaking. You were coming from the tailor’s as I was going to the shoemaker’s. Your nephew is always smoking when we call to see him. While the house was burning, the people were running to fetch water and could not get any. 1

Some of the numerous imitators of Ahn’s methodology were: James Aubry, Elementarbuch zur Erlernung der englischen Sprache (Hamburg, 1836); Gerhard van den Berg, Praktischer Lehrgang zur schnellen und leichten Erlernung der englischen Sprache (Hamburg, 1847); F. H. Hedley, Praktischer Lehrgang zur schnellen, leichten und gründlichen Erlernung der englischen Sprache (Wien, 1847); Karl Gräser, Praktischer Lehrgang zur schnellen und leichten Erlernung der englischen Sprache (Leipzig, 1856); Robert Westley Erster Unterricht im Englischen (Leipzig, 1859), and so on.

A further variant was introduced by Ahn’s rival J. Fölsing in his Lehrbuch der englischen Sprache (Berlin, 1840). Fölsing insisted on beginning each lesson with a very detailed account of the rules pertaining to a particular grammar item, as Meidinger had done, and then going on to a set of target language model sentences, as Ahn had advocated. The result was a kind of compromise between the two methods, ensuring both deductive grammar learning and the memorising of model sentences, before going on to translation exercises. This form of the grammar-translation method became very popular among the authors of English manuals in the second half of the 19th century.

Beside Fölsing’s, the two most influential English manuals in the second half of the 19th century in Germany were those by J. W. Zimmermann, Lehrbuch der englischen Sprache (Halle, 1850) and by E. W. Gesenius, Lehrbuch für den ersten Unterricht in der englischen Sprache (Halle, 1864). But a large number of other manuals also stood their ground, for example: Bernhard Schmitz, Englisches Elementarbuch (Berlin, 1850); Thomas Gaspey, Englische Conversations-Grammatik (Heidelberg, 1851); Wilhelm Peipers, Neue Methode zur schnellen und leichten Erlernung der englischen Sprache (Düsseldorf, 1854); John L. Appleton, A new and practical method of learning to read, write and speak the English language in a short time (Stuttgart, 1858); Carl Crüger, Lehrbuch der englischen Sprache (Kiel, 1861); Hermann Mensch, Lehrbuch der englischen Sprache (Berlin, 1863); Hermann Behn-Eschenburg, Elementarbuch der englischen Sprache (Zürich, 1870); R. Clairbrook, Die Kunst, die englische Sprache in kürzester Zeit und in bezug auf Verständnib , Conversation und Schriftsprache durch Selbststudium sich anzueignen (Leipzig, 1876); Heinrich Traut, Englisches Elementarbuch (Leipzig, 1878); Edward Collins, Lehrbuch der englischen Sprache für den Schul- und Privatunterricht (Stuttgart, 1881), and so on.

Beyond the collection of random model sentences with a grammatical core, the need was gradually felt to present the learners with some connected texts. So some manuals began to replace the list of model sentences by passages of a longer narrative. Sometimes a collection of short texts and poems was appended to the books as memorising material, but more often the authors of the manuals published separate anthologies of text-extracts, without stating precisely what ought to be done with them. In addition to a volume with reading passages, many authors also compiled a separate grammar book to be used alongside their manuals. Learning materials for modern languages began to proliferate into complex systems, comprising one or two students’ books, a grammar book, and a text book.

No doubt, the teaching of modern languages in higher education in 19th-century Germany followed the pattern of the teaching of the classical languages and adopted its ideological orientation. But within that mainstream of language methodology -- and working against it -- we can make out a number of interesting alternative approaches, most of them based outside the scholastic context.

Adults, who for some reason or other did not want to submit to the wearisome work of learning grammar rules and translating from one language to another, could try a more direct method that had a venerable tradition: the memorising of ready-made conversation. Collections of French model dialogues taken from various fields of everyday intercourse were readily available, most of them imitations of Madame de Genlis’s Manuel du Voyageur. For learners of English, Johann Martin Minner followed this trend in his Englisch-Deutsche Gespräche für das gesellschaftliche Leben (Frankfurt am Main, 1813). The book is meant to be a guide for polite conversation:

Let me have some coffee, my dear husband.

Louisa, where have you the white rolls?

Oh pardon me, Madam, they are still without, I had forgot them. I am going for them. Here they are, My lady.

How fine they are!

God be thanked, bread is not dear.

Why, nothing is dear now, my child. We enjoy the happiest times.

Drink, pray, my love, it grows late and we have half a mile to make.

I am afraid we shall be warm.

One of the most successful phrase-books was T. S. Williams’s Modern English and German Dialogues and elementary phrases adapted to the use of learners in both languages (Hamburg/London, 1826). The first volume attempts a gradual linguistic introduction through lists of shorter phrases, such as:

Phrases of two or three words (barley bread, swan’s quill, new bricks, a hackney coach, take your umbrella, etc.)

Phrases of three and four words (a noble sunflower, gather me a sprig of jessamine, I should like some raspberry vinegar, etc.)

Irregular verbs (They awoke at half past five this morning. He bade fair, to become a good scholar.)

Prepositions and adverbs (I paid him a guinea over and above, what I owed him. He was above three years absent from home.)

Williams’s dialogues also were centred on polite society:

Have you heard the news? Mr. O. was married last week.

Indeed! Who to?

To Miss G., a French lady, highly accomplished and beautiful; they arrived a few days ago.

Then of course she speaks English fluently?

As well, I have heard, as her native language.

Has she any fortune?

I don’t know exactly, but he is rich and therefore it is of little consequence.

Among the great number of conversation guides along these lines only a few can be mentioned here: J. Bidoulac, Deutsche, französische, dänische und englische Gespräche (Flensburg, 1815); J. G. Chr. Fick, English Dialogues upon the most Common Subjects of the Life (Erlangen, 1813); Konrad Lüdger, Gespräche über die gewöhnlichsten Vorfälle im Leben, Englisch und Teutsch (Leipzig, 1823); J. P. Carry, The elements of English conversation, intended for the use of the French and Germans (Presclen, 1827); J. S. S. Rothwell, Neue englische und deutsche Gespräche (München, 1849); Samuel D. Waddy, The English Echo. A practical guide to the conversation and customs of every-day life in Great-Britain (Leipzig, 1857).

The demand for English phrase-books and conversation guides increased substantially after 1830, due to emigration to America. Between 1830 and 1860, about three million people, mainly from Ireland and Germany, were shipped to the USA. Most of them belonged to the poorer sections of society, peasants or craftsmen. As a rule, their education had not included any grammatical studies, and so they had no basis for learning English in the fashionable academic way. Their only chance was to learn as many everyday phrases as possible. A great number of collections of such phrases were published to cater to the needs of those emigrants. The most popular of them was no doubt Ludwig Albert’s Der Englisch-Amerikanische Dollmetscher. Anleitung, die englische Sprache in kurzer Zeit ohne Lehrer zu lernen (Leipzig, 1848). In order to be of practical use, the learners had to be given not only lists of phrases, but also an approximate indication of how to pronounce them. The most important grammatical paradigms were also included in the book, so that a certain amount of language analysis by the learner would be possible. The topics around which the sentences and phrases were arranged were adapted to the needs of the prospective emigrants; meeting people, weather conditions, meals, travelling, negotiations with tradesmen, and so on. As an additional practical help, the book contained -- in the learners’ mother tongue -- notes on how to book a passage, on things to do on arrival and on living conditions in certain areas of the USA. Similar guides for the use of emigrants were, Johann Franz Arnold, Neuer deutsch-englischer Dollmetscher (Heilbronn, 1830); A. F. Grün, Der kleine Engländer (Hanau, 1841); August Albrecht, Englischer Dollmetscher. Ein Hilfsbuch für Auswanderer nach Amerika und Australien (Leipzig, 1849); M. Selig, Voyage to America (Berlin, 1852).

Towards the end of the 19th century, several separate but concurrent attempts were made to associate language learning more closely with the environmental experience of the learners. One of the best known of these new methodological approaches is associated with the name of Maximilian Delphinius Berlitz, who founded his first ‘Berlitz School’ in Providence, USA, in 1878. The method adopted in this institute for adult language learning was so different from the method prevailing in schools that it caused an uproar. Within a short time Berlitz Schools were founded everywhere in the world, and the teaching manual Berlitz method for teaching modern languages: English part (New York/Berlin, 1888) was sold in large numbers (241st reprint in 1936).

The distinctive feature of Volume one of the Berlitz manual was the ‘object teaching’, consisting in object-related conversations between the teacher and his or her students:

A ruler. What is this? A ruler. The yellow ruler is long. The black ruler is short. Is the yellow ruler long? Yes, it is long. Is the grey ruler long? No, it is not long, it is short. Is the long pencil black? Yes, it is. What colour is the short pencil? It is red.

In the later lessons, especially in Volume two, the teacher-student conversation shifts to everyday topics, and even to literary texts, but still the teaching objective remains the practical use of the new language between teacher and learners. No wonder that the adherents of the Neo-humanistic grammar-translation method were shocked at this lack of mental training and nicknamed the result of Berlitz’s teaching mere ‘waiter’s English’.

Starting from a completely different basis, François Gouin had come to recommend a similar methodological procedure in his book L’art d’enseigner et d’étudier les langues (1880). Gouin’s main tenet is the ‘language series’, a number of sentences that describe the details of a complex action such as ‘drawing water from the well’. The learner has to associate each component of the action with its linguistic expression, either by actually performing the action or by visualising it intensely while speaking.

Gouin’s ideas were widely discussed, but only one teaching manual for schools tried to put them into practice, Gustav Höft’s Englische Serien (Hamburg, 1899). Grammatical instruction is reduced to a minimum in this book. What matters most is the presentation of the details of a complex activity:

The little boy dresses himself

Mental picture: A bed-room; a chair before the bed; the boy’s things on it; a night-stand.

First the boy puts on his stockings.

Then he puts on his trousers.

He holds his trousers open before him,

he puts his legs through the legs of the trousers,

and he arranges the trousers properly.

Then he takes off his night-shirt,

and he washes himself.

He puts on his day-shirt, and he combs his hair,

using a comb and a brush.

Since Johann Amos Comenius’s (Komensky) Orbis sensualium pictus of 1658, the tradition of teaching a foreign language with the help of pictures had been kept alive. But it was not until 1872 that the Lehmann brothers published a teaching manual for English based on the visual principle, Lehrund Lesebuch der englischen Sprache nach der Anschauungs-Methode mit Bildern (Mannheim/Straßburg, 1872). The first volume of the manual contains descriptions of the objects surrounding the learners; in this respect the book is very similar to Berlitz’s system, so much so that it is more than likely that Berlitz’s method was largely inspired by a similar book by Gottlieb Heness, Der Leilfaden für den Unterricht in der Deutschen Sprache (New York, 1872). In volume two the Lehmann brothers chose eight pictures (winter, a winter evening, spring, summer -- twice -- autumn, war, man) and arranged texts and teacher-student conversations around them:

In the Fields. Look here! What does this little picture or engraving represent?

Oh, that is easy to be told. We are in a corn-field. It is the time of hunting. I see two men, a gentleman who holds a gun, musket or rifle in his hand; his right hand is on the trigger of the lock, his left hand holds the barrel. This gun is charged, or loaded with lead and ball. Behind him is his boy or servant who has no rifle, but wears a strap across his breast perhaps with the wallet of his master, where are some provisions.

Following the descriptions of the pictures, teacher and students were supposed to enter into a conversation about them. In fact it usually turned out to be a series of questions about some details of the picture that the students had to answer.

Other English manuals following the visual approach were: Sophie Hamburger, English Lessons. With Ed. Hölzel’s Pictures (St. Gallen, 1898) and E. Towers-Clark, Lessons in English Conversation after Hölzel’s Pictures (Piessen, 1893). Apart from these manuals, the impact of the visual approach on language teaching in schools was so strong that many teachers used sets of pictures alongside their conventional grammar-translation books. The most popular collections of these wall charts were:

Hölzel’s Wandbilder für den Anschautings- und Sprachunterricht: Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter, Town, Forest, Mountains, Farm (Vienna, about 1860).

Wilkes Bildertafeln für den Anschauungsunterricht: Living-room, Kitchen, Garden, Farmyard, Granary, Stables, Village, Harvest in the fields, Harvest of fruit, Forest, River and Meadow, Winter, Mine and Quarry, Traffic, Market, Building Site (Berlin, 1839).

Straßburger Bilder für den Anschauungsunterricht: Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter (Straßburg, about 1860).

In the year 1882, Wilhelm Viëtor, a Professor of Phonetics in Hamburg, published a much-discussed pamphlet with the title Der Sprachunterricht muß umkehren [Language teaching needs to be given a new direction]. We have grown accustomed to considering this booklet as the signal and starting point of the ‘reform of modern language teaching’ in Germany. Of course, Viëtor was only the spokesman for a widespread feeling of dissatisfaction among teachers of French and English. None of the ideas brought forward in his pamphlet were really new. And yet his public denunciation of the stifling atmosphere in foreign language classrooms had very strong repercussions.

Viëtor’s main methodological recommendation was a change from a synthetic to an analytic principle of language learning. Instead of giving the learners rules of grammar, and having them construct their own target-language sentences in translation, Viëtor reversed the process, as Hamilton, Jacotot and others had done at the beginning of the 19th century: students were given target-language texts, which they would have to learn to understand and to enunciate. The texts would be analysed by the students in the course of the lessons, thus allowing them to gain insight into the mechanism of pronunciation, the use of words, and the morphological and syntactic regularities of English.

It has been argued that Viëtor’s reform was aimed at overthrowing the then-bias in favour of an idealistic, neo-humanistic educational ideology. No doubt, the fact that students had to recite whole passages by heart, and had to give (mostly pre-formed) answers to questions on the texts, meant that the spoken language gained ground against the written language. But there is no evidence to show that the reformers at the turn of the century really meant to place practical language skills at the centre of their teaching. Language learning clearly retained its general aim of improving the students’ mental faculties. What was intended was not a revolution but a reform, that is, keeping to the general direction but shifting the stress given to certain aspects of teaching. Switching over from a deductive to an inductive way of mediating grammar, for instance, does not necessarily mean acknowledging the right of students to acquire practical language skills.

Although adopted by only a relatively small number of teachers, the reading method (sometimes vaguely labelled the ‘reform method’ or still more vaguely the ‘direct method’) made a strong impact on teaching methods in the 20th century, and not only in Germany. In order to avoid confusion, however, it is necessary to stress the fact that teachers who used the reading method in the wake of Viëtor were not only concerned with ‘a reading knowledge of the language’, but were using the texts as a basis for analytical language teaching in pronunciation, vocabulary, grammar and composition. The materials for this kind of work were published in the years following Viëtor’s pamphlet. The first and one of the most influential was Henry Sweet’s Elementarbuch des gesprochenen Englisch. 2 After a thorough introduction to English phonetics and a short survey of the grammar of the spoken language, the larger portion of Sweet’s manual is taken up by reading passages in phonetic script (Sweet’s own system, similar to but not identical with IPA script).

Predictably, it was Viëtor’s own manual that set the standards for his version of the reading method. Wilhelm Viëtor and Franz Dörr’s Englisches Lesebuch Unterstufe (Leipzig, 1887) contains nothing but text passages (poetry and prose), most of them taken from children’s books. Viëtor and Dörr recommend that students be given this material alone, but they accept that some teachers might want to use a separate grammar book as well. Because of its exclusive concentration on reading passages Viëtor and Dörr’s manual was much copied by other authors, but seldom used in schools. Commercially, it was supplanted by Emil Hausknecht’s The English Student (Berlin, 1894), a substantial book containing a great variety of texts (dialogues, letters, narratives, essays and compositions, prayers, poems). Hausknecht’s manual made Viëtor’s methodology more explicit to the user: following the text passages, the student was given ‘grammar lessons’, that is, phrases of grammatical interest were taken from the text and enriched with references to their occurrence in previous texts. In this way, grammatically relevant phenomena were pointed out, but not explained or put in rules. The learners were then given various tasks connected with this survey and with the preceding text:

Grammatical tasks (‘Collect all sentences in which adjectives or adverbs occur in the comparative or superlative form’. ‘Conjugate: I am about to go out to Australia’).

Dictation (often with missing words that had to be supplied by the student himself).

Conversation (‘Where is Bob’s father? In Australia. Where are you? In Germany. At what place in Germany?’).

Further manuals adopting a strict reading approach were Julius Bierbaum, Lehr- und Lesebuch der englischen Sprache nach der analytisch-direkten Methode (Leipzig, 1892), Hermann Fehse, Lehrbuch der englischen Sprache nach der direkten Methode (Leipzig, 1894) and Wilhelm Swoboda, Englische Leselehre nach neuer Methode (Wien, 1889). None was very successful.

A purely inductive procedure was considered difficult, not only for students, but also for teachers, who would need to have the ability to analyse language spontaneously. Most modern language teachers felt they could not meet that mark. So efforts were made to strike a compromise between the new analytical and the established synthetical approaches. The result was a methodology that seemed to mediate between the aims of both positions: while basing the language teaching on text passages and thus allowing for an inductive introduction of grammar and vocabulary, the new ‘mediating method’ added grammar rules and vocabulary lists to the text passages, thus giving both teachers and pupils an authoritative deductive basis for further exercises, including sentences to be translated into the target-language.

In view of the compromise character of the mediating method it is not surprising that the need for new manuals was not felt very urgently. About the turn of the century, it was the well-established manuals of the grammar-translation type that were re-edited, enriched with reading passages, and supplemented with textbooks or anthologies. The book market expanded considerably, not only because the number of schools which included modern languages in their curriculum increased, but also because teaching materials were separated into special volumes for each age group and for teaching conversation, grammar, literature, and so on. It is not possible to mention more than a few titles here: Karl Deutschbein, Kurzgefasste englische Grammatik und Übungsbuch für Gymnasien (Cöthen, 1887); Georg Dubislav and Paul Boek, Elementarbuch der englischen Sprache für höhere Lehranstalten (Berlin, 1890); Johann Ellinger and A. C. Butler-Percival, Lehrbuch der englischen Sprache (Wien, 1906); J. Foelsing and John Koch, Lehrbuch der englischen Sprache (Berlin, 1885); F.W. Gesenius and Ernst Regel, Englische Sprachlehre (Halle, 1894); Heinrich Plate and Otto Kares, Lehrgang der englischen Sprache (Dresden, 1890); Alfred Bernhard, Englisches Lehrbuch (München, 1923).

The mediating method remained dominant in Germany through all the political changes, ideological ordeals and military disasters of the 20th century. It is only the contents of the texts that were adapted to the prevailing fashions: historical and patriotic anecdotes up to World War 1; characterisations of ‘essential features’ of British life (Kulturkunde) up to World War II; propagandist topics during the Nazi regime. A typical example of an English manual to the liking of Hitler’s propaganda machinery was Heinrich Fischer’s Englisches Unterrichtswerk (Breslau/Bielefeld/Leipzig, 1938). The two volumes of the students’ book were divided into the sections ‘phonetic introduction’, ‘reading matter’, ‘grammar’, ‘exercises’, ‘vocabulary’, which met the needs of a mediating type of teaching. In Volume one the items of ‘reading matter’ were mainly concerned with everyday life of disciplined middle-class youngsters. Volume two concentrated on the Nazis’ favourite topic of patriotic ‘virtues’:

My father was a soldier, a brave soldier. He died at Waterloo. When I grow up, I want to be a soldier, too.

In each valley [of Scotland] several families formed a clan ruled over by a chieftain. The members were proud of their clan and loyal to their chief.

Now and again, explicit propaganda was also presented:

An English lady on the Rhine, hearing a German speaking of her party as foreigners, exclaimed ‘No, we are not foreigners, we are English; it is you that are foreigners’.

In the Hitler-Jugend, in the Reich Labour Service, and in the Army, the German youth does not care for class or position, profession and education, birth and money. It is thus that the unified National Socialist nation is being constructed.

After World War II, text books reverted to a more objective attempt to capture the ‘essential features’ of British and American culture, with special stress on models of democracy. This tendency is well exemplified by the most widely used English manual of post-war Germany, Karl Eckermann, Eric Ortou et al., Learning English (originally published by Teubner, Leipzig, in 1925; re-edited and re-published by Klett, Stuttgart, from 1952 onward). It consisted of a students’ book in three volumes, an anthology of poems, and a collection of prose passages. In line with the mediating method each lesson of Learning English is divided into three sections: one or more texts introducing new vocabulary and new grammar; grammar rules (from Volume 2 onward in separate grammar booklets); grammar exercises in the target- language, followed by a concluding translation exercise.

Among the prominent English manuals published after 1945 were Wilhelm Frerichs’ The Highway to English (Frankfurt, 1952) together with the anthology The Mind and Soul of Britain and the USA; Hildegard Friedrichs’ Peter Pim and Billy Ball (Berlin/Bielefeld, 1948); Heinz Röhr’s The English Companion (Frankfurt , 1959). They were all variations of the same basic procedure, the core of which upheld the idea that language learning had to give the students as much mental training as possible. Hardly any attempt was made to develop practical skills in the fields of listening comprehension, free oral communication or free composition. Although gramaphones began to be used systematically by English teachers in Germany from 1910 onward, they were considered to be just an additional phonetic device, without any implication as to prioritising of oral language skills. When Harold E. Palmer put forward his revolutionary hypothesis that

Language study is essentially a habit-forming process. We speak and understand automatically as the result of perfectly formed habits. No foreign word or sentence is really known until the student can produce it automatically,3

it had no effect whatever on foreign language teaching in Germany.

Only the rumours of miraculous new teaching techniques that had become popular in the USA after the Sputnik shock made methodologists aware of new trends. Even so, it was not the newly discovered structuralist basis of language teaching, nor the stressing of practical language skills that followed in its wake that caught the attention of German language teachers, but rather a technical advance in the shape of language laboratories. The fascination emanating from the language learning machine was too great for schools to ignore, and it even became fashionable for schools to compete with one another in buying the newest type of equipment.

Publishers of foreign language teaching materials were forced to meet the new demand. From the beginning of the 1960s onwards they produced ‘enrichment material’ for language laboratories, mainly in the form of the substitution-type grammar drills. The idea was to use the traditional teaching manuals, but to supplement the teaching by occasional -- mostly weekly -- sessions in the language laboratory. As the two methods of teaching used side by side did not fit together readily, the number of teachers who could cope with the consequent tension decreased rapidly once the first fit of enthusiasm had passed.

A certain stabilisation was reached when some of the larger publishers produced teaching manuals that were entirely in keeping with the new ‘audio-lingual method’. The first of these was the series English For Today (Dortmund/Hannover, 1965) compiled by Hans Weber, Friedhelm Denninghaus and Hans-Eberhard Piepho. The books for students no longer contained the usual reading passages with grammar exercises attached to them, but instead substituted mainly pattern exercises aimed at habituating the use of new words and new morphological and syntactic patterns. The printed material was supplemented by a large number of tapes with a wide variety of oral exercises in pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar. A similar, though less radical, methodological line was pursued by a whole generation of language learning materials produced in the late 1960s and the 1970s, among them, Hans-Eberhard Piepho and Herbert Hilbert, English is Fun (Berlin/Hannover/Dortmund, 1967); Heinz Röhr, The Good Companion (Frankfurt, 1968); Heinz Decker, Klaus Dieter Kaminietz et al., Anyway (Frankfurt, 1974).

These and several other new learning systems were not accepted easily in schools, especially in the Gymnasium. The natural tendency to be sceptical about radical changes favoured the revised editions of traditional and familiar manuals, two of which came to dominate the market: Hildegard Friedricks’ English (Berlin: Cornelsen, 1970) a completely revised successor of Peter Pim and Billy Ball, and F Werner Beile, Alice Beile-Bowers et al., Learning English -- Modern Course (Stuttgart: Klett, 1974), the successor to Learning English. In these two learning systems, with their special versions for every school type, teachers could recognise some elements that were familiar to them, while at the same time being offered a great number of pattern exercises. There is no research on the actual teaching procedures adopted in connection with these materials; one guesses that the pattern practice sections in the books were only considered to be a new type of exercise to be used along with the traditional ones, and that there was hardly any basic change in the methodological outlook. Although theoretical literature from the mid-1960s on stressed the necessity of teaching practical language skills, this conviction was very slow in spreading to everyday teaching.

For completeness’ sake the impact made by the ‘audio-visual method’ should also be mentioned, although this was much stronger in the teaching of French than in the English classroom. Symptomatically, several manuals following an audio-visual approach were German adaptations of French originals: Passport to English -- Junior Course (Wiesbaden, 1972) compiled by G. Capelle, M. Garnier and D. Girard (Paris: Didier, 1965) and It’s up to you (Frankfurt, 1974). The only fully-fledged German English-teaching manual in the orthodox CREDIF tradition is How do you do? (Paderborn: Schöningh, 1966). Despite the enormous efforts made to produce slides, picture-books, tapes and all sorts of teaching aids, the learning system was never used on a large scale.

The audio-lingual method was mainly concerned with the way in which language should be structured and practised; its concern lay in the field of methodology. The discussion about language as an instrument of communication struck a different level. In the 1980s, it was not only methods that were being reconsidered, but the aim of language teaching and learning as such. The view that language learning has above all to serve the communicative needs of the learners is no longer seriously challenged by anyone. Even those who are sceptical about a simplistic situational approach do not argue against the fundamental need to develop communicative skills; they only raise the question about which is the shortest way there. Grammar work in particular has to be justified as to its usefulness in helping to acquire communicative skills. On the whole, the controversy ‘mental training versus practical skills’ seems to be in the process of being resolved in the conviction that learning how to communicate implies both mental and practical activities.

The new approach was embodied in a system of teaching materials that were much discussed, although used sparingly: Hans-Eberhard Piepho’s Contacts (Bochum: Kamp, 1978). Contacts is characterised by a topic-centred approach, by which the students’ wish to communicate is being triggered off through situations, texts or picture materials. This necessarily leads to lessons in which teachers and students consider themselves as partners in a communication process. The social role of the teacher has to be reconsidered, and her/his communicative ability is in high demand. No wonder that the book is not popular with everyone.

Once again the well-established publishing houses have won the day. Most Gymnasiums have settled either for Amor Stuart, Werner Beile et al., Green Line (Stuttgart: Klett, 1984) or F Helmut Schwarz, Carl Taylor et al., English G -- Neue Ausgabe (Berlin: Cornelsen, 1985). Realschulen are using either John Eastwood, Dieter Landthaler et al., Go ahead (Berlin: Cornelsen and Oxford University Press, 1983) or Terry Moustou, Birgit Arnold et al., English in Action (München: Langenscheidt and Longman, 1978); while Hauptschulen choose between Hildegard Friedricks English H -- Neue Ausgabe (Berlin: Cornelsen, 1982) and Clemens Radau, Stephen Speight et al. Let’s go (Stuttgart: Klett, 1986). All of these are working along moderate communicative lines, presenting models of everyday conversation, guided conversation practice, a great deal of pictorial material, texts on topics within the scope of children’s interests, and selected aspects of grammar.

Looking back on nearly two centuries of foreign language methodology, one is struck by the overwhelming agreement between the authors of teaching materials over long periods of time. Mainstream methodology changed very slowly. Within each epoch, manuals tried to recommend themselves by features that did not affect methodological principles, such as the layout of the printed pages, the content of the texts, the use of pictures, and so on. And yet, despite this seeming persistence of methods, foreign language teaching today is certainly very different from what it used to be 200 years ago. Apart from the obvious advances in technology, bringing the voices and even the images of target-language speakers into the classroom, modern language teaching is finally about to abandon its dread of practical skills. The ‘communicative’ goal that has been largely accepted by teachers, even in the Gymnasium, represents something like a synthesis in the dialectic struggle between mental training and practical skills. The evolution of teaching methodology seems to be running from the language learner as mental operator to the language learner as human communicator -- a development in which many seemingly abortive innovations have a share.



1. Ahn, Vol. 1, p. 48.

2. Oxford and Leipzig, 1885. The book was published with the title in German only.

3. Palmer (1922).

 References and Select Bibliography

Ahn, FranzPraktischer Lehrgang zur schnellen und leichten Erlernung der französischen Sprache (Kö1n, 1834).

Christ, Herbert ‘Zur Geschichte des Französischunterrichts und der Französischlehrer’. In Anneliese Manzmann (ed.), Geschichte der Unterrichtsfächer 1 (München, 1983), pp. 94-117.

Klippel, Friederike Englischlernen im 18. und 19. Jahrhundert (Münster: Nodus Publicakationen, 1994).

Mager, Karl Die genetische Methode des schulmässigen Unterrichts in fremden Sprachen und Litteraturen (Zürich: Meyer und Zeller, 1846)

Macht, Konrad Methodengeschichte des Englischunterrichts, volumes 1 -- 3 (Augsburg: Universität Augsburg, 1986, 1987,1990).

Palmer, Harold E The Principles of Language Study (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1922).

Schröder, Konrad Lehrwerke für den Englischunterricht im deutsschprachigen Raum 1665 &emdash; 1900 (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1975).

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