Other Discussions on Language

Learning Languages, The origins of the Berlitz Method



The organization now known as Berlitz International, Inc. was founded in 1878 by Maximilian D. Berlitz in Providence, Rhode Island. Descended from a long line of teachers and mathematicians, Maximilian Berlitz grew up in the Black Forest region of Germany. He emigrated to the United States in 1872 and arrived prepared to teach Greek, Latin, and six other European languages according to the strict traditionalist grammar-translation approach. After building a successful career as a private teacher, Berlitz joined the Warner Polytechnic College as a professor of French and German language instruction. The college, however, was less imposing than its name, and Berlitz found himself at once owner, dean, principal, and only faculty member.

Needing an assistant to teach French, Berlitz hired a young Frenchman who appeared to be the most promising candidate, possibly because of the impeccable French in his letter of application. Invited to Providence, Nicholas Joly arrived to find his new employer ill and feverish from overwork, a condition that was not improved when Berlitz learned his new assistant spoke no English. Casting about desperately for a way of using Joly, Berlitz told him to try pointing at objects and naming them and to act out verbs as best he could. He thereupon took to his bed, emerging anxiously six weeks later prepared to face the wrath of his neglected students.

Instead, Berlitz found the students engaging in lively question and answer exchanges with their teacher, in elegantly accented French. The characteristic solemnity of the formal classroom had vanished. More important, the students had progressed further than any ever had under six weeks of his own tutelage.

Berlitz quickly concluded that his emergency measure held the seed of an innovative teaching technique. By replacing rote learning with a discovery process that kept students active and interested, it solved many of the problems that had plagued language instruction in the past.

After experimenting with the new technique and finding it consistently effective, Berlitz developed a system of language teaching which today is still the basis for the world-famous Berlitz courses.

The principles he laid down were deceptively simple. Only the target language would be spoken in class, starting with the first greeting by the teacher. Emphasis would be on the spoken word, with students learning to read and write only what they had already learned to say and understand. There would be no formal grammar instruction; instead, students would absorb a grammatical system naturally, by using it. Above all, to develop fluency, students would have to learn to think in the new language, not translate - to associate new words with objects and ideas, rather than with the distractingly familiar words of their mother tongue. Teachers would have to constantly encourage students to speak the language being taught, employing a barrage of questions to be answered and a quickly expanding vocabulary. And, most importantly, each Berlitz teacher would have to have a native command of the language being taught.

While the unique system of instruction developed by Berlitz has been refined, enriched, and modernized throughout the past 115 years, these elements remain at the heart of all Berlitz language instruction.

Years of Rapid Growth

Maximilian Berlitz's innovative approach to teaching languages met with almost immediate success in Providence, and by 1880, he was encouraged to open a language center in Boston. This was followed in quick succession by language centers in New York City and Washington, D.C. Their success led him to open centers in other American cities and in Europe, where the popularity of Berlitz's teaching technique spread even more rapidly.

Ronald Hilton - 05/20/98


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