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
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
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