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Quotes from The Loom of Language on Classroom Learning and the Direct Method

I started re-reading The Loom of Language by Frederick Bodmer while travelling around Australia a few weeks ago. I only made it through the Introduction when I realized I had already added nearly 20 bookmarks and notes on my Kindle. I love this book so much. Even though it was published in the 1940’s, it is still highly relevant to the state of foreign language education in Anglophone countries and it remains the best book for gaining comprehension of the major Romance and Germanic languages.



Here are some choice quotes on why this is my favorite book. Bodmer tears apart classroom language learning, grammarians and the direct method. I wish I could marry this man. (Interesting fact: Bodmer taught languages and linguistics at MIT when they were developing their Department of Modern Languages. Noam Chomsky was his replacement when he retired in 1955.)

“After two generations of experiment, educationists are not convinced that the results of school-teaching [of modern languages] justify the time devoted to them in English-speaking countries. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the prevailing attitude among American educationists is one of alarm at the poverty of return for effort put into the task. Subsidized by the Carnegie Corporation, the American Council of Education has undertaken a survey of methods and results in order to review the current situation in American schools. The published report is an honest admission of dismal failure.” p. 12 (This quote is actually in the editor’s foreword, by Lancelot Hogben.)

“…many would study [foreign languages], if they were not discouraged by the very poor results which years of study at school or in college produce.” p. 19

“The greatest impediment, common to most branches of school and university education, is the dead hand of Plato. We have not yet got away from education designed for the sons of gentlemen. Educational Platonism sacrifices realizable proficiency by encouraging the pursuit of unattainable perfection… Most of us could learn languages more easily is we could learn to forgive our own linguistic trespasses.” p. 19

“No one who wants to speak a foreign language like a native can rely upon this book or on any other.” p. 20

“It is a common belief that learning two languages calls for twice as much effort as learning one. This may be roughly true, if the two languages are not more alike than French and German, and if the beginner’s aim is to speak either like a native. If they belong to the same family, and if the beginner has a more modest end in view, it is not true. Many people will find that the effort spent on building up a small, workmanlike vocabulary and getting a grasp of essential grammatical peculiarities of four closely related languages is not much greater than the effort spent on getting an equivalent knowledge of one alone. The reason for this is obvious is we approach learning languages as a problem of applied biology. The ease with which we remember things depends on being able to associate one thing with another.” p. 21

“There is no reason why interesting facts about the way in which languages grow, the way in which people use them, the diseases from which they suffer, and the way in which other social habits and human relationships shape them, should not be accessible to use. There is no reason why we should not use knowledge of this sort to lighten the drudgery of assimilating disconnected information by sheer effort of memory and tedious repetition.” p 24

“Any one appalled by the amount of drudgery which learning a language supposedly entails can get some encouragement from two sources. One is that no expenditure on tuition can supply the stimulus you can get from spontaneous intercourse with a correspondent, if the latter is interested in what you have to say, and has something interesting to contribute to a discussion. The other is that unavoidable memory work is much less than most of us suppose; and it need not be dull, if we fortify our efforts by scientific curiosity about the relative defects and merits of the language we are studying, about its relation to other languages which people speak, and about the social agencies which have affected its growth or about circumstances which have moulded its character in the course of history.” p. 24

“One great obstacle to language-learning is that usual methods of instruction take no account of the fact that learning any language involves at least three kinds of skill as different as arithmetic, algebra and geometry. One if learning to read easily. One is learning to express oneself in speech or in writing. The third is being able to follow the course of ordinary conversation among people who use a language habitually… Whether it is best to concentrate on one to the exclusion of others in the initial stages of learning depends partly on the temperament of the beginner, and partly on the social circumstances which control opportunities for study or use.” p. 25

“Our knowledge of the words we use in expressing ourselves is not prompted by the situation, as our recognition of words on a printed page is helped by the context. Though the number of words and expressions we need is far fewer, we need to know them so thoroughly, that we can recall them without prompting.” p. 28

“The statistical method used in compiling word-lists given in the most modern text-books for teaching foreign languages evades the essence of our problem. If we want to get a speaking or writing equipment with the minimum of effort, fuss and bother, we need to know how to pick the assortment of words which suffice to convey the meaning of any plain statement.” p. 30

“The rules embodied in [Latin and Greek] conjugations and declensions tell you much you need to know in order to translate classical authors with the help of a dictionary. Grammarians who had spent their lives in learning them, and using them, carried over the same trick into the teaching of languages of a different type. They ransacked the literature of living languages to find examples of similarities which they could also arrange in systems of declensions and conjugations, and they did so without regard to whether we really need know them, or if so, in what circumstances… The effect of this was to burden the memory with an immense story of unnecessary luggage without furnishing rules which make the task of learning easier.” p. 37-8

“When sensible people began to see the absurdity of this system, still preserved in many grammar-books, there was a swing of the pendulum from the perfectionist to the nudist (or DIRECT) method of teaching a language by conversation and pictures, without any rules. The alleged justification for this is that children first learn to speak without any rules, and acquire grammar rules governing the home language, if at all, when they are word-perfect. This argument is based on several misconceptions… Since The Loom of Language is not a children’s book, there is no need to dwell on the ludicrous excesses of educational theorists who advocated the direct method* and fooled some teachers into taking it up. The most apparent reason for its vogue is that it exempts the teacher from having any intelligent understanding of the language which he or she is teaching.” p. 38 (Can I just say BURN!?!)

* The silliness of the direct method when tried out on adults was pointed out by Henry Sweet in 1899.

‘The fundamental objection, then, to the natural method is that it puts the adult into the position of an infant, which he is no longer capable of utilizing, and, at the same time, does not allow him to make use of his own special advantages. These advantages are, as we have seen, the power of analysis and generalization – in short, the power of using a grammar and a dictionary.’

The popular myth that it is more difficult for an adult than for a child to learn languages has been disproved by experimental research carried out by modern educationists. Much of the effort put into early education is defeated by the limitations of the child’s experience and interests. The ease with which we remember things depends largely on the ease with which we can link them up to things we know already. Since the adult’s experience of life and the adult’s vocabulary are necessarily more varied than those of the child, the mental equipment of the adult provides a far broader basis of association for fresh facts… Children learn their own language and a foreign one pari passu. The adult can capitalize the knowledge of his or her own language as a basis for learning a new one related to it.” p. 42

So… nothing has changed in seventy years. Learning languages in the traditional classroom with grammar books didn’t work then and it doesn’t work now. People still believe the myth that children learn languages better than adults and that banning the native language will magically make students fluent in another language. It’s so frustrating as a linguist and language teacher to have to explain to people all. the. time. that neither one is true.

I’ve previously written about the use of the first language in the classroom and why I am also against the direct method. It is not supported by research in any way, which should be a good enough reason to not use it, but I still come across teachers who insist on banning the first language of the students. Research clearly shows that students need to use their first language in learning a second or third language, and in fact, that they cannot NOT use it. Helping students go between their native and second language and discovering the similarities and differences that can improve and increase the rate of acquisition is a much better “method.”

Also check out Language Learning Quotes from other resources if you’re interested in linguistic research on second language acquisition.

And can we bring back saying nudist method instead of direct method??

Dr. Wagner has a PhD in Linguistics and is dedicated to learning and teaching languages online and abroad. She has studied in Quebec and Australia, taught English in France, and is currently based in the US.