The Association for Latin Teaching

respice prospice


From the ARLT blog

An interesting couple of e-mails from Gilbert Grant, arising from the extract from Rouse's book on Teaching Latin by the Direct Method that is on the web site, alerted me to Francois Gouin, of whom I had not heard. Google took me straight away to this fascinating extract from a book by a Mr Brown on methods of language learning.

“Wrong Way” Francois Gouin

The first exhibit you encounter focuses on the history of language teaching. The designers have chosen to begin that history with the amusing but poignant story of how one of the first language teaching methods was born, the story of Francois Gouin.

Francois Gouin (we'll call him Francois) was a teacher of Latin who lived in France in the nineteenth century. A year or two before 1880, Francois decided he needed to learn German. So he took a year away from his teaching job in France and went to Hamburg. Borrowing from his methods of teaching Latin, Francois decided that the best way to learn German would be to memorize a German grammar book and the 248 irregular German verbs. He isolated himself in his room for ten days, and successfully memorized the book and the verbs. Emerging from his ten-day isolation, he wished to test his new linguistic knowledge. He hurried to the university and went from one class to the next. Gouin recounts his experience:


But alas! In vain did I stain my ears; in vain my eye strove to interpret the slightest movements of the lips of the professor; in vain I passed from the first classroom to a second; not a word, not a single word would penetrate to my understanding. Nay more than this, I did not even distinguish a single one of the grammatical forms so newly studied; I did not recognize even a single one of the irregular verbs just freshly learnt, though they certainly must have fallen in crowds from the lips of the speaker.


Well, Francois wasn't about to give up. so back to his room he went. This time, remembering how he learned Greek by tackling the Greek roots, he decided to memorize eight hundred German roots–and of course to

rememorise the grammar book and irregular verbs. He was convinced that this go-around would surely offer him “the foundations of the language, as well as the laws and secret of its forms, regular and irregular.” After eight days he hurried again to the university. “But alas!” He understood not one word.

The stubbornness of our dear Lain teacher now becomes painfully evident. He was relatively undaunted by his first two failures to learn German. Next he tried what should have been a successful strategy: he tried talking with the customers in the shop below his room. But they laughed at him, and embarrassed, sensitive Francois decided to return to the solitude of his room. This time he tried translating Goethe and Schiller–but alas! Next, he spent three weeks memorizing a book of dialogues–but alas! Then he spent a full month memorizing the thirty thousand words of a

dictionary–but alas! And this time he went on to add: “…I understood not a word–not a single word!…and I permit no one to doubt the sincerity of this statement. Not a word!” He was still not ready to give up. He tried reading again. He memorized the dictionary again and later a third time. All to no avail.

Finally, his year-long stay came to an end, and Francois left Germany without ever having learned to speak or understand German. He had, in no uncertain terms, completely and utterly failed in his effort.

Fortunately, there was a relatively happy ending to the story. Upon his return home Francois found that his little three-year-old nephew had gone through that wonderful, miraculous stage of first-language acquisition in which children, in the course of sometimes less than a year, move from two-year-old “telegraphese” to nonstop chatterboxes of language. Francois perceived that his nephew possessed a secret of some sort and set out to study child language acquisition. His studies revealed many insights about child language acquisition, from which Francois concluded that he and all other language teachers were teaching the wrong way. He invented a method called the Series Method, a direct, conversational approach with no grammatical analysis, no vocabulary memorization, and no translation.

Francois Gouin's Series Method never became widely used, partly because Gouin was not the entrepreneur that his colleague Charles Berlitz was. Gouin's ideas and methods were the early inspiration for Berlitz, whose famous Direct Method enjoyed popularity in the early 1900s and whose schools are still thriving. We can nevertheless happily end the story of “wrong-way Francois” by noting that the excruciating pain of his year-long efforts to learn German eventually led to positive ends. Thus are some methods born.

The Direct Method before Rouse

Latin on the Direct Method - Rouse and Appleton 1925
The Direct Method applied to Latin
Linguaphone handbook for teachers - Rouse