A Classic Book by Otto Jespersen

July 2013

How to Teach a Foreign Language

This book was first published in 1904 and is a classic in the field of language teaching. I have reformatted the text from the original and offering it as a download here for free.

As well as being a methodological pioneer, Jespersen was one of the world’s seminal linguists and, among other things, he is noted for discovering the Great Vowel Shift in Early Modern English. In language teaching he is known for being the father of the Direct Method — a landmark development in the evolution of language teaching, providing a more humanist approach emphasising not learning for learning’s sake, or even for simply communicative reasons, but also for enrichment and for the enjoyment of the learner.

Jespersen was one of the first proponents of the need for developing spoken proficiency and more natural production. As such, most modern language teachers today use a style that is inherited directly from this. The Direct Method represents the first movement away from Grammar Translation. It formed a much-needed practical and innovative revolution in teaching and while the book is over a century old, it still holds relevance and profound ideas for us now.

As you might expect though, there is a slight over-emphasis on accuracy and his approach is generally syntax-heavy. The book is extremely detailed, technical, and logical. The text habitually tends towards what we might consider the unimaginative and one-dimensional. He never mentions role plays for example, nor indicates the types of tasks and activities of the huge variety that we have in our reach today. His descriptions of exercises are rigorous to a level that we might find excessively meticulous.

But he does outline a fundamental and thorough approach, offering countless exercises to present language and create interaction through context and induction, emphasis and elicitation. His ideas on texts are also very good and congruent with what is appropriate and optimal for learners (Chapter III), which is for me both validating and inspiring.

As well as this, Jespersen’s approach has a strong focus on phonology and the use of pictures in class, particularly student-generated pictures — which, if you are reader of this blog, you will know that I am a big fan of. He was also possibly the first writer to allude to the concept of immersion (Chapter IV).

But above all, the book is an advocacy of breaking with translation and goes to great lengths to provide a very clear and balanced view of translation’s (mis)use in learning. Jespersen was a true pedagogue and he left no stone unturned in investigating, reasoning his way through, and using every ounce of his experience in understanding of how we best learn languages.