Imagine that you have decided to learn German. Imagine, too, that you have a great degree of time on your hands to devote to this endeavor. To give yourself as good a chance as possible, you take up residency in Hamburg for a year.
You may or may not be good at memorizing - but for the purpose of this blog post, let's say that you are.
Upon your arrival in Hamburg, you begin by memorizing a German grammar book and a table of the two hundred and forty-eight irregular German verbs.
You do this in a matter of just ten days.
Eager to test your new knowledge, you hurry to the local university.
Alas, you cannot understand a single word.
Undaunted, you return to the isolation of your room, this time to memorize the German roots and to rememorize the grammar book and irregular verbs.
Again, you emerge with expectations of success.
Again, the result is as disappointing as before.
This was the tale of one François Gouin, who in the nineteenth century, during his year in Hamburg, also translated Goethe and Schiller and even memorized 30,000 words in a German dictionary, all in the isolation of this room - only to be crushed by his failure to understand German afterward.
Only once did Gouin try to "make conversation" as a method, but because this caused people to laugh at him, he was too embarrassed to continue
Dejected, and having reduced the Classical Method to absurdity, Gouin returned home to France.
There, he found that his three-year-old nephew had, during that year, gone through that wonderful stage of child language acquisition in which he had gone from saying virtually nothing to becoming a veritable chatterbox of French.
How was it that this little child succeeded so easily in a task, mastering a first language, that Gouin, in a second language, had found impossible? The child must hold the secret to learning a language!
Gouin spent a great deal of time observing his nephew and other children, and came to the following conclusions:
Language learning is primarily a matter of transforming perceptions into conceptions.
Children use language to represent their conceptions.
Language is a means of thinking, of representing the world to oneself.
Gouin became convinced of the merits of a more direct, more conceptual way to teach learners. Translation and grammatical rules and explanations took a back seat to what he proposed, in his The Art of Learning and Studying Foreign Languages (1880), as the first lesson of a foreign language:
I walk toward the door. I draw near to the door. I draw nearer to the door. I get to the door. I stop at the door.
I stretch out my arm. I take hold of the handle. I turn the handle. I open the door. I pull the door.
The door moves. The door turns on its hinges. The door turns and turns. I open the door wide. I let go of the handle.
The above fifteen sentences have an unconventionally large number of grammatical properties, vocabulary items, word orders, and complexity. Yet Gouin was successful with such lessons because the language was so easily understood, stored, recalled, and related to reality.
You'll notice, too, that each sentence is in the present tense.
This "naturalistic" approach simulates the "natural" way in which children learn first languages. It's something we practice here at the Beverly Hills Lingual Institute, when introducing beginners to a new language of their choice.