Language learning 400 years ago

Where did the idea that English people are not very good at language learning come from? Is there a historical basis for the current UK languages “crisis”? Who was teaching and learning languages when Queen Elizabeth I was on the throne?

In this episode Dr John Gallagher, early modern historian and lecturer at the University of Leeds, explores how people learned languages when English itself was an emerging, marginal language in northern Europe. During the period from approximately 1450–1750, English had not yet achieved the global reach it has today. John explains that there was some anxiety about the status of English. Was it good enough for disseminating new ideas from the continent? It was a period of great creativity and innovation with writers like Shakespeare and Spenser at the peak of their careers. Towards the end of the period, Dr Johnson wrote his famous English dictionary, a milestone in English language standardisation. At the beginning of the period, however, English was much less established. You needed to learn other languages to converse with people abroad or, indeed, in busy London marketplaces.

Learning languages was both necessary and something to be celebrated in early modern England. Ready to listen? Click the buttons below or scroll to the bottom to stream Episode 25 online.

The Language Revolution Apple podcasts
The Language Revolution on Spotify podcasts

Who was teaching and learning languages?

We might assume that only the intellectual elite or the richest members of society engaged in language learning in the early modern period. Certainly, there are some fascinating examples of this but language learning was really for everyone. Merchants, tutors, nobles, lawyers, students, writers, ladies-in-waiting, children… There was a real motley crew of language learners. Language teachers are an interesting bunch too, including recent immigrants who would argue that “their” version of French was more fashionable than another’s. Rivalry between early modern teachers reminds John of today’s YouTube rivalries between teachers extolling the virtue of their particular branded methods.

Language learning materials

John has written a fantastic book called Learning Languages in Early Modern England which I can highly recommend to anyone who enjoys history and language education!

Teaching materials offer a fascinating insight into the process of language learning 400 years ago. It was incredibly difficult to explain pronunciation without the help of audio recordings. Teachers sometimes used physiological descriptions (e.g. put your tongue here, release air thus…) to explain tricky sounds to their readers. More rivalries surface in prefaces to teaching materials too, and it is clear that teaching languages was a competitive business!

Students noted down ballads, jokes and kept diaries in the languages they were learning. ‘Double translation’ was a popular teaching method. It seems that language learning was very sociable too. In their books, teachers invited students to seek them out in person if they required help, thus advertising their services. Plus prestige accents were just as important then as now. Teachers and students attached importance to learning the variety of French spoken in Paris or the Loire Valley, for example.

Multilingualism in early modern England

Can taking a historical perspective on multilingualism in England help us make sense of today’s “crisis” in language learning? John thinks it can help to put English’s rise as a global language into historical perspective. It is, after all, just a series of historical circumstances that gave rise to English becoming a global lingua franca. Some early modern scholars worried about English borrowing too many words from French or Italian and becoming a “mongrel” language. There was a metaphor of English getting into too much debt and going bankrupt due to its constant vocabulary borrowing. Yet English is a brilliant example of how languages encounter each other during the early modern period and how new ideas, new literature and new cultures blend to form what we now think of as ‘English’.

The history of English is the history of its encounter with all these other languages

John Gallagher

Given how many people of all ages and backgrounds were engaged in teaching and learning languages, where does the myth that English people are terrible at learning languages come from? As John explains, not everyone was an avid language learner in early modern England. Young men went off on their Grand Tours to all the same places, meeting other English people at Blois in the Loire Valley, for example. No wonder they started complaining that everyone spoke English in France so there was little point learning French!

Would you have learned languages or expected English to suffice on your Grand Tour?

What motivated people to learn languages?

I love the example John gives of Anglo-Italian author, translator and teacher John Florio who wrote that English was ‘a language that wyl do you good in England, but passe Dover, it is woorth nothing’. Florio was writing this in 1578, before English became the global language we know today. There are, as we explore in the podcast, plenty of reasons to learn languages other than their utility abroad, however. Click the play bar below or one of the buttons above to hear the episode now.

Want to hear more about English in Shakespeare’s day? Listen to Episode 7 with David and Ben Crystal talking about how David reconstructed the accent of Elizabethan England using historical linguistics methods.