Manuals for Teaching English as a Foreign Language in the 15th and 16th Centuries
Early language manuals resembled today’s phrase books, printed with two or more languages in parallel columns. Early manuals were not designed specifically to teach English, but might be used to learn any of the languages they contained. They were most often used by merchants, perhaps, as A.P.R. Howatt suggests, because “they recognized the old truth that even a smattering of your client’s mother tongue works wonders in business” (6). These manuals usually contained dialogues, which were frequently accompanied by word lists and pronunciation guides. They dealt with basic conversation skills like greeting, asking for directions, discussing the weather, and, invariably, buying and selling.
William Caxton’s Dialogues in French and English
The earliest extant work of this nature in English was printed by William Caxton around 1483. Caxton’s manual draws from the tradition of the French Manières de langage, “or model conversation book[s], intended for the use of travellers, merchants, and others desiring a conversational and practical rather than a thorough and grammatical knowledge of French” (Lambley 35). Specifically, Caxton reworked an earlier Flemish-French manual from around 1340, though the introduction and epilogue are probably his own (Lambley 45).
Caxton’s text gives merchants the opportunity to “take on honde marchandises from one land to anothir, and to knowe many Wares which to hym shalbe good to be bought or solde for riche to become.” Following the dialogue, the manual introduces the reader to an alphabetical list of various tradespeople. Caxton acknowledges that the book is limited in scope, but, he writes, “that which cannot be founden Declared in this Shall be founde somwhere els In other bookes.”
Later manuals seem to have been published in response to specific historical events. Though English and French were commonly paired, English also sat aside other languages, as in the anonymous A very profitable book to learn English and Spanish (1554), which also reworks a previous manual. The publishers of this manual foresaw a potential market, since, according to R.C. Alston’s introduction, this book and The book of English and Spanish, which was bound with it, “were apparently both published to coincide with the increase in activity between England and Spain which was expected to follow the marriage of Queen Mary and King Philip in Spain in July 1554.” It contains dialogues, a vocabulary, and some religious material. While there is everyday information in the manual, it also addresses “the maner of byenge and sellyng [. . .] the ways of callynge upon your debtors” and “the maner of writing epistles and letters of obligations, solutiõs, and of bargains.” The following vignette is a good example of what Alston, in his introduction to Ortho-opia Gallica, calls “the dreary (and frequently improbable) text provided for most dialogues intended to exemplify idiom and usage.” (I quote only the English.)
F. I go very gladdely, who knocketh at the doore?
Rog. A friende, Open the doore.
F. Is it thou, Roger?
R. It is I. Is thy father at home?
F. Yea & my mother to Com in, I will go and tel my father thou art come
P. Fraunces se al thinges be ready that we may sytt downe
F. Father all thynges be readye, when you wil, you may sit down Roger is come.
P. It is well. I will come by and by. Call the boyes.
F. I will gladly
The earliest extant manual written expressly for the instruction of English to foreign language speakers is Jacques Bellot’s The Englishe scholemaister (1580). According to its subtitle, it contains “many profitable precepts for the naturall borne French men, and other straungers that have their French tongue, to attayne the true pronouncing of the Englishe tongue.” It appears to have been written in French, “and then somewhat carelessly translated into English” (Lambley 158). It addressed the recent influx of French immigrants, many of whom were, like Bellot, Protestants who came to England to escape religious persecution. In addition to the practical benefits of learning English, some knowledge of the language would have been prudent in the xenophobic climate of Elizabethan England.
Bellot’s manual has no dialogue, since, as Howatt notes, his “main aim appears to have been to help learners who had picked up the language ‘by ear’ to distinguish easily confused words by seeing them in print” (16). Given the rapid turnover of refugees (Watts 237), a comprehensive knowledge of English would seem unnecessary. With the lack of dialogue in The Englishe scholemaister, Bellot’s second manual, Familiar Dialogues (1586), which Watts argues was modelled after A very profitable book (240), almost seems like a companion work. In this manual, Bellot refers specifically to the plight of his audience: “so that for to drawe out of paine, an infinite nũber of persõs the which our last persecutions haue caused to come in this cõtrey, I thought good to put into their hands certeine short Dialogues in Frẽch and Englishe.” Emphasizing speech over reading and writing, Bellot’s manual includes a third column with his version of a phonetic transcription of the English dialogue.
Bellot’s dialogue is slightly less wooden than the above example, as we see in the following exchange between a maid, Barbara, and three boys:
James Bring me my whit hoses, and a cleane shyrt: Orels, bring me my graye hoses, my greene dvblet and a handkercher.
Barbara. Hold, here be your hosen.
Iames. Here lacke some pointes.
Barbara. You played thẽ.
Iames. I haue not, they be broken.
Barbara. Button your ierkin Peter: where be your garters?
Peter. I loft them.
Barbara. You deferue to be beaten: But you feare nothing, why doe you not gyrt you Stephen?
Stephen. I can not bowe downe.
Barbara. Truly you are but a wagge, whiche lookes but for the death of the day.
Two other notable authors of such manuals were Claudius Hollyband (Claude Deslainliens) and John Florio. In 1593, John Eliot, “a man of boisterous spirits and a lover of good wine” (Lambley 172), published the satirical Ortho-epia Gallica, which, though a manual for teaching French, is interesting here because it criticized the domination of the field by foreign writers. His complaints would shortly be ungrounded, since many French returned to their homes. Consequently, the publication of these manuals declined and did not resurge until the middle of the following century.
Alston, R.C. Introduction. Ortho-opia Gallica: Eliots fruits for the French. By John Eliot. 1593. Ed. R.C. Alston. English Linguistics, 1500-1800: A Collection of Facsimile Reprints 114. Menston: Scolar Press, 1968.
Alston, R.C. Introduction. A very profitable book to learn English and Spanish. 1554. Ed. R.C. Alston. English Linguistics, 1500-1800: A Collection of Facsimile Reprints 292. Menston: Scolar Press, 1971.
A very profitable book to learn English and Spanish. 1554. Ed. R.C. Alston. English Linguistics, 1500-1800: A Collection of Facsimile Reprints 292. Menston: Scolar Press, 1971.
Bellot, Jacques. Familiar Dialogues. 1586. Ed. R.C. Alston English Linguistics, 1500-1800: A Collection of Facsimile Reprints 141. Menston: Scolar Press, 1969.
Caxton, William. Dialogues in French and English. Ed. Henry Bradley. Early English Text Society, Extra Series 79. Millwood, NY: Kraus Reprint, 1973.
Howatt, APR. A History of English Language Teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984.
Lambley, Kathleen. The Teaching and Cultivation of the French Language in England During Tudor and Stuart Times.
Watts, Richard J. “Refugiate in a strange countrey: Learning English through Dialogues in the 16th Century.” Historical Dialogue Analysis. Ed. Andreas H. Jucker, Gerd Fritz, and Franz Lebsanft. Pragmatics & Beyond New Series 66. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company, 1999. 215-41.
The following are some language manuals of interest not included in the works cited.
Note that although these are print editions, many are available through online resources such as Early English Books Online.
Bellot, Jacques. Le Maistre d’escole anglois. The Englishe scholemaister. 1580. Ed. R.C. Alston. English Linguistics, 1500-1800: A Collection of Facsimile Reprints 51. Menston: Scolar Press, 1967.
Eliot, John. Ortho-opia Gallica: Eliots fruits for the French. 1593. Ed. R.C. Alston. English Linguistics, 1500-1800: A Collection of Facsimile Reprints 114. Menston: Scolar Press, 1968.
Florio, John. Firste fruites. 1578. English Experience, Its Record in Early Printed Books Published in Facsimile 95. Amsterdam, Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, 1969.
Florio, John. Florios second frvtes. English Experience, Its Record in Early Printed Books Published in Facsimile 157. Amsterdam, Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, 1969.
Hollyband, Claudius. The French Littleton. 156. Ed. R.C. Alston. English Linguistics, 1500-1800: A Collection of Facsimile Reprints 220. Menston: Scolar Press, 1970.
- - - . The French school master. 1573. Ed. R.C. Alston. English Linguistics, 1500-1800: A Collection of Facsimile Reprints 315. Menston: Scolar Press, 1972.
See the first two chapters of Howatt for a good historical survey. The relevant sections in Lambley’s book are invaluable, and, thanks to the detailed headings, easy to locate. An invaluable source identified after this article was written is:
Hüllen, Werner. English Dictionaries 800-1700: the Topical Tradition. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999.
Watts attempts a more analytic approach to Bellot’s Familiar Dialogues and A very profitable book, speculating about the texts’ audiences and how, precisely, each manual was used. For example, he argues that the first was meant for adults and children, the latter adults in particular, and that the manuals were probably used in a self-directed manner, possibly in groups, though Familiar Dialogues suggests a supervised setting. His conclusions, he acknowledges, are necessarily tentative. There are also works that examine specific texts from a more linguistic perspective. The following article, for example looks at such topics as the kinds of speech in the dialogue in Caxton’s manual. It also conjectures how the text might have been used.
Hüllen, Werner. “A Close Reading of William Caxton’s Dialogues: ‘to lerne Shortly frenssh and englyssh.’” Historical Pragmatics. Ed. Andreas H. Jucker. Pragmatics & Beyond New Series 35. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company, 1995: 99-124.