Berlitz: The Birth of the Native Speaker Myth

Birth. New Life. Beginnings. The magic, mystique, and magnificence of creating something that we hope will be greater than ourselves. The Berlitz “method”, the precise moment of its birth, is a story best told by Berlitz. Travel back in time with me to the year 1870. We are at the Warner Polytechnic College, in Providence, Rhode Island, USA. Let’s let Berlitz tell the story, the Birth of the Berlitz Method (Native Speaker Myth):

“Maximilian Berlitz grew up in the Black Forest region of Germany, the son of a family of teachers and mathematicians. He emigrated to the United States in 1870. The language fan, Maximilian taught Greek, Latin and six other European languages there, using the strict, traditional “grammar-translation” method.

After he had successfully taught as a private tutor for a while, he joined the Warner Polytechnic College in Providence, where he became Professor of French and German. However, the college was not as impressive as its name. Berlitz was soon the owner, dean, head teacher and the only member of the faculty, all rolled into one.

As he needed an assistant for French, Berlitz employed a young Frenchman named Joly, who obviously came with top references. When Joly arrived in Providence, he found that his employer was completely exhausted, feverish and very ill. The situation only worsened when Berlitz found out that his new assistant did not speak a single word of English. Desperately trying to find a way to use Joly in his teaching, Berlitz instructed him to explain objects using gestures and to act out verbs as well as he could. He then returned to bed.

The birth of the Berlitz Method®

He returned to the classroom six weeks later, expecting his desperate students to be angry with him. Instead, he found his students engaging in an animated exchange of questions and answers – in elegant French. The normal venerable atmosphere of a traditional classroom had disappeared. His students were also much further ahead in terms of what they had learned than Berlitz would have achieved in the same period of time. Berlitz came to a significant conclusion: the “emergency solution” had formed the basis for a completely new method of teaching. The strict learning method (Grammar Translation Method) had to give way to an animated process of discovery.”

*** End of Story

What an exciting story! Sadly, it is only a story, with a number of fallacies. I shall return to those fallacies in a later post. More importantly, however, is that we recognize what happened. Berlitz rationalized that the only difference between his teaching and that of the Frenchman, “Joly”, was that Berlitz was a non-native speaker of French, and that Joly was a monolingual native speaker of French. Hence, a Native Speaker was superior to a Non-native Speaker.

Berlitz committed a fallacy in his reasoning called, in Latin, “Post hoc, ergo propter hoc”. This means, literally, “After this, therefore caused by this”. So, first you have the non-native speaker teacher (Berlitz was a native German speaker – teaching French) and poor results. Next comes the monolingual, native French teacher, Joly. Excellent results. So Berlitz concludes that the excellent results were caused by the students having a native speaker teacher.

What’s wrong with the conclusion of Berlitz? Why was Berlitz not correct in his reasoning? Let’s work with this a bit, shall, we?

1. Sample size: Berlitz had only a small class. The results he had were applicable only to a small, limited number of people.

2. Random selection: The students were not randomly selected, meaning that the students participating were not chosen by a lottery system, with some students attending, and some students not attending the class.

3. Control group: There was no control group, that is, a group of students who received instruction using a different method.

4. There was no comparison group, who would have received both grammar translation and “the new Berlitz method”.

5. Male and Female? How many of each gender? Results for each gender?

6. Pretest? What was the starting level of French? (Before the new method, or treatment, was applied?)

7. Post-test: What were the results after the course of treatment? Better? Worse?

8. Sustainability: Test after 1 year? 2 years? 5 years?

9. Longitudinal study? 2 years, 5 years, 10 years, 20 years?

10. Age of students?

11. Level of French of the students?

12. Motivation of the students?

13. Socioeconomic status of the students?

14. Replication: Have other investigators/researchers been able to duplicate your results, using the technique/method/conditions described by Berlitz?

15. Is there a large body of corroborating evidence, from many different sources, different researchers? (After 140 years, this should be the case)

Quite simply, Berlitz arrived at his conclusion through reasoning, what to him, intuitively explained the results he was seeing. His conclusions were at best, applicable only to that small group of students taught by himself and Joly.

Let me try to explain why this is bad science:

Imagine that Berlitz’s students found him stressed out, tired, over-worked, strict, boring, and uninspiring. It’s winter, it’s freezing cold, and here’s Berlitz drilling them on translating the classics. Berlitz gets sick, and here comes this Frenchman, Joly, speaking only French, talking about Paris, the Eiffel Tower, French cuisine, Notre Dame, Montmartre, Moulin Rouge, Mona Lisa, the Louvre, etc.

Let me give you another story: Imagine that Berlitz’s students had not had any fruit, for example, oranges, to eat. Suddenly, oranges are available, and the students’ results improve. Berlitz would conclude that the oranges caused the improved results.

In both examples I have given you, there is something at work called the “Unknown Variable”. Basically, it means that the results are being caused by some unknown variable, and not the reason or factor that you think is responsible for the improved results.

To conclude, Berlitz was not very rigorous in his conclusion about the Native Speaker. Yet he developed a method, based on his observations of the results a Native Speaker, Joly, that have changed little from 1870 to the present date – 2010. In other words, the Myth of the Native Speaker as the superior teacher dates back 140 years.

Berlitz, as we know it today, continues to employ the method, based on the Native Speaker Myth. World-wide, any advertisement for employment as a teacher at any of the more than 500 Berlitz Centers will include this qualification line:

Qualification Requirements:
Native English speaker

And we have come back to the beginning, the Native Speaker Myth. In my next post, we shall discuss immigration, and how monolingual teachers of immigrants had no choice but to use English only in the classroom, with their multi-lingual classes. But that’s another story…

Thomas Baker
Native Speaker
Teacher of English as a Foreign Language
Santiago, Chile

About profesorbaker

Thomas Baker is the Past-President of TESOL Chile (2010-2011). He enjoys writing about a wide variety of topics. The source and inspiration for his writing comes from his family.
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