Learning Languages in Early Modern England, by John Gallagher (2023)

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    Learning Languages in Early Modern England

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    Tudor and Stuart England, as John Gallagher reminds us, was a land of linguistic exchanges. Speakers of Irish and Welsh, or visitors and refugees from the Continent, were faced by the need to learn English. English, despite its achievements at home, was little known elsewhere. Those travelling beyond the Channel had to master European languages by picking up speech informally or undergoing formal instruction. Inevitably, his book concentrates on the latter of these, because so little survives of the former: how, say, sailors or common soldiers coped when abroad. One admittedly untypical case is worth mentioning. The Cornish language, which survived in the far west until the eighteenth century, was close to that of Brittany: easing contacts which helped to prolong its own existence.

    The book enters immediately into the language issues of Tudor England without an historical introduction. It would have been helpful to include a couple of pages pointing out that the situation described was not new in itself or in the solutions it prompted. England had long had immigrants and the English had travelled abroad for war, diplomacy and trade. French had long been taught formally and through the production of literary texts. Walter of Bibbesworth’s Tretiz, written for a woman of status in the thirteenth century, described familiar scenes long before Erondell and Hollyband did so under Elizabeth I. The earliest known French grammar dates from the same century, and dialogues in French or French and English were being written by the early fifteenth, as were treatises on letter writing. Educators in early modern England updated such teaching, and broadened the range of languages being taught, but earlier teachers had also invented ingenious ways to encourage their students’ endeavours.

    The teaching of Tudor and Stuart languages was traditional in another way. It did not take place in most of the common places of education. Elementary schools kept on the whole to English and some basic Latin. Grammar schools confined themselves to Latin and sometimes to Greek as well. Universities were likewise concerned with Latin, Greek and, eventually (but at an academic level), Hebrew and Arabic. The exclusion of modern languages had been the case in earlier centuries, so that although French was taught in the university cities and some other major towns, the work was done by private teachers. A similar distinction continued in England after 1500, when it becomes much better recorded, especially under Elizabeth and the Stuarts. This subject forms the first of Gallagher’s four chapters. He provides a great deal of information about such teachers, especially in London, and the most notable of them: those who produced the textbooks. Little is said (presumably yet known) about the situation elsewhere, but it is hard to imagine an absence of need or opportunity in Bristol, Norwich or the universities. Unfortunately, as the author observes, the teachers have left few records of the students they gathered or the range of studies that they supported.

    The chapter on provision is followed by one on language manuals, especially the conversational versions, produced and used by the teachers. This section is particularly original and illuminating. The number of textbooks was large: the author has identified about 300 relevant to England, printed here or on the Continent, which allow some substantial conclusions. French remained the most popular language for the English to learn, and most immigrants were French, especially in the seventeenth century. Italian was in vogue under Elizabeth I, but less so afterwards. Spanish was a dangerous language to promote in the years of Philip II, and had to be sold for itself rather than as a tool for going abroad. Dutch was little taught before about 1630, and German not until the 1680s. English was included in some polyglot phrase-books produced on the Continent but not in others.

    The author proceeds from the treatises to analyse the nuances of language teaching. In a competitive world, practitioners claimed to have a superior knowledge of their subject over their rivals. French had to be of the best: of Paris according to some, of the Loire valley (especially Blois) to others. Italian, which varied regionally, presented a problem, with Tuscan being generally reckoned superior. Work with a native speaker was recommended to supplement the manuals, including visits to churches or law courts when abroad to hear the language in full flow. Some texts included insults; others, meant for women, assumed only polite conversation or the reading of books. Authors of dialogues chose topics appropriate to their readers: mercantile matters for merchants, domestic life for women. Advice was given on the customs of different countries: on behaviour and table etiquette. Manuals for immigrants explained English weights and measures and sought to assuage the fear of being overcharged.

    In the final chapter the author moves from education to experience, tracing how the English, especially the nobility and gentry who have left the best records, faced the linguistic challenges of foreign travel. Some fared well; others struggled. All were advised to avoid the company of their own countrymen and to immerse themselves in the language wherever they were. It is amusing to find that servants, when taken abroad, were not always as keen to learn the local tongue as their masters. It had no cultural significance for them, and one man was sent home for failing to get beyond rudimentary French. In this, as in the whole of his book, Gallagher has produced a well researched, comprehensive and readable history of the subject. He has shone more light than before on the tutors and schools that provided language teaching, and has compiled what will long be a definitive account of the texts that they used. More widely, his book enhances our understanding of elite culture in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, its members’ wish to acquire the cachet and cultural advantages that languages brought, and the importance of this alongside the production and enjoyment of literature in English.

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    © Oxford University Press 2021. All rights reserved.

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