Study Abroad in the 19th Century

“For the study of languages I knew but one process – a process without any particular name – the classical process.  My faith in the grammar, the dictionary, the translation from and into the foreign language, was entire and above suspicion.  To my mind the value, and the efficiency of this “universal” process were indisputable…To learn first words, then the rules for grouping these words, and of these to make up sentences, this seemed to me to include the whole art, the whole secret, the whole philosophy of the teaching of languages.”

Thus begins Gouin, François’s account of his failure to learn German while studying abroad for ten months.  He came from France. He studied grammar and root words.  He worked on translating a book.  He even attempted to memorize a 30,000 word dictionary (of course, he gave up on that idea).  

He didn’t bury himself in books all the time.  On conversing with natives, he wrote:

To be well received by the various student societies was easy enough.  The French were much liked at this epoch: they were feasted and petted by everyone.  But what was most difficult was to get any of these young people to converse in German with a Frenchman.  I soon recognized that the greater part of them sought my society with the interested motive of exercising French. At first I let them do as they wished – I had talked alone long enough at Hamberg.  But I was not long in taking steps to counteract this abuse, and recalling myself to duty, I forbade myself all further conversation in French.  Visits and friends all at once began to decrease.  I already knew how apt my German conversations were to produce this effect.

On interacting with his host family:

I had taken up rooms at a hairdresser’s…So I found me established for long hours in the hairdressers saloon where I attempted to follow the conversation, hazarding from time to time a sentence carefully prepared beforehand, awkwardly constructed with the aid of my roots and grammar [books], and apparently always possessing the property of astonishing and highly amusing the customers.

Meanwhile, the days passed and the weeks also and truly I could not see what I has gained from one morning to the other.  I considered that the sundry conventional phrases I could now exchange with the frequenters of the house were really not worth the pains I had given either to gather or to retain them.  I felt besides that to converse with me was an undertaking hardly less painful than with a deaf-mute.

Moreover, I had an intense desire, and ardent thirst for order and logic, to which the scraps of ordinary conversation, more or less vapid, and continually interrupted, corresponded but ill.  This lack of order enervated and fatigued me beyond measure…and I returned to reading- translation, with the aid of a dictionary.

Here are the results of attending classes at a German University:

I persevered thus for a whole week, listening without understanding a word to discourses which seemed to me to form one continuous sound, and which, if they had been written down, would have formed a single word, on a single line three quarters of an hour long.  In other words, on the last day of the week, as of the first, I could distinguish neither the words, nor the sentences, nor the periods of the professor…I might attend the German university for a thousand years under these conditions without learning German.

Does this sound like study abroad experiences today?  We feel your pain, François!


To read his book, see
The Art of Teaching and Studying Languages.

For language learning ideas that cost a lot less than studying abroad, read some other blog posts here at


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