Learning Languages in Early Modern England by John Gallagher

Review by Liz Dexter, 6 February 2020

Has it ever struck you that before England obtained its empire, no one else in the world bothered to speak the language? Did you realise what a hugely multicultural place England was in in early modern times, chock-full of foreign language teachers, Italian churches, French refugees and the like? So how did the English-speakers learn European languages in order to travel, trade, learn and interact with the continent, and how did people teach the language here and overseas? This book is apparently the first to address these issues, although literary scholars have looked at multilingualism and code-switching, and it does it very well, drawing on a huge and attractive wealth of materials to do so.

Author John Gallagher has been a Lecturer in Early Modern History at the University of Leeds since 2017 and is a frequent contributor to radio and print media. This book is based on his doctoral research but turned into an engaging and interesting read that has much to offer.

Examining the period 1480-1720, the book, “offers a history of linguistic competences in a polyglot context, investigating the methods by which they were acquired, used, tested and judged”. The concept of ‘communicative competence’ is important in the book: the way in which a language speaker could adjust what linguists call their register, just as we have a different phone voice to the one we use in a conversation with our friends, and could use the variants of a language that were considered high-status (the French of the Loire, but later Paris, for example). This means that there’s a fair bit of fascinating stuff on how language teaching materials encompassed ways to behave, often shown through the dialogues that constituted the practical examples.

The first chapter looks at the language teachers, and how learning happened in private arrangements, either tutors going into homes or pupils living in private houses where the servants were (almost invisibly and inaudibly in the historical record) speakers of the target language. H Gallagher compares these workers to the ‘invisible technicians’ who have supported centuries of scientific discoveries in a nice historical touch. Chapter 2 is a fascinating delve into the actual printed materials, how they were put together and developed, how much they cost and how long they lasted, with an emphasis on the pocket-sized learner that you still find today in phrase books. The third chapter looks at linguistic competence in more detail, and how that was gained and judged: this one looks very much at both directions of learning, with some fascinating instructions for foreigners in England, including making sure you appear to have the correct religion at the right time in history. The final chapter follows learners onto the Continent, looking at their notebooks, polyglot diaries and letters home, and the polyglot phrase books with their cramped word lists, trying to give them a way in across the Continent. The Conclusion slightly oddly goes into a discussion of silence as contributing to the debate, but I’m not sure where else this would have fitted.

Reproductions of the materials Gallagher consulted, including actual notebooks and word lists or annotated printed dialogues really add to the book and are wonderful things to look at. He even manages to consult an ‘album amicorum’ where the students of one teacher wrote all sorts of nice comments, in Italian in the main, to show the working relationship between teachers and students. Gallagher also draws out the discussions and arguments among language teachers as to the ‘best’ variant or teacher of a language, with rows being carried out via the title pages of dictionaries and in adverts. Differently from nowadays, with all languages developing fast in this period, there’s much emphasis on learning the ‘new’ and almost trendy words and ways of saying them, as well as a lot of taking account of the political background of the particular time the material was put together. It’s very interesting to be able to see how people, spoke through the conversation manuals given to them as examples, although obviously these would have become dated, much as any phrase book we’ve had for a while will slip slightly out of date.

There’s plenty on women’s lives and experiences, both women learners and teachers, which is a nicer foregrounding and adds to the interest and inclusivity of the volume. Bathsua Makin is described; a wonderful strong woman who lobbied for women’s education in languages and other areas, and dialogues which put women in a weak position in terms of dealing with foreigners are pointed out. There’s also discussion of a rather wonderful conversation manual full of detail on discussion one’s baby with one’s foreign nurse, although keeping women firmly in the home environment in general. This inclusivity extends to looking where he can at working class people’s and servants’ language learning, although it’s acknowledged that the historical record privileges the richer grand tourist. There is discussion of new work which is interrogating different archives to find out more about more ‘ordinary’ people’s language lives.

This is an academic book, and so there is a bit of academic-style comparison and jostling with other writers who treat the topic tangentially – even a few small arguments. But in its relatively plain and engaging language and the sheer interest of the topic to anyone who’s interested in social history and language learning, even anyone who’s wrestled with a peculiar list of sayings in the language for the country they’re visiting and wondered how these came about, I firmly believe it’s a book for the general reader, too.

As befits a work by an academic for OUP, there’s a wealth of supporting information. The images of the books, notebooks, learning materials and annotations are nicely done (I read an e-copy so I can’t comment on the print reproduction; I suspect they are printed on the page rather than on separate glossy plates), and there’s a huge mass of what I’d call “chatty” footnotes to each chapter – i.e. not just dry bibliographical references but discussions, explanations and recommendations for where to find out more. There’s also an index and bibliography.

Liz Dexter is currently learning Spanish in a very modern way, via an app. The entrepreneurial folk in this book would have been using apps had they been invented then, she is sure! She blogs about reading and running at www.librofulltime.wordpress.com

John Gallagher, Learning Languages in Early Modern England (OUP, 2019). 978-0198837909, 288 pp., ill. hardback

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2 thoughts on “Learning Languages in Early Modern England by John Gallagher

  1. Pingback: Shiny New Books review and incoming for review (lucky me!) @ShinyNewBooks #amreading @OUPAcademic @ThamesandHudson | Adventures in reading, running and working from home

  2. Sounds fascinating, Liz, and the perfect balance of academic and readable. We take language so much for granted nowadays, but as Orwell predicted we’d be sunk without it…

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