Monday, February 27, 2017

The all-time champion of hard language study: Francois Gouin

The all-time champion of hard study was Francois Gouin, who describes his efforts to learn (not acquire) German in his book The Art of Teaching and Studying Languages, published in 1892 and translated into English from French.
When a young man, Gouin traveled to Germany to study German philosophy, but had no knowledge of German. Expecting to acquire German in a few weeks, he attended a lecture and understood nothing. He then “set to work” (p. 10), using they only method he knew: The “classical process,” the way he had studied Greek and Latin. He began by applying himself “resolutely to the study of the grammar” of German, and he claims it took him only ten days to fully master it. He then returned to the university, but again understood nothing: “... not a word, not a single word would penetrate to my understanding. Nay, more than this, I did not even distinguish a single one of the irregular verbs freshly learnt, though they must have certainly fallen in crowds from the lips of the speakers” (p. 11).
Gouin decided that the problem was that he had only memorized verbs. The real solution was to memorize verb roots, which he found in an obscure book. But after learning 800 roots in four days, the result was the same: Zero comprehension.
He then turned to conversation. He would spent hours in his hosts’ hairdresser salon, trying to understand what was being said, “hazarding from time to time a sentence carefully prepared beforehand, awkwardly constructed with the aid of my roots and grammar, and apparently always possessing the property of astonishing and hugely amusing the customers” (p. 14).
Gouin became aware that memorized knowledge of language was fragile: “Studied in this manner, a language appeared to me under the guise of Penelope’s web, where the work of the night destroyed the work of the day” (p. 15). Undaunted, he returned to reading, not comprehensible texts but those he needed to translate with the use of a dictionary – the works of Goethe and Schiller. The study of verbs and roots, however, didn’t help: In reading the texts, he could hardly recognize anything he had studied.
Gouin didn’t give up on the classical method. "So my work on the roots and irregular verbs seemed to have been in vain. Nevertheless I could not bring myself to believe this seriously. ‘The fire smolders under the ashes,’ I assured myself, ‘and will brighten up little by little. We must read, read, day in and day out; translate, translate continually; hunt, hunt a hundred times after the same word in the dictionary, catch it a hundred times, after a hundred times release it; we shall finish by taming it” (p. 16).
But after a full week, “I had hardly interpreted the meaning of eight pages, and the ninth did not promise to be less obscure or less laborious than the preceding” (p. 16). Gouin then gave up on translation and turned to several popular books that promised to teach the reader German, and found that they gave contradictory advice. None of them worked. Gouin’s evaluation of another book, Systematic Vocabulary, is interesting: “The book made the fortune of its author without producing the results sought for by him” (p. 24).
On meeting his professors in Berlin, Gouin noted that they spoke French quite well, and “ ... never ceased wondering how all these people had learnt this language” (p. 25). But Gouin still didn’t get it, doing everything except find comprehensible input: He spent a full week listening to lectures in German, seven to eight hours per day, and concluded that “I might attend the German university for a thousand years under these conditions without learning German” (p. 26). But his next step was the strangest of all: He actually memorized the entire dictionary, 300 pages and 30,000 words, ten pages a day, over one month. But the result was the same: When Gouin returned to the university, he still understood nothing. Nor was reading any easier: Gouin tells us that it took half a day to read two to three pages of Goethe and Schiller, “and then I was not absolutely sure of having found the real meaning of the sentences” (p. 31). Gouin then spent another two weeks reviewing the dictionary, convinced that he had not learned it thoroughly enough the first time. And after time off because what he described as “a disease to the eyesight,” he went through the dictionary again, reviewing “only” one-seventh of it each day of the week. The result was the same.
After this ten month ordeal, Gouin returned home to France. While he was gone, his nephew, two and a half years old when he left, had learned to speak French, his first language, and spoke it with “so much ease, applied to everything with so much surety, so much precision, so much relevancy ...” (p. 34), and acquired it as a result of “playing round with his mother, running after flowers, butterflies, and birds, without weariness, without apparent effort, without even being conscious of his work ...” (p 34), quite a contrast with Gouin’s experience.
(It should be noted that Gouin’s experiences with German led him to develop an early version of the “direct method” for foreign language teaching, which was consistent in some ways with the Comprehension hypothesis, known as the Series Method.)
Gouin thus had little comprehensible input; in fact, he seemed to have avoided it. He appears to have engaged in some forced speech at the hairdresser’s salon, but does not tell us whether his errors were corrected. His main effort, of course, was conscious learning of grammar and vocabulary, which he hoped would become automatic language. One can, of course, argue that Gouin’s learning did not become automatic because he did not practice enough, i.e. he did not produce enough, did not try to apply the rules and words he learned in oral and written output.

From: Krashen, S.  2014. Case Histories and the Comprehension Hypothesis. TESOL Journal (, June, 2014 (, "free voluntary reading" section)


  1. Reminds me of the 2015 French language Scrabble champion from New Zealand.

  2. Thanks for share with us an important article &post.for great information