Learning English, Lesson One

Posted on 7th May 2021 by simonbeattie

I have fond memories, back in the early 90s, of visiting Stuttgart on a school language exchange. One thing I took away from that (apart from eating Black Forest gateau in the Black Forest) was discovering the German punk band, Die Toten Hosen, in particular their then recent album Learning English, Lesson One, which is made up of covers of songs by British bands, linked with spoof ‘Janet and John’ reading extracts. Looking back on it, perhaps that was my earliest exposure to Anglo-German cultural exchange (the subject of my 10th-anniversary catalogue, now available for download here), and the realisation that, for lots of people around the world, learning English is often done through the medium of pop music. Since then, I have always been drawn to language guides. It is fascinating to see what was deemed useful to know at certain periods, and how things were rendered in the other language. Here are some nice early 19th-century examples:

Thomas Sydney Williams (1786–1869) had gone to Hamburg in 1818 as a corresponding clerk, and stayed for almost forty years. ‘The rapid sale of the first edition of this elementary work, having rendered a second impression necessary, I have spared no pains, in giving it a careful revision, and rendering it more worthy of the flattering reception it has met with’ (Preface).

‘The English language being now almost considered as forming an indispensable part of the education of Germans, one principal object studiously kept in view throughout the following Phrases and Dialogues, has been to render them essentially useful to this nation in particular …’ (Preface to the first edition, seemingly published in 1836). ‘The very rapid sale of the first edition of these Dialogues, a proof of the general approbation that has been stowed upon them, has induced the Author to give them again to the Public …’ (Advertisement to second edition, dated Manchester, August 1836).  It appears the approbation continued: by 1851 the book had reached a fifth edition.

Johann Gottfried Flügel (1788–1855), ‘Lector publicus of the English language in the University of Leipsic’ and the compiler of various dictionaries and language aids, had learned his English in America (1810–9), before returning to Germany.  He was later appointed American consul in Leipzig (1838). His A complete English and German Phraseology; or, a copious Collection of English proper Expressions (Leipzig, 1832) is extensive, and includes American phrases, e.g. ‘They don’t hitch horses at the same post’ (marked as Am. (N.E.)).

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