Volume: 5, Issue: 3


Innovative approaches to teaching foreign languages in Russian lyceums and high schools in the second part of the 19th – beginning of the 20th century
Ветчинова, М. Н. [about] , Герасенкова, П. В. [about]

KEY WORDS: teaching foreign languages, lyceum, gymnasium, natural method, school standards.
ABSTRACT: The authors present the results of the historic-educational research which clearly shows how and why different innovative strategies were used in teaching foreign languages in the elitist Russian schools over a hundred years ago. Some of their approaches can serve as a basis for today’s teachers of foreign languages when they face a dilemma, which method or intervention to choose. 

In the past, Russian secondary schools, especially lyceums and high schools were oriented towards training students to master a foreign language, comprehend foreign culture and literature. It is a well-known fact that the Russian national elite of the 19th century often preferred communicating in French even within the exclusively Russian language environment. The present world situation makes us look back and try to comprehend a many-centuries’ experience, including the one in the sphere of teaching foreign languages. A perfect basis for it could be studying the development of the Russian society and the conceptions of culture in the second part of the 19th – beginning of the 20th century.

Since the second part of the 19th century the Russian empire was involved in the accelerated capitalism development process with a subsequent transition into an imperial phase, which to some extend, corresponds with the current situation in the Russian Federation (development of capitalism at the end of 20th century and search for Russia’s place in the contemporary global world). The second part of the 19th century became the time of a rapid industrial rise, development of science and technology, culture and education. Under the influence of science development, changes in economic relations and cultural exchanges the knowledge of a foreign language became essential as a basis for comprehension of another culture, advanced concepts and technologies. Not only the language itself was valuable but also the opportunity to approach another nation’s ideals, its cultural and scientific potential.  

That is why studying foreign languages became the foundation of the Russian lyceum and high school curriculum of that period. Lyceums were privileged educational institutions, mostly for the elite, and the access to them was limited. High schools, on the contrary, were widely spread institutions representing one of the priority types of educational establishments that successfully worked until 1917. Regardless of differences in their educational goals and the contingent of students, both types of institutions strived at intelligent, spiritual and cultural development of their students. A foreign language played an important role in achieving this goal.  

The majority of educators and public figures in old Russia expressed similar views in identifying the main purpose of studying languages, and saw it in learning about a different culture. They considered a foreign language an important means of understanding the life of a particular nation, its values,​​ ideals and distinctive features of its mentality. Russian thinkers clearly understood the important role of foreign languages not only in the general education of students, but also in their spiritual and moral development, providing opportunities for their cultural growth and the ability to engage in a dialogue with another culture. Literary critic, linguist and teacher Y.I. Eichenwald once wrote that, "a person who knows languages of the living nations can easily establish a spiritual connection with the world and the mankind, and can see oneself as a link in a global chain.  This human being seems to be an amplified and, many times, replicated person. Literature and the soul of other nations are disclosed for them." [1, 58].

Studying a foreign language had another educational goal as studying grammar  – "gymnastics of the mind " or "the nerve of the language" – trains one’s mind, develops analytical skills and logical thinking.

However, there were alternative approaches the authors of which did not share the views on an educational potential of studying foreign languages, and advocated studying students’ native languages and native cultures. For example, A. Gerlach argued that, "the study of languages is the least appropriate tool for the development of one’s spiritual intelligence" and was convinced that "only one’s mother tongue is a medium of the expression of one’s thoughts, while in the process of studying a foreign language speech is no longer means of thinking but just an instructional goal. "[4, 136].

The aims and content of studying new languages were clearly defined in the curriculum, and were directly related to the aims of the secondary school: to provide for a certain amount of grammar and to introduce the literature of the country of the studied language. According to the educational standards from 1864 and 1872, studying foreign languages consisted of acquainting students with the morphological and syntactic structure of the language, as well as learning how to do translations "related to studied grammatical aspects" [7, 126]. Graduates of lyceums and high schools were to demonstrate a complete understanding of the historical works, the ability to translate historical and narrative articles from Russian into French or German without gross etymological and syntactic errors.

The next generation school standards from 1890 and 1906 emphasized the general educational value of new languages, aiming them at promoting general education and development of students’ intellectual abilities. It was designed so that by the end of the high school, students should be able to use the scientific and literary works of French and German scholars and writers for their general education expansion as well as for studying a certain chosen field of science [6, 82].

More specific and mandatory requirements for studying foreign languages were formulated in the educational reform of 1915. A team commissioned to develop a syllabus for studying new foreign languages pointed out "the tremendous educational force" of a foreign language, saw it not in the study of grammar forms, but above all, in the process of understanding French and German texts and the culture of France and Germany.

Interestingly enough, the mandatory oral practice in foreign languages was not mentioned in those standards. The only exception was the 1863 decision of the Council at the Emperor Alexander’s (former Tsarskoye Selo) Lyceum, which recommended “to limit studying literature of new languages by the 2nd grade, and in the 1st grade to continue doing practical exercises to fully acquire foreign languages." [5, 173].

Although famous educators put forward ​​the necessity acquiring practical knowledge of new foreign languages, but still the priority was given to studying literature.

In the late 19th - early 20th century with the spread of the ‘natural method’ of teaching, there came an important requirement concerning foreign languages’ textbooks – the presence of various visual aids, which was provoked by the nature of the method itself. According to Professor K.A. Ganshina, such aides "are designed to create in foreign language classes that favorable atmosphere, another environment in which something foreign is better received and fixed." [2, 69].

Although while composing textbooks the authors tried to follow the principles of the natural method, but the translation method which was still widely spread caused some confusion in the use of a new teaching method, and in the content of textbooks, created on its basis, which shows that already an outdated but still used grammar-translation method had a large number of followers.

Reading books were used together with textbooks for junior and senior levels of teaching a foreign language. Their contents ranged from a simple set of random jokes, abstracts from fiction to serious texts borrowed from classical European literature, which were to acquaint students with the people of the country the language of which they were studying, together with their culture and the way of life, traditions and spiritual values.

Students also obtained the information about the culture of foreign countries while using in class different thematic paintings and illustrations, collections of postcards, separable paintings, thereby, enriching their vocabulary. The aforementioned period is marked by the innovation, which opened a new era in teaching foreign languages; we mean the use of the gramophone (or Edison’s phonograph) in class.

In the 1860-80s the main method of teaching foreign languages was a grammar translation method, with two different orientations: grammatical one (with its emphasis on studying grammar) and textual (reading and translating books). Teaching foreign languages was based on studying grammar, and grammar itself was considered part of science identical to logics. Grammar was studied for "the gymnastics of the mind" and for better understanding of foreign texts. Not just translation, but the analysis of classic literature was meant to increase students’ intelligence, and raise their humanitarian and linguistic culture.

The main aim of the natural method (also called intuitive, real, visual, American or Berlitz method) which became popular in the 80-90s of the 19th century was to acquire oral communication skills. Followers of this method focused on the initial phase, which involved learning everyday language solely for practical purposes. Great importance was given to the creation of an artificial language environment and the use of visualization. Famous Russian educator Konstantin D. Ushinsky wrote, "Children's nature requires clarity. Teach your child any five words unknown to him, and he will suffer over them for a long time in vain, but associate twenty words with the images, and the child will learn them in passing "[8, p. 137].

One of the variations of the natural method was a direct method of teaching foreign languages. Its followers sought to associate words and grammatical forms of a foreign language directly with their meaning, without any help of the students’ native language. Its main principles, recognized by all the educators, related to the usage of the visible aids at the initial stage of training and extensive reading of fiction – at the advanced one.

The spread of the natural method in Russian educational institutions began in the 1890s – early 1900s with the publication of the textbook written by an American educator Berlitz. [3, p. 157]. However, the usage of grammar translation and textual translation methods were still very common and a so-called ‘mix of methods’ took place, which led to the birth of new methods that maintained or altered basic techniques of natural and translation methods.

Pragmatism in teaching and learning new languages oriented students mostly towards understanding other nations’ cultures. The best way to do so was to let students do reading, translation, grammar exercises and memorizing. At the same time, translation was used as a means to master student’s mother tongue. In addition to the aforementioned, other forms like retelling, discussions, writing dictations and homework compositions were used in language classes. To enhance comprehension, students were given assignments for home reading, and afterwards they were supposed to discuss these books in class.

Additional practice with native speakers was very common. Students memorized a lot of poems and lyrics. Literary and musical evenings were highly popular. Students staged plays in foreign languages, which contributed not only to their fluency in oral speech, but also to developing their aesthetic sense of beauty. Educational trips abroad were arranged frequently. Such trips opened a direct access to the cultural values ​​of the country the language of which they were studying. Students got an aesthetic pleasure, as they could see historical landmarks with their own eyes, "touch" the national heritage of another country, and "dive" in the language environment. All this helped young people to broaden their horizons and obtain new knowledge as well as encouraged them to have a new look at the knowledge they already had, and increased the motivation for further language study.

The knowledge obtained at school was consolidated and extended at home in the process of communicating with a governess – a native speaker or with a home teacher who spoke a foreign language​​.

However, there were significant drawbacks in teaching foreign languages in lyceums and other types of high schools in the second part of the 19th century. This is reflected in discussions of followers and opponents of the classical education in defining the role and aims of teaching ancient and modern foreign languages ​​in the secondary school curriculum. At the beginning of the 20th century, many public figures expressed their dissatisfaction with the system of secondary education, with the students’ knowledge, including knowledge of foreign languages. Many teaching methods developed by European educators were often simply borrowed and replicated by Russian teachers, while realities of the Russian system of education, organizational and pedagogical conditions and traditions of the Russian school were not taken into account. This often led to disintegration of foreign methodological ideas and the national educational system. "Crowds" in a language class, absence of division into subgroups, presence of students with different levels of knowledge did not always contribute to obtaining sufficient language skills. At the same time, studying in groups of 10-15 people was quite successfully carried out in private high schools, lyceums, or in privately organized classes.

Educational publications of this period contain more than enough critical articles about the situation with teaching foreign languages ​​and the low level of obtained knowledge. However, negative statements can often be found in the publications, in which, along with criticism, there were also specific suggestions how to improve the instruction. There was plenty of such works as the whole period was marked by a constant search for ways to enhance and improve the process of teaching foreign languages, define their role not only in shaping and developing students’ cultures, but also in an overall importance in their further life.

To conclude, our study of teaching foreign languages ​​in Russian high schools and lyceums in the second part of the 19th- early 20th century suggests that by the period before the 1917 revolution Russia already possessed a number of well developed, advanced and even innovative approaches for teaching foreign languages. Despite their shortcomings and criticisms in the publications of that period, the analysis of historical documents indicates that advanced Russian teachers did not just replicate teaching methods developed by their European counterparts. They strived for adapting foreign methods to the realities of domestic gymnasiums, thoughtfully looking for the best options of their use, they also shared their methodological experience at foreign language teachers’ conferences and in educational journals.

One cannot deny the fact that Russian intellectuals of that period, who graduated from lyceums and high schools, spoke foreign languages fluently​​, read classics in the original, studied ancient and European cultures. Graduates of these educational institutions were the elite of the Russian society and held important positions in the higher administrative and political circles, as well as in religious, military, scientific, and cultural institutions.

The Civil War and the subsequent emigration of intellectuals and nobility from Russia, the emigration of the people who received excellent secondary education, proved that well-educated professionals speaking foreign languages​​ could successfully integrate into another culture and find the best way to use their knowledge. For example, we can mention such famous people as an aircraft designer I.I. Sikorsky, an outstanding writer V.V. Nabokov, and many others.

Thus, ​​in the second part of the 19th –early 20th century, Russian thinkers and researchers who worked in the field of teaching foreign languages followed the main world tendencies and based their studies on the latest achievements, forms and methods. Comprehension, enrichment and update of the historical experience of teaching foreign languages ​​and at the same time preserving its fundamental basis helps us to see the new in the traditional "forgotten old", but in the context of modern innovation settings, which ensures a progressive orientation of teaching in general.


  • Eichenwald, Yu.I. Classical and new languages in the secondary // Education Bulletin. – 1899. – No. 8. – P. 54–60. (In Russian)
  • Ganshina, K.A. Methodology of teaching foreign languages. – Moscow, 1930. – 73 p. (In Russian)
  • Garshin, E. Experience of educational excursion abroad for studying a foreign language.  // Russian School. – 1903. – No. 9. – P. 156–173. (In Russian)
  • Gerlakh A. Imaginary educational value of foreign languages // Russian School. – 1914. – No. 4. – P. 136–152. (In Russian)
  • Egorov, A.D. Russian lyceums. Emperor Alexander (former Tsarskoye Selo) Lyceum. Book 5. Part. 2. – Ivanovo, 1995 – 190 p. (In Russian)
  • New curricula and programs (approved on July 20, 1890) of classical gymnasiums and pro-gymnasiums with new explanatory notes of MPE. Comp. Gorbunov. – Moscow, 1891. – 168 p. (In Russian)
  • Programs and rules for male gymnasiums and pro-gymnasiums reporting to the Ministry of Public Education. – SPb., 1872. – 178 p. (In Russian)
  • Ushinsky K.D. Mother Tongue // Selected pedagogical works: in 2 volumes / Edited by V.Ya. Struminsky. – Moscow, 1954. Vol. 2. – 437 p. (In Russian).

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