William Frederick Herbert Whitmarsh
W.F.H. Whitmarsh MA Licencié ès Lettres
Whitmarsh is the author of, as far as I can tell, about twenty French school text books. No snazzy names referencing French society, just do-what-they-say-on-the-tin titles, like: A First French Book, A Second French Book, A Third... you've got the gist. Whitmarsh was prolific, thorough, accurate and successful. I can't trace exactly when he published his first school book, though I have a copy of the Complete French Course which was first published in 1935,but he was churning our plenty in the early 1960's and was still being reprinted in the late seventies.
Whitmarsh was to grammar-translation as Beethoven was to the classical symphony. GT was at its most refined, in its pomp, but was about to explode and give way to a new movement, the romantic direct methodists.
To the teacher who enjoyed teaching grammar and translation these were reassuringly structured text books, usually with grammar explanations in English, translations to and from French and, with a nod to the new methods on the horizon, passages in French with questions in French or English. To teach with Whitmarsh you didn't have to speak much French at all, though it surely helped if you had a good vocabulary and knowledge of the rules of grammar. You didn't even need other books. He would supply glossaries, verb paradigms, annotations and lengthy vocab lists. Cultural information is supplied in minute doses. The language is largely literary/narrative in style.
In the copy of Modern Certificate French (1965) I have in front of me there is not a single illustration to attract the eye of the reluctant pupil. In the book's foreword Whitmarsh writes: "A wise teacher said, "The writers of French textbooks always try to teach the pupils too much." He goes on to recognise that French is no longer being taught only to the brightest pupils and that the content needs simplifying for "less able classes preparing for O-level". Remember that O-level was only meant for a minority of secondary pupils, so even this Whitmarsh-lite book still looks heavy going for the average ability pupil. It is a reminder not only of how demanding we used to be with grammar, but also of out total failure to develop other language skills.
The methodology is clear: explain the rules, practise them through translation, apply them with reading comprehension exercises, and don't worry too much listening and speaking. I suppose it was assumed that you would pick these up later when you eventually were thrown in the deep end in France. And so we had a generation of folk who say: I knew the grammar, but I couldn't speak a word.
So learning French was like learning Latin. It was a mental discipline, a puzzle for pattern-finders and some gifted individuals would go on to apply their knowledge of grammar in hesitant speech.
Let's face it: it was a poor one-club method. It's as if no-one noticed that young children acquired language skill by listening and speaking. And even if the pretext was that in school you didn't have time to learn oral and aural skills, thousands of pupils were poorly served.
When Gilbert's Cours Illustré came along, or when teachers got hold of Voix et Images de France with its audio-visual/lingual method, Whitmarsh must have looked very old hat.
I'm not sure I used Whitmarsh much at school, if at all. My teachers were enlightened practitioners. I did used to teach prose composition with his Senior French Composition for A-level, for which it is well adapted.
There is a place for grammar-translation, but it is only one club in the golf bag, and it's not the putter.