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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.


  1. I loved Whitmarsh ... so clear and mathematically logical ... and so far removed from what I actually heard when I got here! That being said, I will be forever grateful for the grounding it gave me in French grammar, which served me well in the Concours. Obviously I agree with you though about the enormous progress made in oral work. Nonetheless, on this side of the Channel it is often synonymous with confusion, particularly in the minds of French children who are used to analysing their own language. The argument that children learn by listening and repeating doesn't apply in quite the same way to pupils whose bain linguistique is reduced to two or three hours a week. I recently persuaded my French colleagues to adopt a a really great CUP TEFL course, much better than the French editions at combining oral practice with formal language work. Are your French courses based on this kind of approach?

  2. Our courses combine an oral approach with a grammatical progression. Teachers are encouraged to work in the target language as much as is reasonable. There is a good deal of pairwork, some grammatical explanation, games and ICT are used a good deal in many schools. The IWB is in wide use with lots of resources. I guess we have an eclectic view of methodology with a healthy respect for various approaches. There is no panacea. What school slack is time and respect for modern languages. Because languages are seen as difficult they are often dropped by pupils at 14 and schools allow this partly because it makes their results look better and partly because they think children are more motivated by other activities.

  3. I think you're being too harsh on Whitmarsh, perhaps based upon only knowing certain of his books. I was taught French using his "More Rapid French", and it gave me a very solid foundation in the language that enabled me to go on to study at Uni in both France and Switzerland. Later I taught French using his "A First (etc.) French Book" with (I am informed) great success. Naturally he lacks the audio-visual supports in language learning we have now, but only a very poor teacher would rely purely on the book. I was fortunate to have had enthusiastic teachers, for whom pronunciation, self-expression, conversational skills and indeed a trip to France were all part of the course. Nowadays we lack a sold grammatical foundation in many language courses: we may have made many gains along the way, but haven't we also lost something that Whitmarsh used to provide?

    1. Agree totally. I was taught O level French using Whitmarsh, and at the same time, taught O level German using some new fangled approach (1980's). As a result, largely, the school had rubbish German results and very good French results. I went on to do French at A level, and can still remember some useful stuff. Can't speak a word of German.

  4. Whitmarsh gave me an excellent grounding in the spoken language. I, too, was taught with "More Rapid French" and fifteen years (and NO French holidays) later found that the Alliance Francaise had no course at my ability level because I was already at "Niveau Quatre" - fluent!

  5. The number of books Whitmarsh published is a mark of his success and, no doubt, the success of the method. I wouldn't mind betting, however, that the method only suited certain pupils. These pupils were in grammar schools and independents. Yes, good teachers would have supplemented his books with other resources. I would still argue that there are better ways of getting grammar internalised whilst also developing comprehension and oral skills.

    I hesitate to be dogmatic about methodology, partly because all children are different and prefer different methods. In addition, a teacher has to be comfortable with the approach he or she is using. That said, if there isn't plenty of foreign language input to listen to, comprehension is bound to be limited.

  6. WFH Whitmarsh was my grandfather, I'm very proud of his success and grateful for the comments about his work.

    1. Thank you for leaving your comment. There is no-one more famous for his single contribution to French text book writing. Did you inherit any linguistic skills from him?

  7. I found as a schoolboy the Whitmarsh textbooks to be totally unintersting. The passages to be translated were dull.

    I am now professor of mathematics at a French university and to achieve this I had to enormously improve my French from the standard (Whitmarsh) school French.

    I do not know what teaching of French is like now in England but I hope it is better than when I was taught.

  8. Thank you for leaving a comment, Martin. I suspect your views are shared by many. At that time the books were, I suppose, "state of the art", but we have moved on and i would say that studenst today get a far better deal and are generally better taught in a wider range of skills.

  9. I am bilingual French/English. I was for some years a bilingual travelling lecturer for the Alliance Française. I learned my French at school, entirely from Whitmarsh. I still believe that grammar is the foundation of language teaching, and that one needs the bones of a language before adding the flesh of vocabulary.

  10. Just shows we all have our preferences!

    1. Yes indeed. I learned French from WHitmarsh's books 50+ years ago. I rarely encounter French texts and do not often visit France but the fact that, when I do, I have few problems must owe something to 'A First French Book' etc. that were the preferred books at King Edward VII School, Sheffield in the 1960s!

    2. Yes indeed. I learned French from Whitmarsh's books 50+ years ago. I rarely encounter French texts and do not often visit France but Isuppose the fact that, when I do, I have few problems with the language must owe something to 'A First French Book' etc. that were the preferred books at King Edward VII School, Sheffield in the 1960s!

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  12. The fact that in the early 1960s I was also learning Latin perhaps goes some way to accounting for the fact that I seemed to react well to the "formal" approach to learning a language, its grammar etc. No doubt there has been much progress in the teaching of languages in the past half-century, and schoolchildren of course now have more opportunities to travel abroad. I just wish that young people in the UK would have more enthusiasm for learning foreign languages. As Germany is now almost my "zweite Heimat" I am only too aware of the value of learning languages and experiencing a different culture!

  13. I agree with you of course. But I also understand why a young person brought up in a certain environment would not see the ise of languages. As reagrds the role of grammar, to respons to an ealier commnet, yes, it is one bacbone of the language, although some would argue we sometimes neglect vocabulary in our desire to establish firm grammatical foundations. But, as I often say, translation is only one way into grammar mastery. There are other ways.


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