Photo Credit: Jewish Press

Maximilian Berlitz (1852-1921) gave his name to the first Berlitz School of Languages founded in 1878 in Providence, Rhode Island and to the allegedly unique “Berlitz method” of language instruction, the essence of which is the rejection of rote language learning, tedious memorization exercises, and grammar drills in favor of a conversational, usage-driven approach.

One of his most famous students was Kaiser William II, to whom he taught English and who put him in charge of teaching French to cadets at Germany’s military academy in Potsdam. He went on to create a company that made his name synonymous with foreign language instruction in the United States and worldwide.

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For more than 130 years, the company’s origins have been shrouded in ambiguity, legend, and outright misrepresentations. According to the Berlitz Corporation, Maximillian was born in 1847 in southern Germany to a family of teachers and mathematicians and immigrated to the United States in 1870 and, as no mention was ever made of his religion, the common assumption was that he was Christian.

In fact, Berlitz was born into a Jewish family in 1852 – a date inscribed on his headstone in the Woodlawn Cemetery in New York and published on his official corporate photograph. Historical researchers have recently discovered that he was born David Berlizheimer in the village of Mühringen at the edge of the Black Forest. Both his grandfather and uncles were lay leaders of the Jewish village community, and his father was the first in the family to reject the successful family trading business to serve as a poorly paid village cantor and Jewish religious teacher.

Joseph David Berlizheimer, Berlitz’s grandfather.

Berlitz’s ancestors were German Jews who had migrated from Bavaria during the 18th century. The lord of the feudal estate in Mühringen bestowed the status of a “protected Jew” upon his grandfather, Joseph David Berlizheimer, pursuant to which Joseph received a rare and desirable letter of protection and was granted official residence in the feudal estate (all for a high annual fee, of course).

Joseph became a fabrics manufacturer and trader and one of the wealthiest and most prominent Jews of the area who, as president of the Mühringen Jewish community, served as liaison between the Jewish community and the local governments.

All of Joseph’s children continued in the family business except for Berlitz’s father, Leopold, who decided to pursue his own calling and enrolled at the Esslingen Teachers’ Seminary to become a cantor and religious teacher. When Leopold died shortly after Berlitz’s bar mitzvah, his widow and three children received little support from the Jewish community and virtually no support from the impoverished family, so the young Berlitz had to go to work.

At that time, all Jewish boys in the Kingdom of Württemberg were legally required to attend an academic institution or to train as an apprentice in an approved trade. Sponsored by the local Jewish Board, Berlitz served as an apprentice to a watchmaker for three years (1866-1868) after which, with no employment prospects or financial resources, he immigrated to the United States, arriving in New York City on June 30, 1870.

Berlitz’s arrival in America had been preceded by that of a brother, Isaac, who originally settled in Cincinnati before moving to Chicago; a sister, Hannah, who settled in New York; and several cousins, who settled in Chicago. Instead of following the usual practice of new American Jewish immigrants, who generally sought out family or other contacts who had previously made their way to America, he decided to strike out on his own. He found a position as a machinist in Westerly, Rhode Island, a small community with only a handful of Jewish families.

David Berlizheimer, aka Maximilian Berlitz.

David Berlizheimer made great efforts to create a new persona for himself in America. Shortly after his arrival in Rhode Island, he shortened his surname, changed his given name, married the Protestant daughter of German immigrants, and christened his children in a Protestant church and raised them as Christians. It is unknown whether his partners, employees, teachers, and German publishers – many of whom were themselves Jewish – knew that he was Jewish.

Although it’s not known whether he cut off ties with his family or they with him, Berlitz maintained no relationship with his family – all of whom remained loyal Jews – with the exception of his spinster sister, Hanna Berlizheimer.

He never communicated with his brother, Isaac – who remained a “Berlizheimer,” was involved with the Jewish community in Philadelphia, and maintained a relationship with the family back in Germany – or with his cousins, who lived in Chicago and were active with their synagogue there. David, the son of a cantor and a Jewish teacher, chose to live as a Christian in America – the only first-generation Berlizheimer to do so.

All this Jewish history was suppressed by the Berlitz Corporation, however. The company’s motive to keep secret its founder’s true history is doubtless to perpetuate the corporate myth that Berlitz was the descendent of a long line of teachers and mathematicians who was multilingual and fluent in many languages – when, in fact, its founder had been nothing but a poor Jewish immigrant who worked hard and was ultimately successful in achieving the American dream.

Even the New York Times – the “newspaper of record” – suppressed Berlitz’s Jewish background or, at the very least, got his biography dramatically wrong: In its obituary of the famous linguist, it reported that he came to America as a child, attended public schools in Boston, and developed his “Berlitz Method” while struggling with his English lessons, all of which is sheer nonsense.

Arriving in Rhode Island, Berlitz began work as a watchmaker, using the skills he had learned during his apprenticeship in Germany, and he earned additional income teaching evening language classes. Interestingly, there is no evidence of his ever having had any language instruction or expertise except in his native German and the Hebrew of his co-religionists, and it is not known where or how he attained his proficiency in various languages.

Nonetheless – in another ludicrous fabrication – in its anniversary book, 120 Years of Excellence: 1878-1998, Berlitz International, Inc. claimed that Berlitz traveled extensively in his youth and “became fluent in more than a dozen languages, including all the major Romance languages and several Scandinavian and Slavic languages.” In fact, the only traveling that Berlitz did was to France for his watchmaking apprenticeship and, in any event, there is no way that he had the financial resources to even travel much locally, let alone internationally. During the course of his later life, however, he did master a remarkable 45 languages.

In 1876, Berlitz moved his family to Providence, where he adopted “Delphinius” as his middle name and thereafter usually signed his name as “M.D. Berlitz,” possibly to suggest that he had some sort of doctorate degree. Realizing that the local German-American community was flourishing, and that there were virtually no Jews in Rhode Island – the famous Newport Touro Synagogue had gone defunct by the time of his arrival – he hid his Jewish identity to avoid prejudice, or he may simply have renounced his faith.

In Providence, Berlitz took a position as a language instructor in a commercial college until it was purchased by William Warner and became Warner’s Polytechnic Business College, at which point he became head of its language department. When Warner departed as head of the College, Berlitz opened his first Berlitz School of Languages (May 1878) and assumed teaching responsibility for some 200 language students. He initially served as the school’s only instructor, until – sight unseen – he hired Nicholas Joly, a recent French immigrant with a degree in French literature who had been working as an elevator operator in New York City.

In a July 1878 advertisement in the Providence Daily Journal placed soon after he launched his school, Berlitz offered a three-month daily course in French, German, or Latin for $10, emphasizing that his instructional method was “original” and easy, with little required memorization and guaranteed results. “Easy,” perhaps, but it was actually far from original.

Even according to the Berlitz legend promulgated by the Berlitz Corporation, Berlitz was already familiar with the “Natural Method,” pursuant to which a foreign language is taught “the same way a child learns its native language.” In fact, in his own instructional booklets and brochures, which he began to introduce in the 1880s, Berlitz actually admitted that his pedagogical technique was based upon the well-known Natural Method.

He claimed, however, that he modified the Natural Method by including greater student participation; rejecting the use of repetition of similar word sounds in words and phrases; and introducing grammar in an organized manner.

This actually represented – at most – a small departure from the Natural Method, but Berlitz nevertheless characterized it as brilliant and novel and claimed it as his own. Even to the extent that the “Berlitz method” is novel, he actually happened upon it serendipitously, and much of the credit should really go to Joly, his assistant.

Pursuant to another corporate legend, when Berlitz was forced to take a leave of absence due to exhaustion, he put Joly in charge of the language classes only to discover to his chagrin that his trusted assistant did not speak a word of English. As such, he instructed Joly to refrain from teaching grammar, translation, and bilingual dialogue but, rather, to build a basic vocabulary by teaching nouns through pointing to objects and repeating and re-repeating their names in the foreign language, and teaching verbs by pantomime and acting them out.

Upon his recuperation and return to teaching six weeks later, Berlitz was astonished to discover that the students had made tremendous progress and that their communication abilities had developed to the point where, unencumbered by concern for the rules of grammar and sentence structure, they could speak easily in the new language.

Berlitz Hebrew instruction book.

As such, whichever story one accepts, Berlitz either usurped a well-known pedagogical technique and claimed it as his own or he took credit for a technique essentially discovered by his assistant.

To his credit, while language schools were then very much local enterprises, Berlitz, who had great vision and was a master of entrepreneurship, took his pedagogical technique and ran with it, opening Berlitz schools in Boston, New York, and Washington, D.C. He also displayed a great marketing sense – and generated an additional fortune – by publishing and selling instructional materials to his students.

He took many “client-friendly” steps, including placing his schools in convenient locations; sending teachers into students’ homes for private instruction for a reasonable fee; and making his classes fully transferable so that if a student relocated, he could just pick up his classes at his new location, a particular boon to transient immigrants. He also established a very successful division of his enterprise that provided translation services to the public.

After his amazing success in the United States, he took his enterprise overseas, beginning with Germany. He was bitterly attacked and belittled by the German press and public, but he had learned the importance of advertising, so he offered free classes for four months, and his school in Berlin became a smashing success. In 1889, he launched schools in Paris and London, and later in Russia, South America, Australia, and North Africa, all of which became similarly successful.

By 1900, his schools had become a mammoth international enterprise with 101 schools – only 16 of which were in the United States – serving some 31,000 students. That year, he became even more famous after he exhibited his techniques at the Berlitz School Pavilion at the Paris World’s Fair and he personally taught French to craftsmen from the various French colonies. For his efforts, he was awarded several gold medals for best teaching methodology and was made a Knight of the French Legion of Honor by Emile Loubet, the president of France.

Berlitz went on to receive any number of additional medals and awards at various international expositions, including the Grand Prize for Excellence in Language Teaching for teaching English to “semi-savages” (sic) from the Philippines at the 1904 Saint Louis World’s Fair.

Original Berlitz letter in which he opposes public education for all.

Ironically, this great educator apparently did not believe in public education for all, particularly for “savages” and “donkeys,” and believed that certain classes of society should remain “laborers and farmers,” as evidenced by this rather notorious and highly controversial note dated April 3, 1911:

Education is a very poor substitute for intelligence. An educated donkey is still a donkey. The promiscuous over education of the masses has done more harm than good, making turbulent parasites out of elements that would have been useful laborers and farmers.

In some respects, the Berlitz Method is comparable to that used in ulpan, which was initiated soon after Israel’s birth in 1948 to facilitate the integration of the massive influx of new immigrants from all over the world who spoke a multiplicity of languages. Rather than provide instruction to each person in his language, which would have been impossible, ulpan offered – and continues to offer – new olim full-immersion classes where, much as under the Berlitz Method, only conversation in Hebrew is permitted, or, as we say, Ivrit b’Ivrit (Hebrew instruction using only Hebrew).

The key difference, however, is that ulpan teaches not only Hebrew language, but also Jewish culture, Jewish history, and geography of the land of Israel.

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Saul Jay Singer serves as senior legal ethics counsel with the District of Columbia Bar and is a collector of extraordinary original Judaica documents and letters. He welcomes comments at saul.singer@verizon.net.