Learning English with Robinson Crusoe

I recently read A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers by Xiaolu Guo which aside from being a great read will also be of extra interest to language teachers because it captures the progress of a language learner in English. Reading it also reminded me of an article I wrote many years ago for English Teaching Professional (Issue 15) all the way back in 2000(!) It was about the portrayal of one-to-one teaching in the book Robinson Crusoe and what we could learn from it. Here’s the article reprinted below. Feel free to comment if you have other examples of ELT lessons described in literature.

Lessons for Friday

Daniel Defoe’s novel, Robinson Crusoe, must have been one of the first to contain a detailed account of an intensive one-to-one language course with a total beginner – a ‘savage’ no less. Crusoe describes how he meets and teaches English to Man Friday, the only other person on the desert island. Crusoe says how ‘in a little time I began to speak to him, and teach him to speak to me. I likewise taught him to say ‘Yes’ and ‘No’, and to know the meaning of them.’ It is unclear how long it took Man Friday to learn English, but not long it seems, because only eight pages later Crusoe says, ‘he could understand almost all I said to him, and speak fluently, though in broken English, to me.’ Can Crusoe tell us anything about what makes a good one-to-one teacher? How can we account for Man Friday’s success as a language learner? Let’s begin by evaluating the instructor.

Good teacher  

Crusoe is clearly an advocate of communicative competence over accuracy. Friday very quickly achieves a low-intermediate level, where Crusoe has ‘learned him English so well that he could answer me almost any question’, and then he completely fossilises for the rest of the book. His errors include problems with plurals (My nations eats mans too) and difficulty with auxiliaries (I been here), and he shows no inclination to work on the present continuous (Why send Friday home away to my Nation?). Crusoe never appears to correct Friday. Relying upon acquisition to do much of the work, this is obviously a full immersion, Direct Method approach. In the early stages, Crusoe uses a great deal of positive reinforcement – he gives Friday bread and makes gestures to ‘let him know, I was very well pleased with him’. Later, Crusoe draws on a strong element of personalisation and teacher talk to help Friday’s acquisition: After Friday and I became more intimately acquainted, and that he could understand almost all I said to him, and speak fluently, though in broken English, to me: I acquainted him with my own story. Another aspect that makes this one-to- one course striking is how much the teacher and student are open to each other and find pleasure in each other’s company: This was the pleasantest year of all the life I led in this place; Friday began to talk pretty well, and understand the names of almost everything I had occasion to call for, and of every place I sent him to, and talked a great deal to me … besides the pleasure of talking to him, I had singular satisfaction in the fellow himself.

Good student

However, the success of the course is not just down to Crusoe. Man Friday has a high aptitude for learning. One report from his teacher notes that, ‘he was the aptest scholar that ever was.’ For the two men to live, survive and escape the island, the need for a common language is paramount. Nevertheless, Friday’s motivation is both instrumental and integrative. Crusoe comments that his student ‘was so merry, so consistently diligent, and so pleased, when he could understand me, or make me understand him, that it was pleasant to me to talk to him.’

Good environment

Topics for classroom discussion range from everyday island dangers, histories of battles between various native tribes, nature, the weather, tides and eating habits. Debate and lectures on fundamental philosophical issues are heated. Friday is skilled enough to catch Crusoe with tricky polemic such as, ‘if God much strong, much might as the Devil, why God no kill the Devil, so make him no more do wicked?’ What teacher would not long for such an intelligent and inquisitive student? Friday’s learning of the language is usually contextualised in activities that take place anywhere but the classroom: boat-building on the beach, hunting in the forest, personal stories round the fire. One-to-one allows greater flexibility in this area than any other type of class. We, like Crusoe, are able to leave the potentially sterile school building with our student.

Mutual learning

For me, a crucial point is that our most successful work as one-to-one teachers is when we are learning at the same time as our students. Let Crusoe conclude: I had, God knows, more sincerity than knowledge, in all the methods I took for this poor creature’s instruction, and must acknowledge what I believe all that act upon the same principle will find: That in laying open to him, I really informed and instructed myself in many things, that either I did not know, or had not fully considered before, but which occurred naturally to my mind, upon searching into them.

All the quotations are from pages 188-200 of an 1869 edition, which claims to be based on the original edition from 1719. I have changed only some punctuation.

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