Learning Spanish in 1917

spanishtextbook4Yesterday, I got a surprise amazon.com package in the mail. It wasn’t a mistaken order sent by amazon.com, it was a recycled box in which a dear friend was sending me some old books from a local antiquarian she thought I would find “fun.” They were three fiction books published in the early XX century in the US, by Spanish authors nobody is interested in today. And a fourth one, First Spanish Course from 1917, essentially a Spanish textbook for US college students. Wow! We’ve gone a long way in teaching languages since then. Of course, it is mostly grammar driven, but it is so refreshing to be reminded that a textbook doesn’t just teach language. It reflects the mindset of a specific culture rather than any universal knowledge or wisdom. Here is the mindset it reveals.

It starts with an affirmation: “Castilian forms the basis of both the spoken and the written language of cultivated Spaniards and Spanish Americans.” I doubt that any “Spanish Americans” used a spoken language that was really Castilian. “Cultivated” was just a label that meant élite, and the Spanish American élite was convinced its language was the original and true language from Castile, unlike the colloquial dialect of the lower classes in their own country. In reality, colloquial language was shared by all. But don’t you just love the word “cultivated”?

Also, the illustrations are revealing. Images reinforce and/or modify the message of a written text and these illustrations are no exception. They present an interesting view of what students had to interiorize as “the world of Spanish.”

The first picture is the symbolic entryway: a photo of the US embassy in Chile. It is followed by depopulated images of official buildings, museums, cathedrals and the mandatory Roman aqueduct in Spain. I was excited to see what Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires and La Quinta de los Molinos (residence of the Spanish Governors) in Cuba looked like a century ago. Other curiosities included a cattle exhibit in South America and a facsimile of a promisory note. All of them presented the official points of interest for an influential American visiting for serious business. There is little information about the culture of the countries where Spanish is spoken, but the book richly covers  situations of contact, likely for an important American to be involved in.

In other words, the pictures confirm that the textbook appears to be written for another élite: the American one. It was for those who would take over what was the perceived US role in Latin America. The picture of the Spanish-speaking world it presents to students is a picture of a world ready for their future job as traders and diplomatic emissaries. The message seems to be: “this is what you need to know about Spanish America to fulfill your role of dominating it and shaping it. This is your future playing field and tools: the cattle exhibits, the governors’ palaces, the bills of exchange, the coins. People’s everyday life is not important, only institutions and state symbols, as well as official places you have to know your way around before you arrive.”

And I love this example from Lesson X on family relationship nouns. “El abuelo es anciano, pero es un hombre muy fuerte. La abuela también es anciana; no es una mujer fuerte.” (“Grandfather is old, but he is a very strong man. Grandmother is old; she is not a strong woman.”) Agh… Think about ideology absorbed from innocent language textbooks.

Some other precious pictorial examples:


A picture of La Quinta de los Molinos and an exercise of how to speak with the washer bringing in the laundered shirts.


A cattle exhibit in Buenos Aires and a small talk about race horses, stables and the comparative advantages of automobiles and horses.


The government buildings of Mexico City and a description of the mansion the protagonist’s family lives in, including the servants.


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