A 'New' Home for Modern Language Instruction

Boylston Hall Undergoes Complete Reconstruction To Accommodate Oral-Aural Method of Teaching

"J'ai un crayon rouge." (Pause)

"Avez-vous un crayon rouge?" (Pause)

"J'ai un crayon rouge et un stylo noir." (Pause)

These words, coming through the earphones in the rejuvenated basement of Boylston Hall, represent dual revolutions in Harvard's teaching of modern languages which will reach their culmination this year. A new method and a not-so-new building combine to give the College's undergraduates a far better chance to learn to speak foreign languages well than at any time in the past, and represent an unmourned break with previous tradition.

The first part of the equation is Boylston Hall. This building, resembling the Charlestown jail more than a modern center for instruction in languages, has been completely reconstructed to give the modern language departments an opportunity to utilize the "oral-aural," "direct," method of teaching. Once a drafty museum of natural history, once the finest chemical laboratory in the United States, and once the headquarters of the Yen-Ching Institute Boylston has undergone another complete transmutation.


Gone from the greystone building are the dinosaur skeletons which decorated the huge stairwell leading to the skylight; the stairs themselves have disappeared during the 15-month reconstruction. Precious scrolls and documents from China have been transferred to a fire-proof, air conditioned library on Divinity Avenue, while the scientific facilities have been centralized on Oxford St. for over 30 years.

At a cost of slightly over $1 million, provided by the Program for Harvard College, the Division of Modern Languages acquired a language center comparable to any in America. "There had been some pressure to tear the building down," Harry T. Levin, chairman of the Division, explains. "However, by saving the shell and reconstructing the entire interior, rather than building a whole new structure the University saved at least $800,000"--an important factor in this period of continually rising costs. Its convenient location on the main pathway between the Houses and the Yard close to Widener helped clinch the decision to rebuild and not to build anew.

Although the sombre facade remains distressingly unaltered, save for stairs at the entrance and air-conditioning equipment atop the mansard roof, the interior has changed beyond recognition. Clever designing increased the usable floor space by 50 per cent without changing the hallowed limestone blocks. Architects Collaborative, which drew the reconstruction plans, gained space primarily by adding an extra floor, in fact one-and-a-half more floors the mezzanine and by eliminating the cavernous stairwell.

With 90 offices, the building will provide space for the staffs of Romance Languages, Germanic Languages, Slavic, History and Literature, Comp Lit, Classics, and Public Speaking (housed in the "attic"). With these numerous offices, the departments will have expanded facilities that will soon allow even the junior members to enjoy private rooms. Specifically-constructed Finnish furniture adorns seminar rooms, a modern library occupies the new mezzanine floor, and the lecture hall--when it loses its canvas protective covering--will have great beauty. "President Pusey gave us one directive," Levin comments, "Get a good-looking lecture room.'"

But the raison d'etre of the structure can be found in the basement where, for the last month, students have used such devices as tape recorders, master voices, playback mechanisms, and individual earphones for each private booth. This is the language laboratory, Harvard's manifestation of a well-proved theory of languages instruction.

Upon entering the basement room for the first time, one is struck by the bee-like buzzing on muted voices. Students, capped with Buck Rogers earphones, listen intently and then murmur into microphones which they hold before them. At the front of the room, tape recorders whirl; an instructor watches them and occasionally twists dials to discover how his proteges are fairing in their strange new world of a foreign tongue. The entire scene contrasts with the grim, grey exterior of the building; the lab itself is bright, cheering, and more like 1984 than 1859. And, at last, language teaching at the College has caught up with the twentieth century.

Repetition forms the key to the oral-aural method, the new and better way to teach foreign languages which Harvard has finally adopted. Instead of studying grammar per se, students pick up grammar implicitly; instead of learning rules for pronunciation, they first learn to say many words and later discover the rules.

A "master voice," free of imperfections, is recorded on a single master tape, which is then played on one of the four machines in the front of the language lab. Students sitting in their individual, sound-proofed booths hear the master voice through their earphones, and then repeat into the microphone what they have just heard--or thought they heard. Both master voice and student voice are recorded, so that, in a later playback session, each pupil can hear his mistakes and act to correct them.

"We have advanced from passive listening to active mimicry by having students repeat what they hear from the master voice," Edward Geary, assistant professor of Romance Languages, comments. He points out the "autocritical" function: If a person makes an egregious mispronunciation, he then hears it when he replays the tape. This method, carried on in the privacy of individual booths, also avoids embarrassment for students about their blunders," Geary states, in addition to hammering in corrent pronunciations.

Students in French A, French C, and German A attend class four times per week, the additional hour being devoted to practice in pronunciation in the language lab. The homework load is cut proportionally. At other colleges using the direct method, elementary languages are often run eight hours per week, in order to teach a new tongue more effectively and speedily.