10. Wackford Squeers

In which we ponder if we really need to learn languages anymore (spoiler: we do) and where we went wrong at school

Nicholas Nickleby, an idealistic and impoverished teacher from London, accepts a position at Dotheboys Hall (Do. The. Boys. Get it?) in Yorkshire. He is horrified to find that the purpose of this august establishment is not to inculcate a love of learning, but rather to extract as much money as possible from the parents of the poor boys who have the misfortune to be boarders.

The headmaster of Dotheboys Hall is Wackford Squeers. Like many of Dickens’ characters, he is both caricature and reality. He whacks with pleasure, inflicting corporal punishment for the most minor failing. But each beating is also seemingly a language lesson:

“‘I beat’: first person indicative present tense,” intones the onomatopoeically christened Wackford, as he thrashes some unfortunate wretch.

“I beat”: first person indicative present tense.

Until quite recent times, Mr Squeers’ method of “parsing” - a tedious exercise that involves defining each word in a sentence according to its grammatical form and function – was still the preferred technique of teaching languages.

The term comes from the Latin pars meaning a “part (of speech).” Latin and Greek – often referred to as the classical languages – were the presumed model and ideal, and all other languages – including ones such as English, which has a very different structure – were taught in implied comparison to the ancient tongues of Achaea and Rome.

It didn’t work. The British remained resolutely monolingual.

But what about modern language-teaching methods? Do they work any better? And if not, what can we do about it?

It is the aim of this final chapter to examine these questions and provide you with the springboard to move on from speaking badly to speaking well.



  • The current situation of language learning in the English-speaking world

  • The attributes needed to learn a foreign language

  • How to teach languages

  • Some radical proposals

  • The Language Secret

  • How to move on from speaking badly to speaking well

This is an extract from our must-read book about language learning, THE LANGUAGE SECRET. Browse the site for more extracts from the other chapters and information about what they contain. You can also purchase a copy of the book by clicking on the button at the bottom of the page.