Maximilian D. Berlitz (1852-1921)--was born on April 14, 1852 in the village of Mühringen at the edge of the Black Forest in southwest Germany. His birthname was David Berlitzheimer, the son of a village cantor and Jewish religious teacher. He came to America, according to ship records, in July 1870 after serving a three-year apprenticeship with a German clockmaker.
Upon arrival in America, David Berlitzheimer transformed himself into Maximilian Delphinius Berlitz. After changing his name, he married the Christian daughter of German immigrants and raised his children as Christians.
This prelude is merely incidental to the local business origins of Berlitz and his subsequent global influence as a language-teaching innovator. In 1872, two years after his arrival from Germany, Berlitz found his way to Westerly, Rhode Island where he worked briefly as a private language tutor. He then moved to Providence to accept a permanent position as a teacher of French and German at the lavishly-named Warner Polytechnic College--a small institute on 283 Westminster Street affiliated with the Bryant and Stratton chain of business colleges. Following a tenure of approximately five years, Berlitz purchased this business from William W. Warner in 1878. At that time Berlitz lived at 14 Vernon Street in the Federal Hill section of the city.
Initially, the twenty-six-year-old served not only as the director of the Berlitz School of Languages, but also as its only instructor. Soon he hired Nicholas Joly, a young immigrant who had migrated to New York City from Lyons, France. Together, the pair revolutionized the teaching of language as they prepared the leisure class for a European sojourn.
This linguistic revolution was unplanned. Joly, upon his arrival in Providence, found his new employer ill with exhaustion. Berlitz discovered that his stand-in could not speak English. Before taking a leave of absence to recuperate, Berlitz instructed the Frenchman to teach not by focusing on grammar, translation, and bi-lingual interaction, but by pointing to objects and acting out verbs solely in the language to be learned.
When Berlitz recuperated and returned to the classroom, he noticed that his students had advanced remarkably. Their communication had flourished when they spoke only in the new tongue without the delay and pressure of memorizing written rules or grammar. Thusly, the Berlitz method was born, and Providence was its incubator.
In the 1880s Berlitz seized upon the technique he and Joly had developed by opening other schools in Boston, New York, and Washington. Eventually Berlitz, an astute and energetic promoter, brought his concept to audiences at the Paris World’s Fair (1900) and the St. Louis World’s Fair (1904). He even returned to his homeland to tutor Kaiser Wilhelm II in English.
When Berlitz died in New York City on April 6, 1921, his obituary noted that his system was being taught in “more than 300 schools. . .covering nearly every large city in the world.” Today the Berlitz empire spans fifty countries, maintains well-over 400 language centers, and publishes annually millions of dictionaries, travel books, and audiocassettes.
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