Bonjour! Hola! Guten tag! Ciao! I am so humbled and honestly, quite intimidated to be spending the next two weeks with you exploring modern languages with Charlotte Mason. Why am I intimidated? Primarily because I am not a Charlotte Mason “expert”. In fact, I am not any kind of authority whatsoever. Who am I to be talking to you about Charlotte Mason’s ideas?
But before I let insecurity take over, I will tell you what I am. First, I am a daughter of The King. I am a mom just like you, trying daily to follow Mason’s philosophy of education. I am a mom eager to learn and grow from my experiences and missteps. My prayer is that by sharing with you my journey, you will not only have a better grasp of Mason’s method for teaching modern languages, but that you might also feel empowered in your weaknesses to seek out your own education in the wonderful world of Charlotte Mason.
WHERE WE BEGAN…
When I began French with my three boys, I felt ready. My mom spoke French to my brother and me growing up, and I had studied French throughout college. I was familiar with M. Gouin’s book, The Art of Teaching and Learning Languages and knew that Charlotte Mason endorsed his ideas widely in her volumes. We began using M. Gouin’s idea of the series, and we had fun with it! Series after series, we acted out the sentences, and my boys slowly began making sense of this new language. But over time, our lessons began to lose their spark. The boys became bored and unenthusiastic. My intuition told me that something was missing from our lessons. I knew the answer could be found if I went back to the source: Mason’s volumes and the Parent’s National Education Union (P.N.E.U) archives. I began with her volumes.
In Mason’s first volume, Home Education, she admonishes mothers to ask themselves three questions before setting out to educate their children:
Why must the children learn at all? What should they learn? And, how should they learn it? (page 171)”
If we are going to teach our children, we must be able to answer these questions, not only in general, but as they apply to each subject we teach as well. Naturally, the next step for me was to seek out the answers to these questions as they apply to modern languages.
WHY MUST THE CHILDREN LEARN AT ALL?
Mason humors me in her extensive use of food analogies, and in response to this question, she writes,
[w]hy do we eat? Is it not in order that the body may live and grow and be able to fulfill its functions? Precisely so must the mind be sustained and developed by means of the food convenient for it, the mental pabulum of assimilated knowledge….People are apt to overlook the fact that the mind must have its aliment—we learn that we may know… (Mason, Charlotte. Home Education, page 171).”
[t]he child must learn, in the second place, in order that ideas may be freely sown in the fruitful soil of his mind….any teaching which does not leave him possessed of a new mental image has, by so far, missed its mark (Mason, Charlotte. Home Education, page 173).”
A child must learn not only to feed his mind, but also his soul. So then we ask…
WHAT SHOULD THEY LEARN?
Among the grand feast of ideas, Mason wrote strongly about why we must teach our children modern languages.
What shall we teach our children? Is there one subject that claims our attention more than another? Yes, there is a subject or class of subjects which has an imperative moral claim upon us. It is the duty of the nation to maintain relations of brotherly kindness with other nations: therefore it is the duty of every family, as an integral part of the nation, to be able to hold brotherly speech with the families of another nations as opportunities arise; therefore to acquire the speech of neighbouring nations is not only to secure an inlet of knowledge and a means of culture, but is a duty of that higher morality (the morality of the family) which aims at universal brotherhood; therefore every family would do well to cultivate two languages besides the mother tongue, even in the nursery (Mason, Charlotte. Parents and Children, page 7).”
It’s here, among other places, where Mason’s heart touches mine most. A Charlotte Mason education is never just about building up the child for his own sake. The heart of Mason’s philosophy is the building up of the child so that the child can in turn better the world around him.
Once we know the why and the what, we move on to the next question…
AND, HOW SHOULD THEY LEARN IT?
In Home Education, Mason writes the following about teaching French, though the same ideas apply to every modern language:
French should be acquired as English is, not as a grammar, but as a living speech. To train the ear to distinguish and the lips to produce the French vocables is a valuable part of the education of the senses, and one which can hardly be undertaken too soon (pg 300).”
“The child should never see French words in print until he has learned to say them with as much ease and readiness as if they were English (pg 301).”
“…[T]he child’s vocabulary should increase steadily, say, at the rate of half a dozen words a day….Of course, his teacher, will take care that, in giving words, she gives idioms also, and that as he learns new words, they are put into sentences and kept in use from day to day. A note-book in which she enters the child’s new words and sentences will easily enable the teacher to do this (pg 301).”
“…[I]t is very important that he should acquire a pure accent from the first (pg 302).”
“…M. Gouin’s work (the Art of Teaching and Studying Languages) is the most important attempt that has yet been made to bring the study of languages within the sphere of practical education….He maintains, too, that the child thinks in sentences, not in words; that his sentences have a logical sequence; that his sequence is one of time—the order of the operations in, for example, the growth of a plant, or the grinding of corn in a mill; that, as the child perceives the operations, he has an absolute need to express them; that his ear solicits, his memory cherishes, his tongue reproduces, the words which say the thing he thinks (pg 302).”
Mason gives us a picture of modern language study. It should be learned not as a list of dry words and grammar, but as a personal, “living speech” that grows and is used in the child’s daily life.
In the March 1893 Parent’s Review, Rev. Henry W. Bell wrote in his article, How to Learn a Language,
…that a foreign language should be learned in the same way as its mother tongue is learned by a child. The written page must not intervene between the mind and spoken speech. The uttered words must reach the mind by the direct channel of the ear, must be assimilated by the mind, and be imitated by the tongue (page 122).”
Bell writes of M. Guoin,
the secret of Monsieur Gouin’s success lies in his strict loyalty to nature (page 125).”
“..[T]he series are connected progressive sentences, bound together by the living experience of the being who acts and utters them, whose very life and individuality they unfold. The child thus lives the language, and so learns it. The chain of sentences thus becomes his natural history (page 123).”
In a 1898 Parent’s Review, a condensed summary of Mme. Duriaux’s talk given at a P.N.E.U conference—The Principles Involved in Language Teaching—further emphasizes Rev. Bell’s point:
Teaching a language is not merely putting into the pupil’s brain a string of verbs and grammar, but it should be an interchange of ideas between pupil and teacher, in fact a living thing (page 426).”
“The teacher must proceed in the same way as a mother, who repeats the simple word, “Mamma” a dozen times before her baby will imitate the spoken sound. The pupil must first understand, then imitate, and finally attain fluency or ability to repeat what has been heard. In teaching language, infinite patience is required. We cannot learn a language in six lessons; and let me beg you to think less about results, and to think a great deal more about ways and means of developing the little minds (page 426-427).”
Duriaux insisted that,
…the ear is to be the principle factor, the receptive organ in the study of languages; then, as a second point, that when the sounds are mastered, the words should be written on the board, so that the eye may come as a help to the ear and work in cooperation with it (page 428).”
“As regards method of teaching—nothing has so far been done to surpass the work of M. Gouin (page 427).”
Mason, Bell and Duriaux all agree with M. Gouin’s primary idea that children must learn a new language in the same way in which they learned their own first language. But what did this actually look like? I still wanted more. Should I be using Gouin’s series exclusively? I continued to read through the archives and found two “ah-hah” moment articles by Frances Epps.
In the May 1890 Parent’s Review, Frances Epps writes in her first of two articles, Nursery French,
…children should learn a foreign language as they learn their mother tongue—they speak it long before they learn to read and write—we endeavor to give the little ones while still in the nursery a joyous and interesting oral introduction, by means of games, songs, and stories, to the future study of the language read and written.
Passing over the baby stage of learning, the names of the objects in sight, at table, round the room, out of doors (never omitting the article), and the learning of little sentences by slow and careful repetition…the little one will soon be ready to join in the lively dancing and singing games of his elder brothers and sisters….Besides the words of the songs they sing, children much enjoy learning to recite little fables and stories… (page 269).”
Reading through the archives is such an exciting, convicting, and eye-opening experience. I kept reading Epps’ words, “…we endeavor to give the little ones while still in the nursery a joyous and interesting oral introduction by means of games, songs and stories…” This was what I was missing in our study of French! We were not singing songs nor were we reading stories and so were missing the interest and joy.
I could have stopped there in my research, completely changed my approach to French, and felt closure, but I am certain it was the Holy Spirit that nudged me to dig just a little bit more.
I came across E. Thomassett’s article, Hints on Teaching a Language from the 1903 L’Umile Pianta and the title grabbed me. I couldn’t leave the archives until I read this one. last. article. It was as if Thomassett was speaking directly to me.
Professor Gouin’s method, used as it should be, fills a long-felt vacuum, but from personal experience I may say that I have seen it so terribly abused by misuse as not to be recognised, and to fail entirely in its object. It is not enough to teach children as sheep, giving the same “series” simultaneously to thirty or more pupils, whose ages range between ten and eighteen. But you will not fall into such an error, I am sure (page 33)!”
Oh dear! Was she looking at through the computer? I HAD fallen into that error! She continued speaking directly to me…
I know that your first desire is ‘to arouse the interest’ of your pupils in the language you wish to teach them….But interest, as you know, is often aroused by a novelty, and the impulse may soon die a sudden death unless it is kept up by some stimulus. This may be sustained in several ways, such as the teaching of songs or poetry, allowing the children to choose the subjects of their stories, letting them make up sentences for themselves by using the words they have learnt, or by letting them make up new ‘series.’ These and other ways innumerable, such as games, and using their knowledge at a set convenient time, provide the necessary stimulus, and give the children a good foundation for the study of the language thus undertaken (page 33-34).”
Like a wise mother anticipates the stumbling blocks of her children, I believe Mason knew what my intuition was telling me when I first ventured out, when she wrote in Home Education,
[t]he initial idea, that we must acquire a new language as a child acquires his mother tongue, is absolutely right, whether the attempt to follow this idea out by analysing a language into a certain number, say fifteen, exhaustive ‘series,’ be right or not (page 302).”
THE TURNING POINT…
Have you ever had a sister-in-Christ shine the light in an area of your life in which you could improve? Without doubt it is a humbling and perhaps painful experience, but if the intention is right and the light is shined with grace, it is a true act of love. If E. Thomassett, Mason and Epps were alive, I would thank them for this swift and graceful correction. I was one of those “abusers” of M. Gouin’s method that Thomasett had seen and the cost was great. M. Gouin’s series must be accompanied by life-giving songs, poems, stories and games, lest we drain the life from the language.
Armed with this knowledge, I began introducing French songs and my boys danced and sang with abounding laughter. We looked around our house and identified objects that interested them. We learned “la radio” and my middle son quickly noted, “the radio is on the chair mom! How do we say ‘the radio is on the chair?’” And just like that, we were back on track, thanks to the Holy Spirit and my journey of self-education.
Have you experienced the joy of self-education in your Charlotte Mason journey? Are your modern language lessons varied, interesting and joyful? I pray that if modern language is a challenge in your home, my journey might give you insight in experiencing the life Mason intended there to be in your lessons.
Next week, we’ll take these ideas Mason and friends have lovingly shared with us, and we’ll see what they looked like in practice in Mason’s schools throughout the forms! Join me then, and always feel free to reach out, comment and ask questions…mom to mom. Au revoir, adios, arrivederci, ciao, sayonara!