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The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
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How to Learn a Language

by the Rev. Henry W. Bell, M.A.
Volume 4, 1893/94, pgs. 122-126


The appearance of Monsieur Gouin's book on "The Art of Teaching and Studying Languages," is a fact full in interest and significance to linguists. It is a sign that light is breaking upon the darkness of the old methods of study; and we even begin to hope that some of its rays will penetrate the closed cloisters of our universities. A living book, that is, a book in which principles are expounded that go to the foundations, is an active influence, let loose amid a world of forces, and it will control and guide them to true and noble issues. Such a book is the one which we are at present noticing. It has laid hold of the great foundation principle on which the true method of learning languages rests, and it has built upon it a fabric of thought and exposition that has no parallel in its own department. It is not too much praise to call it the "Novum Organum of Linguistic Study."

The fundamental principle on which it is based is the postulate 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. It is thus every child of sane faculties learns, and infallibly learns, his own language, which to begin with is unknown or foreign to it; it is only thus that the man can learn an unknown speech. He must become as a little child, taking in his humility the noblest attitude, moral or spiritual, that man can take. He thus enters Nature's school, which is God's School, and among other great and greater achievements, learns, readily and pleasantly, foreign tongues. He thus finds, what pedagogues are so slow to find, that the natural is the true, that the false is an abortion.

This principle came, as the author in his interesting autobiographical section tells us, as a revelation to him, and the price which he paid in the endurance of the Purgatory of the old hard and grinding method was not too great for the discovery for his chastened and humbled spirit stooped to learn from a little child. This principle, a discovery to him, has been known and acted on by others, especially, as I shall show in the sequel, in recent Scottish linguistic life. To this author, however, belongs the everlasting honour of having reared on this foundation the most original and wonderful system for learning languages that this or any other age has produced. Into the particulars of the system I cannot enter; I shall only touch upon its salient features. With marvellous insight and stern logical method, this principle that we must learn a language as a child learns its mother tongue, is carried out from beginning to end, till even the abstract and dry rules of grammar become concrete realities. The results that are reached are astonishing not merely for their profoundness, but for their limpid simplicity, thus showing that all true profoundness is simple with the divine clearness of truth.

The leading conception, or natural device, of the system, as based on the fundamental condition of assimilation to Nature, is the striking one of the series. These rule the whole from first to last; everything is linked on to them, even abstract grammar throughout its whole extent; all becomes concrete and living, even as it is to the child's wondering eye and ear. These 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. The nexus that unites them into a whole is the child's life; and as that life moves through them in progressive order the ruling relation among them is that of succession in time, or, more profoundly, that of cause and effect. For, a child, that is to say Nature, is rigidly logical, and thus a rigid logic binds the sentences of a series into a connected process.

This relation of succession in time, or of cause and effect, rules the acquistion of language by a child, because it is this very relation which he sees illustrated in the facts and processes of the outer world amid which he moves. He witnesses some external process; he marks the succession that rules in its parts; he hears them described in language, largely in reply to his own questions; he forms a concept of the whole in his mind; and he reproduces the mental picture in acts and sentences of his own, and these acts and sentences are marked by the same progression that marked the external scene. Language is thus the expression of his experience. It thus becomes a living thing instinct with the sense of that action which he saw in the progression of external Nature. Hence it is the verb on which his mind first dwells and on which he hinges the expression of the whole process. And Nature guides him with unerring skill, for the verb carries with it every other part of the sentence, the subject, the predicate, and gradually, as his experience demands, the adjuncts and attributes and extensions. Thus language is really the web woven, like the spider's, out of the child's own life, it is the garment of its own experience. This is a profound thought and it cuts by the roots the unnatural and false methods of the schools.

In Monsieur Gouin's sytem the conception of the series is, as we have said, sovereign and all-pervading. It is the principle of order which brings the whole system into an harmonious unity. All the different forms of language are linked to this conception, and are thus made concrete and, as concrete, memorable. He divides language into three kinds: the objective, or that which expresses the facts of the outer world; the subjective, or that which, as the language of the mind, is the expression of the mind's reflection on these facts; and the figurative, or the expression of the "purely idea." The conception of the series runs through the whole of these. By the ingenious device of the relative phrase the subjective language is attached to the series, while the figurative is shown to be the objective idealised so as to become the poetry of the natural.

In the domain of grammar the series make abstract principles and rules concrete. Persons, moods, tenses, the parts of speech, the forms of syntax are all brought to the same touchstone, and are shown to be only the modes or subjects of a child's experience. For they are attached to the series, and thus become concrete. This portion of the work seems to me the most original and powerful part of it. It makes grammar a thing of life, reduces it, as it were, to action and fact, and makes it to the learner, as the author claims, as simple and pleasant as a game.

The daring attempt is even made, and successfully made, to unify grammar, that is, to produce a universal grammar, one that shall be applicable to all languages. Such an achievement is by no means impossible, for it is the thing grammar, and not the rules of pedagogues, that regulates the forms of speech, and that is determined by the universal laws of the mind. It is a truly scientific attainment, as much so as Newton's in resolving the laws which regulate the movements of the planets into the sovereign law of attraction.

The secret of Monsieur Gouin's success lies in his strict loyalty of Nature. This is the thread which has enabled him to pass with ease and grace through the labyrinth of difficulties peculiar to the subject. Nature, to which he has appealed, has given him her secret, hence the truth and clearness of his exposition.

We have to note finally, in regard to the series, their exhaustiveness. The whole of the objective language is overtaken, every word of the vocabulary is embraced, within the compass of fifty series and their subordinate themes.

It will readily appear from our cursory and imperfect description of this book how remarkable a work it is, and how certain to influence the future of linguistic studies. At the same time, it is essential for the more rapid spread of its influence that its principles be shown in operation. We are accordingly pleased to learn that the first book of the "Author's Series Lessons" in French and German, along with a Teacher's Book, is in course of preparation for the press, and will be published early. This will bring the system within the reach of linguistic scholars in a practical form. We are also pleased to learn that a school for instruction in accordance with this system is to be opened in London. In the meantime, the experiement in the family of the editor of the Review of Reviews is watched with deep interest, and we hope to hear from him of still further remarkable results. But more must be done. Lectures and public lessons, illustrative of the method, should be given in every leading city and town, and popular classes for instruction and regular schools should be established as extensively as possible. It is hopeless to expect reforms in our existing schools and in our universities until the people are educated and demand a change. It will be with linguistic as it is with all other reforms; it will begin with the people and rise to those classes where prejudices die hard.

By no persons in the community will the movement be more eagerly welcomed than by the large numbers in Scotland to whom the natural method in its leading principles is well known, who have been learning foreign languages by the use of the organ of the ear, by imitation of sentences spoken by their teacher, and by their frequent repetition. In this movement of reform several names may be mentioned.

It only remains, in closing, to acknowledge the accuracy and beauty of the translation of Monsieur Gouin's book by Mr. Howard Swan and his collaborateur, Monsieur Betis. A rendering more clear and attractive could not be conceived. In reading the luminous pages of the work in English one feels that he is not reading a translation, but an original treatise.


Proofread by Phyllis Hunsucker, Feb 2013