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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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On the Teaching of Modern Languages.

by A.S. Tetley
Volume 14, no. 11, November 1903, pgs. 801-807


In no department of educational practices have greater changes been made during the past ten years than in the teaching of modern languages. Most, if not all, of my hearers will have learnt their French or German by the traditional method, applied to the living as to the dead tongues. We had our grammars and exercise books, with lighter fare such as Voltaire's Louis XIV., or Madame de Stael's Le Directoire, to relieve the inevitable mental digestion. We learned French exactly in the same way as we learned Latin and Greek—long lists of unused anomalies in gender and number, page after page of irregular verbs, and a mass of valueless number of rules and exceptions, stranded like derelicts on the dreary pages of our grammars.

To-day, particularly in English schools, this old style still more than holds its own, but its days, I believe, are inevitably numbered. Students of educational method have long seen—some, at least, of them—that it transgressed the main laws of logical thought. There was no passing from the known to the unknown, no association of ideas, no connecting of eye with mind, no perception of the general from the particular.

A new school arose; and, like so many reformers, they pushed their views to extremities, and refused to see any good whatever in the older methods. Oral teaching throughout was the reed to which they pinned their faith. They admitted neither the need nor the utility of formulating grammatical rules, even by deduction; writing was deferred far too late; to parody a famous phrase, "l' oreille, l'oreille, toujours l'oreille" was their war cry.

But wiser counsels prevailed, and out of the confusion, there has gradually emerged an eclectic system, combining the best parts of both methods. This system may not be the best for a grown-up mind that wants simply to acquire power to read in a new language. For such a man—particularly if he already possess a knowledge of one or more languages and in primis of Latin and Greek—the quickest way to attain his end is by means of grammar, dictionary, and cheap copies of good prose and poetry that he can pencil-mark to his heart's content.

But we are searching for a method suitable for young children; and it is the proved unsuitability of the old system that has at last brought about the remarkable changes referred to above.

I will proceed at once to outline some of the chief features of this new way; and afterwards I propose to make a few general remarks on the subject in its broader aspect.

We begin by connecting the new name of an object with the object itself. Holding up a book, I say, "Voici un livre." I explain at once to the class the force of the word "voici," and then go on to ask them the question, "What is this?"—"Qu'est ce que ceci (or cela)?" I am pretty certain to get an answer, "Un livre," whereupon I point out the form to be observed in answering, "C'est un livre, monsieur." I have the answer repeated all together (in a few minutes I use the phrase "tous ensemble") and singly; and then I proceed to another object—"un garcon," "un tableau," "un crayon"—any prominent thing in the classroom, which in French requires the article "un."

Next I name in succession, insisting on collective and individual answers throughout, such objects as "un plume," "une fenetre," "une fille," which require the article "une." These names all well learnt, I proceed to the first deduction of a grammatical rule—the distinction between "un" and "une," which will be at once obvious to most of my class; and, with further questioning, it will not be difficult to get from them some suggestions as to the raison d'etre of such a distinction.

In like manner we proceed to the name of a number of the same object—"voivi des livre," or "ce sont des livres," with the inevitable question and answer. Now here comes a practical illustration of the need of introducing writing at the beginning. Any child will at once distinguish singular from plural by the use of the preceding article "un" or "des;" but it will never imagine that the name of the object itself actually varies in form. Once learned, the names must be written. This does not weaken the force of the word spoken and heard. Rather, it is another link to connect it with the chain of memory.

And so for a lesson or two we deal with objects and their names, and deduce the grammatical distinction between "un," "une," "des," and "le," "la," "les," introducing, whenever they are likely to be understood, simple phrases of command and instruction, such as "debout," "asseyez-vous," "s'il vous plait," &c. But we cannot go far without the verb; and some experts advocate bringing it in at the very outset. Personally I think it matters little. We may proceed in various ways, though all very similar in result. A blackboard sketch or a simple picture is as good as any. (Such pictures, I may say, are published by a German firm; they have the fault of being foreign and depicting foreign ways. Our English publishers are, however, bestirring themselves.) Suppose we have a boy walking or reading. After asking the name of the object, we say, "Le garcon marche" or "lit". "What is the boy doing?"—"Le garcon que fait-il?" Our answer will come, "Le garcon lit."

Now, here we must insist on the answer repeating, so far as possible, every word of the question. It would never do to pass such an answer as "lit" or "marche"— and we are sure to get them. Our questions must be carefully framed if we are not to lead to errors which will become ineradicable.

In this way we learn a number of the commonest verbs, all at first with the prefix "il," and afterwards with "elle"; from which we deduce another important rule, and take our first plunge into the region of pronouns. A more difficult step now awaits us. Calling a child to me, I say, "Ouvrez la porte." As he obeys, I say to him, "Vous ouvrez la porte." Then I do it myself, saying the while, "J'ouvre la porte"; and by dint of careful examination, I enable them to infer the difference between the use of "je" and "vous." So we learn the three persons; and the different endings of the verbs become self-evident as our lesson advances. It is amazing with what readiness children pick up these simple phrases and how rarely, when they come to writing, they fall into the appalling blunders of "nous allez" and "vous allons," so painfully common under the old regime.

Before developing the verb further we introduce the adjective. For instance, calling out two children before the class, one considerably taller than the other, we say, "Voici un grand garcon," "Voila un petit garcon." Other attributes readily suggest themselves. Then we take a feminine noun—"fille," "plume," or the like—and use it with the same adjectives. At once we deduce the unvarying occurrence of the mute "e" as the termination of all feminine adjectives. Further developments are obvious, for instance, the feminines in "-ve" and "-se," comparison, the place of colour adjectives, and so on.

Now we are in a position to enlarge our treatment of the verb. We lead our class on to the negative and interrogative form of sentence. Under the old system this was one of the most troublesome parts of language teaching. Under the new, the child learns a number of typical sentences and models others unconsciously on what it has already acquired. So too with the complicated puzzle of reflexive verbs and the use of pronouns preceding their verb as objects. Again, from present we pass to the past indefinite, that "maid of all work" tense, and then to the future and other tenses. Even the subjunctive can readily be introduced with common phrases like "il faut."

To illustrate what I mean; let us take a sentence already known and understood, such as "le garcon lit le livre." To the child before us, book in hand, we say, "Stop reading," ("cessez de lire"), and then to the class, "Le garcon ne lit pas le livre." Thus the negative: and in like manner the question, "le garcon lit-il le livre?" "Le garcon ne lit-il pas le livre?"

Then follows the same use with a compound tense, and so we get a series of models for constant imitation:—

1. "La fille a ouvert la porte."
2. "La fille n'a pas ouvert la porte."
3. "Pourquoi la fille n'a-t-elle pas ouvert la porte?
4. "Avez-vous ouvert la porte?"
5. "Pourquoi n'avez-vous pas ouvert la porte?"

Each sentence is followed by a question to which the sentence itself supplies the answer; or, if in question form already, answers must be suggested at first and will soon occur to the children. Thus to "Pourquoi n'avez-vous pas ouvert la porte?" we might prefix the remark, "Vous avez oublie' d'ouvrir la porte," and the answer to the question then follows, "Parceque j'ai oublie', &c." By this time, or even before, we are ready to begin reading short and easy stories. At first they are perhaps best written on a blackboard. Let us take an example and show how we can use it.

"Deux compagnons, Joseph et Pierre, passaient, un jour pres d'un jardin situe au bout d'un village. 'Regardez un peu, dit Joseph, 'comme ces choux sont beaux; jamais je n'en ai vu d'une si enorme grosseur.'"

The first sentence alone will provide us with material enough for a lesson:—

"Lisons cette phrase en Francais, tous ensemble." This done several times, "Traduisons en Anglais." Then we can ask questions:—

Q. "Oui passaient pres d'un jardin?"
R. "Deux ouvriers passaient," &c.
Q. "Comment s'appellent-ils?"
R. "Ils s'appellent Jean et Pierre."
Q. "Comment vous appelez-vous? et vous? et vous?"
R. "Je m'appelle Guillaume, Marie," &c.
Q."Par ou passaient-ils?"
R."Ils passaient pres d' (or par) un jardin."
Q. "Ce jardin ou est-il situe?"
R."Ce jardin est situe au bout d'un village."

From these we can form numberless other questions: thus:—

Q. "Ces ouvriers couraient-ils par le jardin?"
R. "Non, Monsieur, ils ne couraient pas, ils passient, ils se promenaient, par," &c.
Q. "Combien d'ouvriers y avait-il?"
R. "Il y avait deux ouvriers." "Il y en avait deux."
Q. "Avez-vous un jardin chez vous?'
Q. "Votre jardin est-il au bout d'un village?"
Q. "Passez-vous pres d'un jardin, d'une eglise, de l'hotel de ville. Etc., quand vous allez a l'ecole?"

And so on, almost without end.

In this way the form of each kind of sentence becomes so fixed in the mind that it is reproduced automatically and without conscious effort. Adverbs, prepositions and conjunctions fall into their right places. There is no casting about for "quand," "ou," "pourquoi," "comment"—no thinking in the mother tongue to be translated word for word into the foreign speech. Grievous solecisms are a thing of the past in speech, and still more so in writing.

And now, in closing, I will suggest a few points of general importance.

I. I strongly believe in accustoming the children from the beginning to the written language. They should see the words on the blackboard and write them in sentences for themselves. It is not enough to get them to repeat the phrases or invent new ones with mere verbal accuracy; they should have incessant practice in writing.

II. Hence, a collection of simple tales should be brought into use very early. These should be read aloud in French and questions put (as above) to be answered in the same language. Translation and retranslation should be vary sparingly employed, perhaps not at all for a year or two. To write from one language to another is a most difficult feat to accomplish as well.

III. Grammars and dictionaries should not be put into the hands of the young learner. It is difficult to say when first they may be used with advantage. Exercise books will become unnecessary; in fact, the common type of such books will be a positive hindrance.

IV. Poetry should be learned by heart from the earliest lessons. It helps the child to appreciate and understand the sound and rhythm of the language more than anything else; and of course can be made the medium for numberless questions.

V. It is not wise to insist on using nothing but the foreign language throughout the lesson. Much time is wasted by so doing; and it is almost certain that some of the children, however easily and glibly they may answer, will often fail to understand a word of what they are saying.

VI. As to the teacher,—it is far the best to have English men or women trained in these methods than the native foreigner. For no foreigner can appreciate the special difficulties that beset our children in learning another language. A perfectly correct accent is a matter of secondary importance. It is doubtful if absolute purity of tone is possible for anyone speaking a foreign language—even after long years of residence.

VII. What language should be first taught is a problem of great interest, but one can hardly discuss now. German has many advantages over French in its early stages, but afterwards it becomes much harder. Moreover it lacks the ease and grace of its rival, and is never likely to become the "lingua franca" of educated society. Of all European languages Spanish is probably the easiest for Englishmen; but its modern literature, like that of Italy, is incomparably inferior to that of France or Germany.

VIII. Lastly,—a thorough grounding in the elements of the mother tongue is indispensable for success in learning foreign languages. In England we need to follow the example of Germany, where children devote a very large portion of their weekly time-table to the study of their own language.

Children thus properly grounded should begin a new language about eleven,—or to cite the average position of such children in the elementary schools, when they enter Standard V. They will thus be able to take up a second language at the age of 14. I should like to see a modern language compulsory in all our public elementary schools,—taught according to the rational methods that are so rapidly beating the older systems out of the field. Not the least boon that would assuredly follow would be the breaking down of that insular pride that is our reproach whenever we show ourselves on the continent.



Proofread by Leslie Noelani Laurio, August 2008