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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."
When and How to Begin Modern Languages

by Clara L. Daniell
Volume 14, no. 11, November 1903, pgs. 808-814

There is perhaps no subject of schoolwork in which theorists are more at variance than the teaching of modern languages.

We are all familiar with the outcry against the old methods; against the writing of exercises in which one asks the question, "Have you a hat?" and the answer is, "No, but the gardener's aunt has lost her little dog," followed by the interesting information that "Louisa has given 35 pancakes to the blind orphan girl"; against the toilsome translation with the dictionary of Les Malheurs de Sophie (a book thoroughly detested by most right-minded little English girls) or Erckmann-Chatrian's Le Conscrit (hated by generations of boys); against the gulping down of irregular verbs or indigestible quantitites of nouns; against examinations in which quaint plurals and defective verbs are of more account than the understanding of the gist of a story; against the traveller's handbook in which the carefully conned question does not somehow receive the expected answer.

The revolt against these things is emphatic; better methods must be found. They are found, and in bewildering variety, and with absolute conviction on the part of each inventor that his way and no other is the one and only way to learn a language.

To give a few examples:—

A says: Let the teacher talk, talk, and always talk in the foreign language, the children's ears will be trained, and they will begin to talk as soon as they are ready.

B says: Read, read, read, never mind about understanding, translation is fatal.

C: Phonetics are absolutely essential.

D: Pictures are the only way.

E: Act everything you say, action is life, the verb is the soul of the sentence.

F: Touch everything you speak of; a child learns to name things first, follow nature—teach names of things.

G: Let the pupil learn a great deal by heart; then he or she will get the right construction of sentences impressed upon the mind.

H: Never make a child learn by heart, it is old-fashioned and therefore evil.

I: Explain everything in the foreign language itself, every minute of the lesson in which English is spoken is a minute lost.

J: Give the child a thorough grounding in Latin, it is the best possible preparation for the grasp of any language. Begin Latin at eight, French or German five years later, say at 13, and perhaps a third language three years later.

K: Let the child have a French nurse when it is six weeks old.

L: Leave modern languages alone till the child leaves school; they cannot possibly be learnt in England.

Now in all these dogmas there seems to me to be some truth—or at any rate, some protest against error—but each of them has "les defauts de ses qualites." They are certainly varied and somewhat contradictory; but the criticism or defence of them is beyond the scope of this paper, which is to deal chiefly with two questions in which parents and teachers are equally interested and about which they can, I think, gain mutual enlightenment by frank expressions of opinion. They are—

(1) When should a boy or girl begin to learn a foreign language?


(2) How should it be begun?


Should the child have a French or German nurse at six weeks old, that his little ears may unconsciously receive impressions of a foreign environment from infancy?

In this case it would be essential that the mother should herself have a fair knowledge of the language, or that the nurse should know some English; otherwise misunderstandings prejudicial to the child's health or well-being might ensue. Then there is the difficulty of possible discord between servants of different nationalities, our insular prejudices being stronger as we go lower in the social scale, and international forbearance not particularly well developed in the lower orders of continental races, either. On the whole, it seems that the risks are greater than the possible advantage, although if one cared to face the risk, there is very little doubt that a child so brought up would acquire two languages simultaneously, and speak them both separately by the age of five. The same result would, in some cases, be arrived at if a foreign nurse were introduced at the age of three-and-a-half. The child would be very much puzzled at first at this new way of talking, and might resent it considerably, but after a little while would find it no more strange that "horse" should be called "cheval," than that "gee-gee" should be called "horse."  When one comes to think of it, a child nearly always learns two languages before he is five, and in the case of many words, the similarity between baby English and real English is no greater than between English and French, and often less than between English and German. In baby-talk, it is generally nouns that change, verbs mostly remain the same. For instance:—"Wash donnies," "Go for a tata," "Listen to the tic-tac," "See the puff-puff," "Kiss Daddy." A child has no difficulty at all in the transition from "donnie" to "hand," from "gee-gee" to "horse." Two words are used to represent one thing. The child accepts both and is not puzzled.

We know from our own observation that Board School children in the infant school employ two languages, the home or street language and the school language—that the difference amounts practically to two languges is evident to an observant ear.

By the way, a French child of five is wonderfully quick to know where he ought to say "tu" and where "vous." I was much struck with this point in staying with a friend of mind near Paris. Her children of three and five seemed to know instinctively whether to use "tu" or "vous."

Three children of English parentage, born in Santiago, were brought to England at the ages of three, six, and eight. The youngest knew Spanish only; he understood some English, but did not speak it. On arrival in England, he learnt English rapidly, but forgot Spanish, as it was never spoken to him. The older boy of six understood and spoke both English and Spanish before leaving Chile. Both were about equal to him as mediums of expression, and he spoke them both quite separately. He took longer to forget his Spanish (and it is a thousand pities his parents did not keep it up by speaking to him; it would not have been difficult if they had once started the habit). The eldest, a girl of eight, could of course understand and speak both English and Spanish; she could also read both languages. She kept up Spanish reading for a time, and still understands it a little, but it is a slumbering memory now—I think it would awaken with practice. But though the Spanish has nearly faded away, their power of acquiring languages is remarkable. The boys very soon beat all the other boys in their classes in French and Latin, and the girl learnt to read easy French tales with positive enjoyment in a year, and used to amuse herself at the age of nine by turning little French songs into Spanish and seeing if she could bring them into rhyme and fit them to music! She took very easily to Latin and German also; in fact, I have never known children in whom the Sprachgefuehl—that instinctive feeling for the reality and life of a language—was more easily and naturally developed than in those three.

Little children learn a new language by phrases, not by words—a phrase happens to hit their fancy—they practice it over and over again.  It is sometimes quite a difficult phrase, and the elders wonder where the child got it from. For instance a little boy of four remarked to me one day, "Yes, we have had a lot of bad weather lately, and I fancy it is beating up for a storm this afternoon." That little boy had only learnt English for a year, having been born in France and brought over here at the age of three. The expression  "beating up for a storm" had evidently struck his ears and his fancy, and he reproduced it.

These instances seem to show that the ear and tongue of a child are extremely susceptible to various forms of lanugage, but whether this is true of the majority of children, or whether even if it were, it would be desirable to have foreign nurses and nursery governesses for our English boys and girls more frequently than we have at present, is a matter which is many-sided. At any rate, when children come to school age, I think no time should be lost before some foreign language is started. Advantage should be taken betimes of the sensitiveness of the ear, the elasticity of the muscles of the throat and tongue, the power of mimicry, which may all become duller and stiffer if we wait till the reasoning powers are more fully developed.

This brings us to the second question—How should a foreign language be begun?

In the case of a child who has had a foreign nurse, the beginning is unconscious, the spoken language is his before he is aware of it, but I think the language of his own country should be the first which he grapples with by any conscious effort, as in reading a printed book or trying to write. I do not think written work, nor, as a rule, reading in a foreign language should be begun before the age of eight. Picture lessons, songs with actions, and games (these last very sparingly, as children soon think it very much beneath them to play at lessons, they are quick to feel the pleasure and dignity of work)—these all help to practise the ear and tongue, the eye unconsciously helping to bring about the association between the idea and the sounded word.

Picture lessons are very good for this oral work, but they want to be treated skilfully. Some of the pictures specially prepared by Hoelzel for the teaching of languages are, in my opinion, too full of incident; one cannot be sure that the eyes of the pupils are so excellently under control as to look only at the parts given in the lesson. Even if they were, there is a temptation which the teacher finds hard to resist—that of giving the children too much at a time. For small classes the coloured plates of Christmas numbers of the illustrated papers often serve very well if judiciously selected—scenes that illustrate home-life, with children, dollies, animals, and so on.

Songs bringing in some of the words learnt in the picture lesson help to vivify the impression, and are a reward for good repetition. In the picture lesson, care must be taken to avoid merely naming the objects represented—the actions must all be brought out vividly, and thus the verbs of every-day use are practised.

There is a real comprehension and not mere parrot mimicry in these lessons. For instance, with a class of little girls of seven or eight years of age, the teacher tested the reality of the impression produced by her words in this way. There was a snow scene depicted, and after a few phrases about people and animals walking in the snow, the teacher said in the same tone "L'eglise marche dans la neige." Not one child repeated this in parrot-fashion; with twinkling eyes and a burst of merriment, they enjoyed the absurdity of a church walking in the snow.

With regard to songs, they can be made useful sometimes to fix more firmly the lesson of the picture. Following a farm picture, "Il etait une bergere" might be taken. The usual version of this song is not good morally for the children, but there is another version which is very charming and brings in a great quantity of useful little phrases of everyday life. A delightful little pastoral play can be made out of it for little children, too. Other songs in which the actions bring into play the various parts of the body, as in "Savez-vous planter les choux?" or in which the different musical instruments are named, or birds, etc., etc., may be chosen.

By this time the blackboard will be wanted, and the sentences referring to the actions in picture or song can be written down. We will suppose the children are now over eight. The next step will be to copy the sentences for themselves in writing. Soon they will begin to ask questions about plural endings and agreement of adjectives (not, of course, in that grammatical way, but they are almost sure to notice the differences in spelling), and with skilful leading they can find out reasons and rules bit by bit and will remember them because the joy of discovery will be theirs.

After this we shall use mental visualisation instead of pictures. A slight amount of gesture and action will help to give life and stimulate imagination, but to go through the whole series of actions is apt to make the lesson ridiculous. A big girl learning German on the Gouin method, and taking the series "Walking," was balancing herself with great difficulty on one foot while struggling through the sentence "Ich hebe den rechten Fuss auf." "Ich hebe den rechte (hop-hop) das rechtes (hop-hop) die rechten (hop-hop, hop). . ." Of course, she felt tired, disgusted, humiliated, and fully convinced that, for her, at all events, German was an impossible language. I think Gouin might justly exclaim "Save me from my followers," for some extraordinary teaching has been inflicted in his name by those who have quite failed to grasp his psychological reasoning or his method.

When reading is begun, the greatest care must be taken for the first year that the child should not attempt to pronounce the words till he has heard them from the teacher. First impressions are wonderfully strong, and prevention is better than cure. Even after two or three years' practice it is better for the teacher to read first.

Books with plenty of pictures and short tales should be chosen first; then a continuous story of simple words. Division into syllables is very puzzling and makes reading very slow and pronunciation choppy. A book that can be finished in one term is better than a more lengthy one. Stories of French or German history, handled in a skilful manner, can be utilized as the pupils advance, they will respect themselves and their work more if their foreign lessons are not all in story-book form. Conversation is easier about real events, and seems better worth spending time upon.

There is a very charming little book called Reading without Tears, which is quite spoilt by its title. Why should we put it into the minds of children that French is usually connected with tears, and this is just an exception to the usual effect of reading French?  That title has always struck me as singularly unhappy, in more senses than one.

Plays are useful to counteract that excessive shyness in speaking a foreign language which seems part of the heritage of a free Briton. A good deal of effort and concentration will be wanted to master the parts, but I have known this concentration to be amply repaid by the real hold the phrases have taken, and the consciousness of knowing something has given an immense impetus.

Help at home in conversation is most valuable, and something might be done in the holidays. There are many delightful spots in Brittany or Normandy where summer holidays might be spent.

I have hardly touched on the question of grammar—of writing exercises—of composition—of translation. There is no doubt that, however much we may try to clear away the thorns and nettles, there will still be a pretty thick hedge to be struggled through—still a considerable amount of rules and difficulties that nothing but sheer grind can conquer. One of the most ardent of the reformers of modern language teaching was asked, "What do you do about French irregular verbs?" "You must ram them in," was the reply.

The old and the new methods supplement each other's deficiencies. We cannot dispense with either unconscious imitation or conscious effort.

[Discussion is invited on the subject of Language Teaching—Ed.]

Proofread by Leslie Noelani Laurio, August 2008