Monday, July 1, 2013

Volume 1: Grammar and French

Back to our Volume 1 discussion!

The next two sections are grammar and French, and in both of these areas,  Charlotte gives some very practical advice for teachers. First, grammar.

"Grammar, being a study of words and not of things, is by no means attractive to the child, nor should he be hurried into it. English grammar, again, depending as it does on the position and logical connection of words, is peculiarly hard for him to grasp." I'm sure we've all noticed how little ones, in their speech and writing, can sometimes have trouble figuring out the grammatically correct way to phrase a sentence. As opposed to Latin, which follows much more logical patterns, English is quite a challenging language to master, grammatically. And the key point here is that because it is a study of words, not concrete things, it doesn't belong to the realm of the child. Abstractness is not their forte, and  there's no reason to rush.

Indeed, with respect to Latin, Miss Mason makes a specific recommendation for a text to begin with 8 or 9 year olds, but she also includes a caveat, that it is entirely open to discussion whether children should begin their studies at that early age. As in so many areas of this generous education, there's no sense of needing to put the cart before the horse and ask things of children they are not yet ready to do.

When we do begin English grammar, why not begin with a whole, interesting sentence, and discuss the parts which it contains, rather than jumping into "the fog of person, mood, and part of speech?" These sorts of things, the minutia of grammar, are to a small child like random bits of information floating in the air, with nothing to weigh them down.

The example lessons Miss Mason includes are wonderful: an example of a non-sentence, and one of a complete sentence. The definitions are simple: what makes a "subject" and what we say about that subject. Then there are some sentences for the student to complete which follow these rules. I especially love her definition of verbs. "They are the chief words of all," because we cannot make sentences without them.

These ways of beginning to learn grammar are simple, clear, useful, and take into account the personhood of the child. He is not to be bogged down with rules which have no real application for him, but rather he is trusted with real sentences and applicable knowledge.

In her section on French, Charlotte suggests ways of beginning to learn a foreign language, which are of course extendable to whichever language our own children are learning. "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. Again, all educated persons should be able to speak French."

Modern research backs up Miss Mason's claim about the early procuring of a second language, which is so much easier as a small child than as an older one, or indeed as an adult. And French was long considered the ideal second language for European English speakers, but from our American perspective, Spanish would be  even more useful, I'm sure. Celeste has family ties to Italian, which makes it the perfect choice for her, and though we have family connections to German, I am ignoring them in favor of French because it's the one second language I have any facility with...and it's prettier:)

So, how to proceed then, in our chosen languages? Some practicalities:

Begin early. Pronunciation should start in early childhood, when our tongues are less set in their ways. By doing this, we can remove "a certain awkwardness in producing unfamiliar sounds." And "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. The desire to give printed combinations of letters the sounds they would bear in English words is the real cause of our national difficulty in pronouncing French." For example, the French word for July is "juillet." There is no way to apply the English rules of pronunciation to that word. It simply won't work. One must have heard it pronounced properly: zhwee-YAY.

Learn a lot of words. "The child's vocabulary should increase steadily, say, at the rate of half a dozen words a day. Think of fifteen hundred words in a year! The child who has that number of words, and knows how to apply them, can speak French. 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. The young child has no foolish shame about saying French words––he pronounces them as simply as if they were English." That is a lot of words! And the teacher must be able to use those words in sentences and keep them all in use. In the case of a mama who is learning the language along with her children, I think even more diligence is required. It is so hard to learn a language from scratch as an adult, and unless it is a decided choice to learn, it easily falls along the wayside. Preaching to my own choir here...

Hear the language. More important than seeing the language in print is to hear it and develop a true accent. Books on cd, music, and audio lessons are wonderful tools we have at our disposal.

Worry about spelling later. "How about the spelling?' you will ask. The spelling? You would learn it as the young French children learn it, as you yourself have learnt the English spelling, ten times more difficult than the French; and this without letting the study of the spelling spoil your already acquired pronunciation. Besides, the spelling is a thing that can be reformed––the pronunciation hardly at all."

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