Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Learning Languages the Charlotte Mason Way - Volume 1 and Francois Gouin (Part 1)

"There is hardly another civilised nation so dull in acquiring foreign tongues as we English of the present time; but, probably, the fault lies rather in the way we set about the study than in any natural incapacity for languages." (Mason, Home Education, p. 301)
"Let us state it as impressively as we can: the incapacity of the child is the incapacity of the teacher and the defectiveness of the method. To learn to speak no matter what language is a thing as natural and easy to a child as learning to fly is to a bird. For ourselves, however serious may seem the engagement, we would undertake to make ourselves responsible and to guarantee the development and real progress in a foreign language of any child, however backward, who 'loves a game and knows how to play.'" (Gouin, The Art of Teaching and Studying Language, p. 128-9)
We are getting ready to start our new school year next week, and I'm also going through the last few sections of Volume 1 of Home Education.  The timing is perfect because just as I am thinking through our Italian plans (a subject I'm hoping to give a greater emphasis next year), I'm revisiting Miss Mason's thoughts on foreign language study for young elementary students.  

Since I have chosen a less-common language for our home study, I have the challenge each year of hunting down appropriate materials for my little Italian-learners.  Obviously, this means some extra work for me...but the benefit is that it gives me the opportunity to build a program from the ground up, piecing together exercises and resources on my own to ultimately devise something that both addresses Miss Mason's suggestions AND fits the particular needs of our family.  So I have been reading quite a lot on this topic over the last month, thinking about the goals of foreign language study and the principles that should direct it.  As you might guess, Miss Mason has much to say on both counts. ;)  I found as I began to read and write on the subject that there is so very much to say that I'll be breaking this down into a few posts.  Today I want to talk a bit about her thoughts in Volume 1 and the work of Francois Gouin, whom she references in this section.

The quote at the top, from this section of Volume 1, really encourages me to really take a thoughtful approach to our language lessons.  Does the method of study matter so very much to success in studying foreign language?  She certainly thought so--particularly when it comes to elementary-aged children, which is who she's talking about here.  By the time she wrote Volume 6, Miss Mason thankfully seems a bit more optimistic about language learning for British schoolchildren:
"This hitherto unused power of concentrated attention in the study of languages whether ancient or modern appears to hold promise of making us at last a nation of linguists." (Volume 6, p. 276)
So why the change?   What does the "concentrated attention" she mentions look like?  What methods has she put to use with her students, and what kind of study does she suggest?

I want to start with her thoughts in Volume 1, her first thoughts on foreign language, which are less her own ideas than an endorsement of the work of Francois Gouin.  He was a French educational theorist who, frustrated with the methods of language learning that had been used so extensively in that time (including by himself, with very little success), developed his own method based on the way we learn our mother-tongue as children.  His programme is very orderly and his suggestions very specific, and he claimed great success in teaching both students and adults in this fashion.

I read Francois Gouin's The Art of Teaching and Studying Language, the book she references in this section, and I can see why she agreed so heartily with his educational principles--most of them sound quite a lot like her own!

But first--a look at the Gouin method:

His general method is based on "Series," which are the series of steps in a common action or event (for example, the steps by which an acorn grows into an oak tree, or the steps by which one opens a door).  These steps are written out as a list of sentences, narrating the action from start to finish.  These series are read by the instructor and then understood and recited by the students, with an emphasis on careful listening so as to develop a pure accent.  It is essential that this oral/aural step not be missed, as to neglect proper pronunciation at the start does great damage to the student's ability to speak well later on.  

Once the child has assimilated the series and is able to narrate it himself, the sentences are copied by hand out of the student's exercise book or from memory.  Various iterations would be introduced to add vocabulary (the acorn is changed out for another kind of seed, for example) or to practice grammar (the sentences are re-narrated with a new subject or tense, for example).  In the course of the series, the student learns a very wide range of both nouns and verbs, conjugation, syntax, proper pronunciation and spelling, and much more.

And more than that: as the instructor leads the student through a recitation, he adds in various comments and questions that introduce students to what he calls "subjective language," which includes idioms, common phrases, judgments, commands, and other conversational elements.  For example, after each "step" of a series, the instructor might say, "Good job!  Please go on."  During the next recitation, he might substitute another phrase, "Wonderful--and next?"  In so doing, the student easily adds this relative language to his arsenal simply by hearing it repeated again and again.  The goal is for the student not just to learn to speak, read, write, and translate well--but even to think in the language.  The whole method is quite engaging and very carefully thought out by Gouin.

I want here to think through Gouin's principles and how they line up with Miss Mason's educational theories.  I see much in common between the two of them, and I think examining how they agree will allow me to pull from his work the principles that might underlie our family's course of study:

:: Seeing children as persons.  He insists that if we look at how a child learns, how Nature functions in the child, what powers the child's mind has been gifted with, we can use those same powers for efficient learning.  The child's mind does not work in a lesser fashion that an adult's; indeed, a child is fitted by Nature to learn most efficiently.  Consider how very much a child learns in just the first three years of life--particularly as regards language, as Gouin observes first-hand!  Gouin draws the example of a biologist wandering through a forest.  He seems to chart an erratic course, but his wanderings are actually 
an orderly system of examining only those specimens that are new to him while bypassing those with which he is already familiar, and thus are a truly efficient path.  Similarly, the way a child learns may not seem methodical or practical, but he has been fashioned to take, in the most efficient way possible, what he needs from a lesson.  Learning a language via an immersion method might seem haphazard, but it is in reality quite efficient in that the mind will assimilate what it needs to, as long as the proper mind-food (in this case, language spoken well) is presented.

This extends to trusting that the child will be delighted by learning, provided that the learning is challenging and engaging:  "But the irregular verbs! some one will exclaim. The irregular verbs, by our process, far from frightening the child, interest him even more than the other verbs. And this ought to be so; for in itself the regular verb is monotonous; now the genius of childhood is the enemy of monotony." (202)  Gouin does not assume that foreign language learning will be drudgery, and the teacher need not use bribery or other methods of influence to coerce the student into completing his work.

::  The importance of visualization.  "Seeing in the mind's eye" is essential to his series because by visualizing the steps as they happen, Gouin believes the student assimilates the words much more effectively.  As he recites the series back to the instructor, he is not simply parroting back the words but narrating the scene as he sees it.  We know what an important role visualization plays throughout Miss Mason's approach, but this reminds me in particular of her suggestions for poetry memorization and recitation for young children--she maintained that much could be learned with very little effort if the child were to rely on visualizing the poem.  The words shouldn't be learned devoid of their meaning; they should take root in the child's mind in a visual context.

:: Scaffolding new information.  Guoin talks about a "web of language," wherein phrases and sentences already studied mix with new vocabulary and constructions to constantly reinforce previous lessons in a way that holds pleasure for the student: "Language appeared to me under the form of an embroidery, where the same thread ran from end to end, always identical in itself, yet nevertheless creating constantly varying designs by combining with its neighbors" (47).

His series allow for never-ending iterations on the theme, so the child takes and learns what is new while practicing what is known.  As he puts it, "to express each new perception, it was necessary, so to speak, to employ the whole of vocabulary already acquired." (47)  But rather than a manufactured style of workbook learning, the kind of continued practice he describes involves the repetition that naturally occurs in the course of conversation.

Beyond scaffolding via a naturally-spiral approach to vocabulary, Gouin also believes that memory and assimilation are aided greatly by the logic of succession or time: "a picture whose details arc logically linked together, linked together by the most natural of all relationships, that of causation, or rather that of succession in time, a relationship that the feeblest mind can grasp, and which becomes the all-powerful auxiliary of the memory." (134)

:: Learning in context.  In Gouin's method, phrases and sentences are highly privileged over isolated words.  There are no lists of vocabulary words to learn.  There are descriptions of actions, composed of whole sentences only.  His reason for this is, once again, based on how the child learns: "The child of three conquers and assimilates the mother-tongue not word by word, but phrase by phrase, sentence by sentence." As he says later, "Each isolated word is an abstraction; the child does not comprehend by abstractions." (45)  This reminds me of Miss Mason's insistence on learning spelling through copywork, dictation, and literature; learning reading by sight words and word families rather than through isolated phonograms.  Context is so important, both for effective learning and for piquing the student's interest.

:: Short lessons. Like Miss Mason, Gouin encourages teachers to strike when attention is most focused and move on when it wanes:
"After the twenty-fifth sentence involuntary nervous move ments begin to show themselves. Legs begin to shift, feet scrape on the floor, papers rustle, and faces lengthen. Evi dently the wits are wandering in quest of other things. The human patience is at an end ; the intellectual force is over loaded ; the limit of voluntary effort is overstepped. The bow bent to excess is relaxed. In fine, the souls have flown else where." (95)
The goal is to hone those powers of attention in an effort to use time wisely, work more independently, and make more rapid progress. 

:: But the lesson must be long enough to introduce real mind work.  Short lessons do not mean easy lessons.  A student should be trained to give his full attention to his work, and his work should be pleasantly challenging:
"In order that an intellectual effort may become fruitful, the mind must take this effort seriously; it must work upon itself, must become heated, must bestow pains to produce a result; in a word, this intellectual in order to be hatched, to an incubation of a determined period of time. Experience has proved to us, and continues to prove every day, that an exercise which contains less than eighteen sentences fulfils but ill the conditions which result from the preceding principle. The pupil disdains and despises it as being too far beneath his power. He does not stay thereat the time desired; he is not sufficiently interested; he does not ponder over or 'incubate' it, and therefore he does not assimilate it." (95-6)
If a child is not challenged, if he is made to endure dumbed-down assignments or is not respected as a person, his interest will fail and he will not learn.

:: The role of masterly inactivity.  I found his description of masterly inactivity to be so very interesting in light of Miss Mason's recommendations.  He encourages teachers to step back and allow the language work the students have done to brew:
"All intellectual development, to be durable, must be submitted—we repeat it once more—to a species of 'incubation.' The mind must brood for a certain time over each one of its morsels of knowledge. This is a law of Nature which pedagogic science will have to inscribe at the head of its code. This mental incubation is an essential condition of all real progress. It is not enough, in fact, to acquire knowledge; it must be 'taken possession of.' Our work, to be entirely 'in accordance with reason and with Nature, must count two distinct moments:—First, conquest —and that by active force; Then, thinking over and taking possession." (132)
:: The use of narration.  Truly, Gouin's series are not narrations in Mason's sense of the word; the student does not compose them himself.  Gouin's goal, though, is for them not to be mere recitations either.  He wanted the students to visualize the action while speaking the steps so that it is almost as if the narration is indeed composed by them--the students are describing something as they see it, and that description becomes theirs.  (This is why Gouin so strongly argued that the series used are actions the student has done or seen done so that the visualization is more natural.)  That difference--between simply memorizing/reciting the steps and describing a visualized scene--was absolutely essential to his approach:
"The process followed has permitted (and this is not one of the least of its merits) the thought of the master or the expression of the book to become the personal work of the pupil." (135)
"Indeed, change the order, and begin by the writing, or even by the reading lesson, as is now everywhere done, and the lesson ceases to be fruitful.  The pupil no longer thinks — he translates; he no longer assimilates — he dwells upon the written word, the written line. The visualising faculty is no longer brought into play to look at the fact itself taking place before it, but is content to notice the place of the expressions of this fact in the book, to remark if this expression is to be seen on one page or over-leaf, at the top of the page, or at the bottom, or in the middle." (133-4)
The difference between the first instance and the latter is the difference between true mental assimilation and mere recitation.  This brings his form of narration a bit closer to Miss Mason's version than it might otherwise seem.  And his confidence in its efficacy is very much like hers. ;)

:: Copywork as a way of knowing.  Part of a Gouin lesson involves copying out the steps in an exercise book.  In so doing, the student internalizes the words:

"Now, our exercise has been confided to the ear by the lesson given by the teacher, and is graven upon the imagination. It should now be confided to the eye by reading, then to the touch by writing. Each pupil should now open his book and read, then open his exercise-book and write." (133)

:: High standards.  What a child is exposed to determines what he will be able to produce:
"The child speaks with a good accent, pronounces correctly, when his nurse or his mother speaks with a good accent and pronounces correctly. Where, indeed, can he acquire a bad accent if he never hears any other than a good accent: How should he be likely to pronounce badly when he has never heard anything pronounced other than well?" (136)
Similarly, he claims, an improper accent may "falsify pronunciation" for good. (58)  As Miss Mason would say, a word spelled incorrectly creates an incorrect visual image in the mind that may never be undone. Better for a child to listen, listen, listen until he is ready to speak correctly:
"Talk yourself, talk continually. At the commencement let the pupil speak as little as possible; it is in his ear and not on his tongue that it is important to fix the word or the phrase. When the spring is abundant it will flow of itself, and the liquid supplied by it will have the advantage of being pure. Let us not forget that the little child listens for two years before constructing a phrase, and that he has possession of both the sound and its idea, that is, the spoken word, long before attempting to produce it himself." (140)
So, Gouin and Miss Mason shared many of the same principles and methods, and she approved of his series when she writes of him in Volume 1.  But she doesn't stop there--she talks more about foreign language in her later volumes, and the PNEU schedules and Parent's Review articles shed further light on Miss Mason's suggestions for foreign language, which incorporate but go beyond series--especially as it relates to teaching at home.  More on that soon!

P.S. Has anyone used Gouin Series in teaching their own children?  I'd love to hear about it!  There is a CM-friendly version for Spanish-learners available, but nothing for Italian yet.  I do, however, have a Inter-library loan request out for a Italian Gouin lesson book from the turn of the century that I'm hoping to have the chance to peruse and maybe incorporate bits of.  Otherwise, I'll be stuck creating my own!

Update: here's the rest of the series!
Part 2 - Parents' Review, Programmes, and Miss Mason Herself
Part 3 - Designing a Course of Study


  1. I've been floundering on this subject myself and your post is so encouraging. Thank you!

    I hope your library book is a real gem :)

  2. This is a fabulous post, Celeste. I found the practical synopsis of Gouin's method most helfpul. I have been slowly reading Gouin over the past several months, but seem to read only in spurts. Your post encouraged me to return to it. Also, I greatly admire your persistence in creating a program that otherwise does not exist and I wish you luck in implementing it with your brood.

  3. Celeste,
    I have a 5.5 year old and 4 year old and I'm wondering what age(ish) you would start this. We are doing a Year .5 this September with my oldest, but I'm thinking of starting this on her official Y1. Thoughts?

    1. I wouldn't start any required learning until age 6, per CM's recommendations, but I think usng something like the series would be suitable for young learners that ages 6 and up without a problem if you focused on the oral/aural only to start, adding in the reading/writing when they're a bit older (say, around the time they would start written narrations, so in grade 3 or 4). Before age 6, I think non-required, casual kinds of foreign language introduction is just fine--for example, I have been doing a little calendar work at breakfast in Italian and playing Italian songs with my two oldest since they were in preschool. They were not required to narrate back anything, but they do sing the songs for fun on their own, and I consider that age-appropriate language learning. At least that's how we're doing it in our house! :) I'm going to talk more about CM's other foreign language suggestions later, and I do have our Italian plans from Year 1 on the blog here, if it's helpful--

  4. I wish I had paid attention to Gouin when my kids were first learning a foreign language as little ones. We are in a good place now with Spanish, but it was a long time in coming, with plenty of stumbles and stalls along the way.

    Best wishes for your studies!

  5. i love how you're studying and mulling over this! i too read and thought deeply into it and found it highly interesting.
    now. if only i had more time to implement it better... thanks for articulating it all so well.


    1. Haha--yes, articulating is definitely different than actually implementing. Not that I know that from experience or anything! ;)

  6. I know you provided the names of the resources you're using in Part 3, but which one dictionary is pictured here? Thanks so much!

    1. The one pictured at the top is the Let's Learn Italian Picture Dictionary:

      Hope that helps!

  7. I am half Italian (mother). I lived in Italy during my twenties and learned by immersion. I can't tell you how much I love this language. Thank you for providing this resource. I have been encouraged to refresh my Italian and pass it on to my son. This would be his second foreign language after Spanish. We live in Peru. I plan and following your blog for a language plan in a CM format. Can't thank you enough.

    1. Hi there, Monique--I'm glad I could be of help! I would love to hear how your language lessons go once you have a chance to get started, and I hope you'll share any resources you encounter during your Italian studies as well. I hope to do an update here soon about how the year is going. :)

  8. I've been using Cherrydale French but I felt like I was doing it all wrong! I decided to start this year out by reading your post. I'm feeling a little more confident by just reading part one. Here's hoping I can get better and better

  9. Hi Celeste! I've downloaded Gouin's book you mentioned above onto my kindle to read. Did you ever have success with the interlibrary loan of the Italian turn of the century Gouin lesson book?

    1. No, it came back as "missing," and there were no other copies available. :/ But Angela Reed recently bought a copy she offered to lend me. I have been looking for one for purchase for years, but they've been out of my price range as far as I've seen.

    2. Oh what a shame! Could I have the title to look it up in my library system here? I'm sure it is out of my price range too.

    3. Yes, it's Lezioni d'italiano secondo il metodo Gouin / di F. Thémoin e F. Rossi. I saw a copy for $95 recently, but wasn't up for that! ;)

  10. Thought I'd post this here for any new readers - there is now an Italian CM-friendly version available through Cherrydale Press