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On Learning Languages

Charlotte Mason

To Aquire the Speech of Neighboring Nations is the Duty of Every Family


This is a powerful excerpt from Parents and Children of Charlotte Mason's The 'Home Education' Series:

"The Family should (a) learn Languages; (b) show Courtesy abroad.

What shall we teach our children? Is there one subject that claims our attention more than another? Yes, there is a subject or class of subjects which has an imperative moral claim upon us.


It is the duty of the nation to maintain relations of brotherly kindness with other nations; therefore it is the duty of every family, as an integral part of the nation, to be able to hold brotherly speech with the families of other nations as opportunities arise; therefore to acquire the speech of neighboring nations is not only to secure an inlet of knowledge and a means of culture, but is a duty of that higher morality (the morality of the family) which aims at universal brotherhood; therefore every family would do well to cultivate two languages besides the mother tongue, even in the nursery" 

(Parents and Children, 7).

"There is hardly another... 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" (Home Education, 301).

Home Education Charlotte Mason.jpg

"French should be acquired as English is, not as a grammar,

but as a living speech."

-Charlotte Mason, Home Education, page 300

While Charlotte Mason was referring to the learning of French and English specifically in this statement, it is a sentiment that can be applied to all combinations of languages.

Parents and Children Charlotte Mason.jpg

We Must Acquire A New Language as A Child Acquires His Mother Tongue


Charlotte Mason credits M. Gouin and his book, The Art of Teaching and Studying Languages, as the "most important attempt that has yet been made to bring the study of languages within the sphere of practical education." And agrees that his "initial idea, that we must acquire a new language as a child acquires his mother tongue, is absolutely right... it is incontestable that the ear, and not the eye, is the physical organ for apprehending a language..." (Home Education, 302).

Charlotte Mason calls M. Gouin's efforts to learn German herculean. "He knew everybody's 'Method,' learned the whole dictionary through, and found at the end that he did not know one word of German 'as she is spoke.' He returned to France, after a ten months' absence, and found that his little nephew- whom he had left, a child of two and a half, not yet able to talk- had in the interval done what his uncle had signally failed to do."

Miss Mason shares M. Gouin's own words:

"'What!'" I thought; 'this child and I have been working for the same time, each at a language. He, playing round his mother, running after flowers, butterflies and birds, without weariness, without apparent effort, without even being conscious of his work, is able to say all he thinks, express all he sees, understand all he hears; and when he began his work, his intelligence was yet a futurity, a glimmer, a hope. And I, versed in the sciences, versed in philosophy, armed with a powerful will, gifted with a powerful memory . . . . have arrived at nothing, or at practically nothing!'"

(Home Education, 305).

He continues:"'The linguistic science of the college has deceived me, has misguided me. The classical method, with its grammar, its dictionary, and its translations, is a delusion'" (Home Education, 306).

Miss Mason concludes, "The method of teaching may be varied, partly because that recommended by M. Gouin requires a perfect command of the French tongue, and teachers who are diffident find a conversational method founded on book and picture easier to work and perhaps as effectual- more so, some people think; but, be this as it may, it is to M. Gouin we owe the fundamental idea"

(Home Education, 306).


Narration as a Means of Language Learning

Charlotte Mason writes about applying narration to French lessons and describes it in this way:


“…in IIA while still engaged on the Primary French Course children begin to use the method which is as full of promise in the teaching of languages as in English, that is, they are expected to narrate the sentence or paragraph which has been read to them. Young children find little difficulty in using French vocables, but at this stage the teacher should with the children’s help translate the little passage which is to be narrated, then re-read it in French and require the children to narrate it. This they do after a time surprisingly well, and the act of narrating gives them some command of French phrases as far as they go, much more than if they learnt the little passage off by heart” (A Philosophy of Education, 211).

Of course, this can just as easily be applied to learning the Spanish language, or any other. 

"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. We have attained very good results in Italian and German by this same method, both in the House of Education and the Practising School belonging to it, and we are in a fair way to produce noticeable results in Latin"

(A Philosophy of Education, 213).

"The Classical mistress writes,-

'...Nothing but good Latin is ever narrated, so the pupil acquires style as well as structure. The substance of the passage is usually reproduced with the phraseology and style of the original and both students and children learn what is really Latin and realise that it is a language and not a mere grammar.'

Here we get Grammar, that is, construction, learned as we learn it in English, at the lips of those who know, and the extraordinary readiness in acquiring new words shewn by the scholars promises English folk the copious vocabulary in one or another foreign language, the lack of which is a national distress"

(A Philosophy of Education, 213).

A Philosophy of Education Charlotte Maso
Know and Tell The Art of Narration Glass

For further reading on narration I highly recommend,

Know and Tell: The Art of Narration, by Karen Glass.

"It then becomes the teacher's task not to fill a bucket or write on a blank slate, but to spread a feast of knowledge, insist that it be assimilated by narration, and allow the natural intelligence of each child to blossom in a unique way that will enrich the world."

- Karen Glass, Know and Tell, 180

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