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Learning Languages

How did Charlotte Mason approach the teaching of foreign languages? How did this look in a general scope and sequence? To what main principles did she adhere?

After studying a couple of articles published by the Parents’ Review and the pertinent sections regarding languages in her own books, I’ve gained a better general sense of how the teaching of languages should look if I wish to emulate Ms. Mason to some degree. Ideally, I like to take the main principles of which I agree and create an approach which incorporates these principles, modify or include some of her resources and add modern resources which fit or augment those principles.

Here are just some of the main points of how a Charlotte Mason approach to learning languages was constructed:

A. The first new language to be introduced to children is French.

From her first volume, Home Education, Charlotte Mason felt that “all educated persons should be able to speak French” (Mason, 300-307). The children began to learn French in Form I. This is not to suggest that today you must also choose French as the first language, but the main idea is to choose a language that is most beneficial to you and your family and begin it while the children are young.

A. S. Tetley’s “On the Teaching of Modern Languages” gives us several more reasons as to why French was considered the language to learn first, especially to the English:

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 (Tetley, 801-807).

B. The best approach to learning a new language was encapsulated in the M. Gouin Method.

Charlotte Mason believed that M. Gouin’s approach to the study of languages as was relayed in The Art of Teaching and Studying Languages was “the most important attempt that has yet been made to bring the study of languages within the sphere of practical education” (Mason, 300-307). M. Gouin believed that “we must acquire a new language as a child acquires his mother tongue” and that “the verb is the key to the sentence, and more, is the living bridge between thought and act” (Mason, 300-307). She goes on to add, “He maintains, too, that the child thinks in sentences, not in words; that his sentences have a logical sequence; that this sequence is one of time- the order of the operations in, for example, the growth of a plant, or the grinding of corn in a mill; that, as the child perceives the operations, he has an absolute need to express them; that his ear solicits, his memory cherishes, his tongue reproduces, the words which say the thing he thinks” (Mason, 300-307).

This method is not without its misuse or limitations. Take care that a student working through this series does not feel as if the exercise he/she is working through is too childish or inappropriately leveled for him/her. Also, be aware that this method really does need the skills of a fluent, or very nearly fluent, speaker of the language being studied.

C. Young children should begin learning a language primarily through oral means, such as through songs, poems and conversations.

Children in Form I complete all of their French lessons orally. All children of these ages learn songs, poems, singing games and work through Cours de Francais, Methode Orale, Premier Livre by F. Themoin, additionally making new sentences with words learned from the latter series. Form IB students might also work through Le Livre Rouge by E. Magee, one lesson per week. Students in Form IA learn poetry from Becueil de Poemes, Vol. 1 by J. Molmy and might also narrate a fable from French Fables in Action by V. Partington. Those in their 6th term might use La Vie de Madame Souris as a first reading book (PNEU Program 113).

Apply these general ideas to your chosen language. Use a book, curriculum or resource to create a vocabulary, sentence and dialogue foundation along with a songbook and its audio component for singing. Introduce words which have particular meaning to children, words which name that which they come in contact with regularly. For example, children relate to conversations which center on food, family, play, friends and nature. Use these new words in sentences and keep track of them in a notebook. The notebook can be referred to in lessons throughout the year. As children progress into the next form, they will begin to write some words and sentences of their own. In Form IA, add a collection of children’s poems and a resource for fables, short children’s stories and/or dramatic scenes to be acted out in your target language.

Charlotte Mason explains:

Again, 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 (Mason, 300-307).

Picture lessons are another approach for teaching younger children. A child can do more than just name the persons or objects seen, although sometimes this is one way to reinforce vocabulary. Pictures can be described, first by the teacher, in terms of what the people or animals might be doing. This connects nouns (names of people and objects) to verbs (what is being done) in an authentic, conversational manner which models appropriate speech to the children. The children can then, using their own words, tell about the same picture. Dialogues can branch off from these conversations, the teacher introducing basic question sentences, expressions, colors and numbers over time. Be careful to choose pictures which are appropriate, both in theme and intensity. Too much contained in one picture can be overwhelming, distracting your child’s attention. Pictures with too much obscurity or symbolism may interfere with your child’s ability to describe the picture with what is, at this time, a very limited vocabulary.

D. As children move out of the primary ages, more writing, grammar and narration should be added to their study of the language, with resources from previous years continued.

Clara L. Daniell, from “When and How to Begin Modern Languages” states:

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 skillful leading they can find out reasons and rules bit by bit and will remember them because the joy of discovery will be theirs” (Daniell, 808-814).

A.S. Tetley similarly agrees with the need for including a written aspect to the study of language. In his article “On the Teaching of Modern Languages” he writes “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” (Tetley, 801-807).

At this level, Charlotte Mason felt that narration should begin to take a fuller role. The teacher would read a small section from a children’s story or collection of stories written in the target language, such as Sur La Montagne. The children and teacher translate the section to be read, the teacher reads this section in the target language and then the children narrate it back. Mason’s Towards a Philosophy of Education expands on this:

…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 so than if they learnt the little passage off by heart (Mason, 209-213).

Grammar is given more attention at this level with books and resources to provide the base for this. Grammar is studied naturally as well, as it arises, such as was described above by Clara L. Daniell. As sentences and phrases are written on the board the children will notice differences in spellings and pronunciations. These differences are often related to changes based in grammar. The teacher can lead the students into understanding these changes.

Also, picture lessons are used to encourage children to describe more fully what they see. This further builds their skills in narration. Older students of this form will listen to longer reading sections and narrate them as well. Latin begins in Form II.

E. Students of the upper forms will have begun their second modern language and later add a third one. Their study of languages becomes more challenging.

In Form III, students will add another modern language. Their study of French and Latin will continue and advance as they also begin to learn either German or Italian. Their language studies include many aspects as was used in earlier years such as poetry, readings and narration, grammar and songs. To this more challenging and lengthy readings are added. Students read and narrate chapters from books, begin translating and are able to parse sections from books, since their grammar knowledge has grown. As the upper years advance, students begin to read classics in their target languages such as, works by Victor Hugo, Livy and Dante and the Nibelungenlied in German. The writing assignments match the advancement of reading selections in challenge. Charlotte Mason gives us a sense of the types of assignments the students of the upper forms might have with regard to languages in the following excerpt:

Thus Form II is required to "Describe in French, picture 20." "Narrate the story Esope et le Voyageur." Part of the term's work in Form III is to "Read and narrate Nouveaux Contes Français, by Marc Ceppi." Form IV is required amongst other things to "Read and narrate Moliere's Les Femmes Savantes." Forms V and VI are required to "Write a résume' of Le Misanthrope or L'Avare," "Translate into French, Modern Verse, page 50, 'Leisure'"(Mason, 209-213).


Resources have been added to the website to better aid in developing your own version of a Charlotte Mason approach to learning languages. Please follow the menu bar over to Resources and from there scroll down to Skill Subjects and Foreign Languages to find these resources.

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