A Charlotte Mason Approach to Learning Languages: Moving Beyond the Textbook {part 3}


This post is part of a series.
Part One: Listen, Listen, Listen
Part Two: What To Read
Part Three {this post}
Part Four: Ears Before Eyes


Alongside the material railway needed to enable our bodies to communicate, it is absolutely necessary to construct a “mental railway” for the intercourse of minds. This mental railway must take the form of a linguistic method that shall enable a person, by means of the language, to enter into and assimilate the intelligence, and the spirit of the foreign nation, not as now, in a period of ten or twenty years, and in so doing expend the third part of a lifetime, but in the space between two equinoxes, or, for those of trained will, in the space of a single season.
-M. Francois Gouin, The Art of Teaching and Studying Languages p2


Charlotte Mason warmly recommended the method of M. Gouin for learning languages, and his methods were based on the observation and replication of the natural process of linguistic assimilation that, lacking some disability, every child is born with and uses without fail to acquire their mother tongue. This process includes vast amounts of listening, and only later reading. As reading is taught, it begins with simple books, then progresses into more advanced literature. Recognizing that not all students will enjoy the benefit of conversation with fluent speakers of their chosen language, she realized that some reliance on methods “founded on book and picture” may be necessary, but still encouraged parents and teachers to remember that the imitation of natural language acquisition is the underlying principle. (These ideas are discussed in more depth in earlier posts in the series; see the links at the top of the page.)

So how should you proceed to learn yourself, and to pass what you are learning to your children? M. Gouin watched his nephew closely to determine how it is that little ones acquire language, and came to this conclusion:


The child of three conquers, assimilates the mother tongue not word by word, but phrase by phrase, sentence by sentence.
-M. Gouin, The Art of Teaching and Studying Languages, 45


It was from an adult learner of Japanese that I first encountered this idea of learning phrases and sentences: words with context, rather than isolated vocabulary lists. I’ve been using it for several years now, and I love it: using whole phrases and sentences harvested from HiNative, textbooks, or materials produced for natives by natives has nearly entirely eliminated the confusion of looking up a word, finding a whole list of words, and needing to guess which one to use — and when I do have to make a guess from the dictionary, I take it to HiNative and have them check my work. Then I put them in my phone’s flashcards app where I can both study them at my leisure and also search them for the phrase that I want in the moment. I studied grammar until I had a basic understanding, and then I started working backwards: when I find unfamiliar grammar my dictionary (Imiwa) will tell me the name of the structure, and I can then go look it up in my favorite grammar resource (Tae Kim’s Guide). In this way, I learn the basic first, and save the more difficult and the more obscure for when I’ve progressed to the point that I actually need it.

When I studied Japanese in college, my inner perfectionist definitely hurt my progress. I hated making mistakes and that fear of failing translated into fear of trying. Ironically, my perfectionism lead directly to the failure that I feared: I did very poorly in my Japanese classes in no small part because I didn’t say much, and didn’t practice speaking much. It wasn’t until years later, talking to a friend that teaches in a bilingual school, that I realized: I can mix my languages. Mixing is not failure! Not only did she give me “permission” to do so, she said it’s something that all bilinguals do –and mixing means that you can use what you have right now and add to it as you grow into more. This realization was transformational in my learning process: it freed me from needing to say all the words in Japanese, and allowed me to say what I know.

If you are not yet fluent in your chosen language, you can mix languages, and use however much you know right now. This both keeps it fresh and starts the process of giving it to your children. If you are teaching your mission language or other language you are reasonably fluent in, then you can pick a time of the day and during that time you can speak only your new language to your children. In both cases, be careful to also keep media playing that is for natives by natives. If you start when they are babies, they will naturally sort which words go into which “set” of words. Oder kids will probably need a little more support, and may offer more resistance, so make sure to have fun in your language.

One heritage language mom describing how she had started her children older, told how she had found it helpful to support them by saying things three times, first in the new language, then the familiar one, then the new one. She said she felt like a broken record — but her kids were catching on. When I began attempting “bilingual” teaching four years ago, it was limited to only calendar time: I didn’t have enough language to do any other parts of the day, but I did the best I could to follow where the Spirit was leading, and used what little I had. I now use both that triple repetition technique, and also use intentionally mixed sentences as I teach my kids.

I’ll start with a mixed sentence, substituting a new noun in:

“Put that banana peel in the ゴミ箱.”

If they are stumped by this, I’ll use the repetition technique, and give it to them in English, then again in Japanese.  They can readily use context cues for foreign words with the support of the rest of the sentence in English. After a few exposures, they’re used to this, and respond readily, and they’re ready to take it to the next level, where I tell them to put things in the trash entirely in Japanese. At first, they’ll probably give me a blank stare, but they quickly start to latch onto that now-familiar word, which, when combined with pointing at the banana peel, lets them figure it out pretty quickly: they already know what’s supposed to have happened with that peel they left behind! This  graduated technique also gives me a chance to gradually internalize new words and phrases myself, and to check them in HiNative to make sure that I’m speaking as correctly as possible.

The final stage in this process takes a little time to get to: they start to use the words themselves. As the kids have started to try to imitate this process they’ve done some grammatically funny things: instead of telling his sister to throw trash in the can the other day, my younger son told her to throw the trashcan away. It was a single-syllable grammatical suffix that made all the difference in the word’s role in the sentence, and he had mixed two of them up. That gave us a humorous opportunity to discuss the difference between the two endings, and while he may or may not remember everything, he’ll be more aware of those endings, which will help him to hear the difference as we’re listening and watching our media: his cute mistake paves the way for more correct usage of the language, and addressing it in a funny way helps keep the environment safe for him to continue to experiment with speaking the vocabulary he is learning. Mixing languages at first helped him to grasp the basics, and now he’s starting to explore more complete use of Japanese for that situation. Each time we learn a few new words it expands the number of situations he can understand and then gradually speak the new language.


Language is a Web

One reason that this method works well for the kids is that it uses what they know to place what they do not yet know in context.

As he studied his nephew’s linguistic efforts, M. Gouin arranged an experience that was entirely new to his nephew in order to observe how the boy dealt with learning new words and concepts: they went to visit a mill. After the boy had been shown everything and allowed to ask all the questions a three year old will ask in a new and fascinating place, they took him home and M. Gouin went out to play with him. The boy had him assist in building a simplified model of the mill, where he then pretended to grind corn, quite happily narrating the activity to himself all afternoon.


Whence had the child drawn the terms which he had used to express such a complex scene as that of the mill? Assuredly it was not from the dictionary, nor from a grammar, nor from any book whatever; for he did not know how to read. He obtained them from his mother, or from the persons who had answered his questions at the time of his visit to the mill. Among these expressions some were “special,” and therefore new to him. These he had gathered immediately, directly, upon the fact itself together with the perception. The others -and these formed the greater number- were the terms already acquired by him, having served to translate his anterior perceptions. … I saw that to express each new perception it was necessary, so to speak, to employ the vocabulary already acquired.
-M. Gouin, The Art of Teaching and Studying Languages, 47


This idea of language as a web means that, while things progress slowly in the beginning, there comes a point where things begin to be synergistic: there starts to be enough prior knowledge that you start to pick out first words, then phrases and even whole sections in your listening. Each time you sit down to study, your linguistic web is just a little larger than last time. This idea also speaks to the importance of practical phrases that can be used in the every day living, which is, after all, how babies start out. One of the reasons that I didn’t do well in my university Japanese classes is that I had no exposure to the language outside of class and homework; class wasn’t enough. Additionally, the dialogs we learned had no practical application: shortly after learning to say hello, we role played buying socks from a classmate, asking, “Are these socks nylon?” To which our partner would reply, “No, they are cotton.” There was no living idea to capture our imagination, no visual component to cement the association of word to thing, and the store of words was not calculated to allow us to gradually speak more and more about our real environment, real needs, or present wants.

Let your early goals be modest: collect phrases about simple things that come up frequently. In our family, much of the most successful early learning has centered in the kitchen, learning the names of favorite foods, understanding when offered a certain snack, and then learning how to ask for favorite snacks, and only much later knowing how to interpret different kinds of answers: sometimes, if they ask for a glass of milk, now I will tell them they can have some water. Now that we have these patterns for sentences learned, we’re also starting to return to the beginning of the cycle and expand the numbers of foods that we can talk about: It was a big day when I finally found the word for chocolate chips! These phrases for ordinary family life are difficult to find in textbook exercises, but with HiNative and a dictionary, you can work out phrases that native speakers of the language would use, even if you don’t have somebody local to converse with. At this point, my kids are also beginning to be aware of their own progress: I remember distinctly the day that we’d had an ordinary conversation about what snacks were available, and my oldest suddenly realized that he’d had a real conversation in Japanese: he was so excited!

Learning, as we are, in the absence of native or fluent speakers to show us the way and correct our efforts regularly, our family’s progress has been slower than M. Gouin’s prediction of learning “in the space between two equinoxes”. However, we are making steady progress, measured by the number of words and phrases that we understand when we listen to the different media that I find to bring into our home. We are gaining a growing collection of phrases we can use among ourselves. I am gradually being able to read larger passages of scripture in a sitting. I am slowly getting better at reading our growing collection of books. It’s further than I’ve gotten with any of the languages I’ve tried previously with more “traditional” methods of classroom instruction. And that’s pretty exciting to me.



DoriAnn HaskinsDoriAnn Haskins is a wife and a mother of three. She has been studying and using a Classical/Charlotte Mason approach to homeschooling since about 2009, when her oldest started preschool. You can find her blogging at Baby Steps, where she primarily posts about homeschooling life, educational philosophy, and the Gospel.

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