A Charlotte Mason Approach to Learning Languages: Moving Beyond the Textbook {part 4}

This post is part of a series.
Part One: Listen, Listen, Listen
Part Two: What To Read
Part Three: A Web of Language
Part Four: {this post}


Gouin talked about the importance of making our first and primary instruction in the foreign language we have chosen aural instruction: the ear, he said, is the primary organ of language learning, not the eye; our children should hear new words before they see them. The same is true for adult students of languages: training the ear is key to success.

How is it, then, that so many people pronounce so badly the foreign languages that they have begun to learn at school? We believe we have found the true answer to the enigma. The first great cause of a bad accent is reading — reading undertaken at the wrong time, too soon. The second cause is reading degenerating into a bad habit; and the third cause still seems to us to be reading. Let us explain.
-Francois Gouin, The Art of Teaching and Studying Languages

Gouin then goes on to explore the three ways that premature and incorrect use of printed materials damage the student’s accent. First, if the student sees the word before he hears it, he will attempt to pronounce it using the phonetic rules he is already familiar with, and of course the pronunciation rules of English applied to French (or any other language) yield terrible results. If this continues uncorrected, the student runs into the second hazard: his reading builds bad habits of pronunciation that become ingrained. In addition, Gouin discusses the way that focusing on written lessons first accustoms the student to translate in his head first, and only speak afterwards, which slows both the recognition and production of sounds and greatly impedes the journey to native-like fluency. The solution he offers is to focus on aural language first: the student should learn with their ears before anything else.

Because many homeschoolers are teaching a language as they learn it alongside their students, this principle of working with aural materials first can be a challenge! Do the best you can; I know from experience that it doesn’t have to be perfect to help you progress. If all you can do is get the aural and the written at the same time, do it that way. Encourage your child to be careful to pay attention to the sound of their lesson, to try to say the words and phrases first without looking, and make aural learning the emphasis, rather than the text. Make sure that you are creating the linguistic bubble discussed in Part One. Even if your success is imperfect, it will help. To the extent that you can, try to prioritize verbal language instruction and casual use of the language in your home. If you have a fluent or native speaker you can enlist to assist from time to time, you will progress much more quickly. If you do not, don’t despair. It’s been 5 years since the I felt prompted to take the leap into attempting bilingual instruction, and at the time that we started, I had very, very little Japanese vocabulary and no access to native speakers whatsoever. The marvels of modern technology have allowed us to work with circumstances that previously had prevented me from making much if any progress at all, but as low and no cost streaming media became available (YouTube, I’m looking at you!), we’ve been able to bring an ever-increasing variety of options into our home to help us listen to native Japanese speakers doing a host of different activities.

This type of instruction requires a bit of a leap of faith: it’s far less measurable than worksheets and tests. You can’t see what is happening in your student’s brain the way that you can see a page full of correct answers. It won’t boil down into nice numbers at the end of the term, and you probably won’t have a tidy list of vocabulary words learned. What you can see is how well your children respond as you start to slip the new words into your everyday speech. This evening, when my daughter was finished with her shower, I asked her, “Did you  pick up your 服 in the お手洗い,” and she headed right off to the bathroom to grab the clothes that I knew she’d probably forgotten. Two months ago, I don’t think she knew those words; her responsiveness to things she hears tells me that she’s learning, even though she’s often not ready to say much to me in Japanese. What you will have is weird little things, like my friend noticing my son singing The Wise Man and the Foolish Man in Japanese at church. You can set this kind of thing up, too: let your kids know that asking in the new language increases the odds that you’ll say yes –and then after they’ve become comfortable with the initial ask/answer sequence (we’ve used asking for snacks), change it up: offer alternatives to the snack they want, or even say no in the new language, and watch them first work for comprehension, and then in time become more comfortable with this new way of doing business. That is clear and genuine progress. It’s building little “islands” of fluency that they can expand into more and more areas.


Have Fun

Don’t limit your linguistic experiments to school hours. It’s easy to discount having fun; we are inclined to expect effective things to be Serious Work. But think about it: when you enjoy something, you go back for more, and isn’t that exactly the sort of practice that will eventually bring us to the point where the new language is invisible, and the activity just happens to be in the new language? Language exercises, in that case, become incidental to play, to hobbies, to stories. Heritage families and successful adult learners both talk about the need to enjoy using the new language. Families live life in their heritage language: they play games, sing songs, watch their favorite TV shows and sports teams, and they are intentional about involving their children in the fun, which both gives them experience with the new language, and also helps them to associate it with pleasant times, rather than frustrating work. Not so incidentally, these activities all tend to emphasize the spoken over the written language, but reading will have its place, too: adult language learners’ blogs talk about reading familiar classics such as The Hobbit in translation, watching favorite TV shows (Stargate’s Teal’c apparently has an entertainingly low voice in the Japanese edition) and other similar activities. Fun matters. Start with the games that you play when there are toddlers in the group; doing them in a new language makes the game new and challenging again. It’s ok if you don’t know -or don’t use- all the words the first time. It’s supposed to be fun; keep it light: play at it. Come back and play again another day; next time you’ll be able to use more phrases.

We recently started to learn the vocabulary necessary to play Uno and Simon Says in Japanese. We have a couple kids that still need the repetitive reminders, “play a red or a seven”, and that is a great place for me to practice the new construction I need to give them that option, and my kids get to listen to it again and again, which builds familiarity and helps them get used to responding to this new piece of Japanese. Each time we play, I can move more and more into Japanese, and before long my oldest started to follow… and anything he can do, the younger kids can too (ask them). Primary songs are also a fan favorite at our house, and the Primary Songbook and recordings of the music are available in many languages. Even practicing dialog activities from lessons becomes more fun when you get out the stuffed animals and make the animals do the work.

Joyous interest… is the real secret of success.
-Charlotte Mason 1:214

Working out the vocabulary necessary to bring our new language into our leisure activities, so that it becomes associated with fun, as well as with lessons, takes a little preparation on my part. The incremental introduction of new words I talked about in Part Three not only helps my children figure out the new words, it’s also important for my learning. I think the thing keeps toddlers coming back for 28437234943 readings of Goodnight Gorilla is that they get something new out of it every time, and when we start a new language, the simple materials made for very young children can be great resources precisely because they are simple, which will allow us to figure out a little bit more of it each time we revisit. There are good reasons why we teach repetitive songs about simple subjects to our munchkins, and that type of resources are great options again when we’re ready to feed a new language to our ears.

Once we’ve heard, heard and understood, then is the time to enlist the aid of the eyes and hand in reading and writing, after the ears have already laid the foundation. You cannot listen too much to your new language. When the foundation is laid in the ear, then it is time to bring out the books and the pencils.


To take possession of knowledge is to make it pass successively by way of all the senses. Now, our exercise has been confided to the ear by the lessons given by the teacher, and is graven upon the imagination. It should now be confided to the eye by reading, and then to touch by writing. … The exercise will thus have passed by the scholar’s three principle senses.
-Francois Gouin, The Art of Teaching and Studying Languages



DoriAnn HaskinsDoriAnn Haskins is a wife and a mother of three. She has been studying and then 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.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *