A Charlotte Mason Approach to Learning Languages: Moving Beyond the Textbook {part 1}

Education is the Science of Relations’; that is, a child has natural relations with a vast number of things and thoughts: so we train him upon physical exercises, nature lore, handicrafts, science and art, and upon many living books, for we know that our business is not to teach him all about anything, but to help him to make valid as many as may be of those first-born affinities that fit our new existence to existing things.”
-Charlotte Mason, 12th Principle


When we begin to study a foreign language, we are beginning a whole new set of relationships. The serious student of an additional language will eventually open the door to relationships with a whole new culture and the people who inhabit that culture both in the local community and also, through technology, gain the ability to communicate with people in the areas where the “foreign” language is the local community language, even if they cannot travel there in person. The student learns new ways of describing all sorts of things, and (perhaps more importantly) new ways of thinking about the things they describe. No wonder learning a language is a daunting task! Sadly, too often, students of languages learn little, and retain less: even reasonable fluency is a distant goal that few seem to achieve outside of those favored few able to spend several years living in an area where the new language is spoken.

When I decided that I was going to teach a foreign language in our home, I decided that I want my kids to be able to converse with each other in it. However, my own education was of the typical variety: I had several years of Spanish in high school, but I did not speak it. I majored in Japanese at college, but though I did manage to get around on the trains when we visited Japan, I was a long way from being conversational –and I didn’t know how to get there. So I spent time reading things written by two groups of people: successful adult learners of foreign languages, and expatriate parents who were highly motivated to pass their heritage language to their children. I found that both the adult learners and the heritage language families talk about many of the same things, and that those things are things that I, even as a non-native speaker with a very incomplete grasp of our chosen language, can imitate. Since I began seriously studying Miss Mason’s educational methods, I found that these ideas are also very much in line with what she suggested.

These are the first two things that I learned:


Listen Listen Listen

Listening, by itself, will probably not teach you your language; alone, it’s not enough. But. Hearing the language matters. We are fortunate to live in the age of the internet. Use it. Get songs, television, audiobooks, radio, and get it playing in the atmosphere of your home. It’s ok if you don’t understand what you are hearing; this will pass. Heritage families found that having about one third of the day be lived in the language was the point where kids seemed to actually start to pick up on and use the heritage language. One adult learner talked about setting a goal to listen to 10,000 hours of his chosen language. Vast quantities of exposure to spoken language around us , much of it happening without the expectation that we will say anything is how we learned our native tongue (after all, babies don’t start talking until they’ve listened for a year or so) and vast listening exposure is a critical but typically overlooked step in gaining real fluency in our adopted languages. It is this steeping in the language that is at the heart of the advantage of living where the language is spoken, but we can create a language “bubble” in our homes with intentional media use and, ideally, a Real Human Being, but if spending time with a fluent speaker is not attainable, there are ways to use technology to at least partially fill that gap.

Listening will train your ear to the native cadence and patterns. It will teach your ear to perceive the sounds that don’t exist in your first language. Listening will shape your accent, and draw it closer to the native accent. It brings the language, as it actually exists (which is subtly different from what textbooks teach) into your home, and helps you with the long process of acclimation. Be intentional about finding media: this will help everyone to get used to hearing many native speakers, and all the variety of ways that natives use the language. It will begin to lay a foundation in your brain of grammar, vocabulary, which words are or are not used together, how to add emphasis, and a host of other things that we learned subconsciously as babies in our native tongue, that the student needs to figure out in the new language. There is no substitute for large quantities of aural exposure to the new language. Even if you don’t understand. Even if you aren’t paying attention. The brain is a remarkable thing, and it’s busy, even when we are not actively aware of it.

Charlotte Mason recommended the language teaching methods of M. Gouin1, who, having failed miserably at learning German from textbooks and memorization, returned home to discover that a three-year old nephew had become a chatterbox2.  He then began studying childhood acquisition of native languages, and from the things he learned, recommended listening as a necessary precursor to other forms of linguistic study:

“Obedient, therefore, to the participation of nature, we will begin, like her, by entrusting the language lesson to the ear.”
-M. Gouin3

Practically speaking, I know from experience that my family is far more likely to remember to use the Japanese words we have learned if I have Japanese media playing in the background. And the excitement on my children’s faces as they begin to catch words they know in the cartoons we watch is a beautiful thing.



Literacy Follows Books

Buy books early; go ahead and start your collection, even if you can’t read them yet. Babies can’t read, but picture books are very common shower gifts –even before they are born. Why? Because literacy follows books. So don’t tell yourself you’ll get books when you can read; that’s backwards. Miss Mason encourages teaching young children aurally for at least the first two years, rather than leaning on books:

“The child should never see French words in print until he has learned to say them with as much ease and readiness as if they were English. The desire to give printed combinations of letters the sounds they would bear in English words is the real cause of our national difficulty in pronouncing French. (1:301)”

There is wisdom in this — but choosing to include foreign language in our children’s education means, for most of us, embarking on an enormous Mother Culture project, as we take the lead in learning the language, and books are most likely going to be part of this process. You’re going to need some books for you, even if you don’t use them with your kids, yet. Keep listening, keep working at your lessons, but also get some books that are for native by natives. They will be challenging: in the same way that real music refuses to be constrained to the “positions” that a piano primer  carefully teaches, real language is not constrained by textbook rules. That’s ok. It’s good. In both areas, it’s the genuine article that introduces you to the beauty of the thing. Flip through your books from time to time; look up a couple of words or figure out the caption under an interesting picture. Come back and do it again tomorrow. And the next day. You learn what’s in the book you’ve chosen, not by magically waking up and being able to read the whole thing one day, but by chipping away at it, slowly figuring it out one word, one phrase at a time. You don’t expect your young readers to learn to read their native language without easy readers; don’t expect miracles of yourself in your new language, either.

Text books are not living books, and this is as true of foreign languages as it is of English. Get out of the “student ghetto” as soon as possible, even if it’s only part time. The difficulty with giving up textbooks entirely is that most parents, lacking mission experience or some other time as an expatriate, are themselves learners, and so textbooks may be a necessary crutch. However, don’t let that be your only experience with your adopted language! Branch out. In this case, finding something simple isn’t twaddle, it’s scaffolding: the simple language and syntax increases the students’ ability to understand. Understanding more is more fun- and if it’s fun, you’ll spend more time at it, which means will you progress faster. Using music, books, and even television designed for toddlers isn’t sinking to using twaddle, it’s more akin to using Bob Books for the new reader: a tool used to promote understanding for beginners. When you start learning a new language, you are a baby to that language. It’s important to realize that and give yourself permission to be a beginner, to mix your languages, to hear more than you speak, and to read simple books. Even “just” board books will give you exposure to how the language works. The trick is to try to get your hands on books that are for natives, by natives. No matter how simple, each one will prepare you for the next one, and the one after that. Pretty soon, you’ll be finding familiar words in unfamiliar places, and the language will start to unfold itself to you. The process starts slowly, so be patient with yourself.

“The way to knowledge is actually knowledge, one thing builds upon another, concepts and vocabulary picked up in one area weave together with ideas and words collected in another setting, building a background of knowledge that makes further knowledge possible.”
-Headmistress, The Common Room


Becoming Fully Acquainted

The point of studying a language isn’t to take the lessons, it’s to open new opportunities for communication. The new language will not only bring wholly new ideas to you and your children, but because language is the clothing with which we dress our thoughts, a new language will bring new ways of approaching familiar ideas as well, and this will deepen the relationship the student has with these ideas. But sticking with the textbook, doing only the lessons, will never get you far enough to meet these ideas and form these relationships.

See that your children are properly educated in the rudiments of their mother tongue, and then let them proceed to higher branches of learning; let them become more informed in every department of true and useful learning than their fathers are. When they have become well acquainted with their language, let them study other languages, and make themselves fully acquainted with the manners, customs, laws, governments, and literature of other nations, peoples, and tongues.
-Brigham Young, JD 8:9

Textbooks and lessons are a useful starting place, but we must not lose sight of the fact that a starting place is all they are. Using media and written materials that are produced for natives by natives is challenging for the language student, but it is nothing less will allow us to become fully acquainted with the languages and cultures around us, able to form genuine relationships and embrace new ideas through the language we’ve chosen to adopt.


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



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




1. “A serious effort is being made to approach the study of foreign languages rationally and scientifically. I have no hesitation in saying that M. Gouin ‘s work is the most important attempt that has yet been made to bring the study of languages within the sphere of practical education. Indeed, the great reform in our methods of teaching modern languages owe their origin to this remarkable work.” -Charlotte Mason, 1:302
2. A summary of M. Gouin’s experience is available here.
3. Quoted in Charlotte Mason and Foreign Language, part 6



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