A Charlotte Mason Approach to Learning Languages: Moving Beyond the Textbook {part 2}

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


Not only to satisfy the necessities of travelers in far countries has the study of language ever been desirable, but to penetrate the spirit and genius of Homer, Virgil, Shakespeare, Goethe, Hugo, Dante, it has become, to the cultured of every country, a necessity for the full gift of a liberal education. Since language became literature, the necessity for mastery over other tongues than his own has forced the attention of student and of professor to the problem of the study of languages…
-Howard Swan, Preface to The Art of Teaching and Studying Languages by M. Francois Gouin


In part one of this series, we looked at considerations for the beginning language learner: in particular, the need for vast quantities of exposure to spoken language as an indispensable aspect of successful language learning. As the student begins to progress, in addition to the aural input and lessons, books begin to take on a much greater importance. Just like learning to read in your native tongue, start with simple books. Miss Mason recognized that parents wishing to teach a language they do not know at a native level face particular challenges, but she reminds us that even in this case we should not lose sight of the importance of Gouin’s concept of imitating the natural acquisition of the first child’s first language:


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.
-Charlotte Mason, 1:306


As we begin to branch out and explore beyond the textbooks and lessons we have chosen, there are a number of places to look for what to read.



Certainly one of the earliest books a language learner  will want to include in their study is an edition of the Bible or the Book of Mormon in their chosen language. There is no better “study aid” than the Holy Ghost, and no better way to invite him to assist with your efforts than to read the scriptures in your new language. At first, this can be read side-by-side with the English edition. I have chosen to read the Book of Mormon first, as the reading level is somewhat easier than the Bible, but both of them are available in a host of languages. The Gospel Library app has the scriptures and other Church produced materials in many languages as a standard feature, some of them with audio. And switching between languages using bookmarks is simple to set up and very easy to use thereafter. Expect that progress will be quite slow at first; it’s ok if you only read a verse or even a sentence at a time to start; it’s not a race. Each time you read you will learn a little bit, and it will add up over time. I have been reading the Japanese edition of the Book of Mormon for just over two years now, and recently started Mosiah. But, although I read the chapters slowly, I have greatly expanded my vocabulary and understanding of the language, and also gained valuable insights from differences of expression between the languages. Additionally, the vocabulary I’ve learned in the Book of Mormon is allowing me to make beginning efforts with the Bible in Japanese as well.

The scriptures are a fantastic starting place for reading in your new language, but don’t let them be the only source; it’s too narrow for the feast that we are trying to spread. As important as gospel-centered language is, even missionaries are encouraged to branch out beyond that:


“We would … hope that every missionary learning a new proselyting language would master it in every way possible. … And as you do so, your proselyting and testifying skills will improve. … Don’t be satisfied with what we call a missionary vocabulary only. Stretch yourself in the language…”
-Jeffrey R. Holland, quoted in Preach My Gospel


Literature in Translation

Familiar books that have been translated into your language are a great addition to the family library; the familiarity will help you to decipher what is happening, and enhance both comprehension and enjoyment of the effort. The Very Hungry Caterpillar was among our first Japanese picture books, and the kids were completely delighted when we found it on YouTube as a song. Eric Carle has a number of his books that have been translated into a collection of languages.  Dr. Seuss is another that’s been translated quite a bit. Other classic picture books may also be available; we have The Velveteen Rabbit in Japanese, as well as a growing collection of picture books originally written for Japanese children. Searching on Amazon for “Japanese bilingual” or “Japanese edition” I’ve been able to find a number of likely picture books, some translated from English, and then with the related product links, to find other stories originally written in Japanese. Bilingual editions of fairy tales are especially fun, and right up the Charlotte Mason homeschooler’s alley. Don’t forget to look around locally, too: sometimes our used book shop even has something. Our library has a whole shelf full of Spanish books as that’s a very common second language in our area, and they have a smaller selection of picture books in other languages.

Perhaps because families that are transmitting a heritage language are already familiar with the literature and classics of that language, they don’t tend to talk about literature in translation as much, but I have seen several adult learners talk about how valuable it was for them to read a familiar book such as the Hobbit in their new language, and how reading a familiar classic in an unfamiliar language was a turning point in their study. I have the Hobbit in Japanese, but it’s still too difficult, so the first chapter book that I’ve been chipping away at is a retelling of Disney’s Wreck-it Ralph. In English, I have very little patience for movies as chapter books, and typically write them off as twaddle; in Japanese, it’s a huge challenge that I have yet to make significant progress on, but that I enjoy. Even though Wreck-it Ralph will never be accused of being literature, it’s a useful step in my linguistic development: the simple vocabulary and grammar I expect it will use are exactly what I need to further develop my sense, my budding instinct, for how the language works. Which brings me to the next point:


Don’t Make Up Your Own

Do not be tempted to make up your own version of the language. There is a vast amount of information in a language that is largely subconscious. This is one reason why extensive exposure to input, listening and later broad reading, is so important: not every word can go with every other. As one author pointed out:


We do an exercise, but make a mistake; make a phone call, but have a conversation; do a job, but take a break; take a step, but make a jump. You can have a bad/terrible headache, but not a strong/heavy headache; you can get great/enormous satisfaction, but not big satisfaction; you can be a heavy smoker, but not a hard/strong smoker; you can have a heated debate, but not a burning debate; you can have a fast car, but not a fast look; you can clean your teeth, but you cannot clean the dishes.
-Antimoon: How Much Input Do You Need?


Try to use sentences collected from natives, rather than just making up your own, because theirs will be correct; odds are, yours will not, at least not at first: incorrect or quirky usage is a huge part of how we can recognize a non-native speaker. Over time, your listening and reading will gradually train your instinct in the same way that your English instinct has been trained, telling you it’s better not to say, “I done it.” But especially at first, it’s best to borrow sentences from reliable sources in order to avoid training incorrect habits into your new language. Those early mistakes that get built into habits can be very difficult to correct later on. Don’t skimp on the listening, and don’t make up your own language.

There are resources available that can help us to find native phrases that say what we want to say.  A good dictionary (I keep two on my phone) is an indispensable source of sample sentences. But most dictionaries don’t have much of what I think of as “Mom-speak”: all the repetitive things we say to our children are great places to integrate our new language. For that sort of thing, I use HiNative. It’s an app that lets you ask native speakers how to say the sentence you’re interested in, or to check your pronunciation: it allows you to make short recordings of yourself, and native speakers can leave recordings as well, by way of correction. In exchange, you answer questions for learners of English. It was from natives on this app that I learned the necessary vocabulary to play Uno, to tell the kids to get their PJs, brush their teeth, and a host of other routine requests in our home. This takes effort, both to identify vocabulary and sentences, and then to learn them, but pays rich dividends in practical language that is immediately useful in the home.


[E]ducation must be organic and not mechanical, that language teaching, modern and classic, should proceed by dealing with things and not with words and grammatical abstractions, and that before all else education should have direct bearing upon actual life.
-Howard Swan, Preface to The Art of Teaching and Studying Languages by M. Francois Gouin


To keep the various sentences they give me fresh in my mind (and on my phone where I can refresh my memory whenever I need to), I use an SRS: a spaced repetition system, which is a flashcard app that “spaces” your cards so that you see new ones much more frequently than cards you’ve learned already. Anki and StickyStudy are two that we have tried. Flashcards are not a great choice for young children (remember, the little ones shouldn’t be worrying about the written language, just the listening and then speaking, and even older students should hear first if at all possible), but for middle school and older students including yourself, an SRS is invaluable: all those phrases and sentences you harvest from your dictionary, your lessons, HiNative, or your reading can go into your database, where they can be reviewed in order to gradually cement them into your mind, and they also form a searchable database on whatever device you keep them on, so that when you want to say that thing you learned, but can’t quite remember it, you can look it up… and get it right. Once you have looked it up a couple of times, and perhaps copied it onto a 3×5 card on the kitchen cabinet, and seen it several times in your SRS, you’ll find yourself beginning to remember readily -and as you use it, your children will begin to respond to the increasingly familiar requests as well. This is language learning. Multiply it by 10,000 and you have imperceptibly moved from a struggling new learner to being genuinely bilingual. If you have a smartphone or tablet, then getting an SRS app for it allows you to harvest odd minutes for Mother Culture as you wait for piano lessons, sit with kids as they fall asleep, while waiting at midweek church activities, or other times when you have a couple of minutes. It is startling how quickly five minutes here and ten minutes there add up, and how much you can learn even if you don’t have large chunks of time available for “serious study”. If you are listening generously and flipping flashcards regularly, and reading a little something every day, you will learn. Remember, though: the process is slow, particularly at first. It is a long-term  project best accomplished by normalizing the language into various areas of your life. There will be steady progress if there is daily effort, however small.


When you do small things consistently, they become part of who you are and they change you. It really is “by small and simple things are great things brought to pass”.
-Elayne S. Dalton, Introduction to Personal Progress



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 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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