If you had graduated from one of Charlotte Mason’s schools, you would have studied several different foreign languages: French, German, Italian, and Latin. And not just studied, but used and understood those languages quite well.
In fact, her students were so fluent in French that they could read or listen to a reading in that language and give their narrations in it. How did she accomplish that level of expertise? Let’s talk a bit about Charlotte’s brilliant approach to foreign language.
The Series Approach
Charlotte believed that we should approach learning a foreign language in the same way we approach learning our mother tongue: hear it and speak it before you ever read and write it. So she used the Gouin series method, which agrees with that approach.
Francois Gouin developed the idea of using a series of statements that describe what you are doing. The statements are taught in the known language first, then incrementally introduced in the new language, and always accompanied with the actions.
For example, the students might learn a series like this:
I take the box.
I open the box.
I close the box.
Here’s how it works.
- Students say the series of statements aloud a few times as they do the actions: take a box, open it, close it.
- Once they know the series, it is simplified to just the verbs: take, open, close.
- They learn each of those verbs in the new language and practice saying it aloud as they continue to do the corresponding actions.
- They learn the one phrase needed to finish the sentences (the box) and practice the entire series in the new language with actions.
The beauty of this method is that by coupling everyday activities and actions, they begin to think in the new language. What other things do I open and close? A book, maybe. By learning one more new word (book), they can then narrate a new activity and are beginning to feel at home with using the language for themselves.
Younger students can do the series completely by hearing and speaking; older or more experienced students can add the reading and writing component by copying the series into a notebook.
As with so many of the methods that Charlotte Mason used, the Gouin series is a simple yet wonderfully effective approach! Cherrydale Press has created resources for this approach, and we highly recommend them.
Layering the Languages
In case you’re curious how Charlotte accomplished several languages with her students, here’s an explanation. Charlotte started with French, most likely because that was the most prominent foreign language in her students’ surroundings. France was right across the Channel. Grades 1–3 incorporated French songs and games along with the hearing and speaking activities of the Gouin series. Grades 4–6 expanded on that foundation and added French reading and writing, plus, the students in those grades were introduced to verbal German. In Grades 7–9 the students expanded on both French and German, and added Italian. So the acquisition of several languages was a gradual sequential process over many years, all meant to equip the students to be courteous and kind global neighbors.
Teaching Latin is a little different, because Latin is not as much a spoken language today as the others we have discussed; it’s mostly written. So Charlotte didn’t start this language study until the children were older (4th grade and up) and were studying English grammar. Two resources that I have liked for teaching Latin are Getting Started with Latin followed by the Cambridge Latin Course.