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The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
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"Out of the Mouths of Babes and Sucklings"

by One Who Has Written Many Latin Exercises
Volume 3, 1892/93, pgs. 247-249


From the "mouths of babes and sucklings" to a Latin exercise seems a far cry, but the one-or two-year-older, babbling and prattling in imitation of its elders, can, if we listen, help us to understand why so few are remembered of the great multitude of exercises that are written. The little child teaches that the picking up of new words is hard, very hard. It hears one and tries over and over again to get it, and if the pronunciation is difficult, this effort may be continued unsuccessfully for a very long time. I knew a wee girl who said "besfoke" instead of breakfast till she was five or six, and every parent can recall the droll caricature of words that have persisted in their nurseries for six or seven years to their great delight and amusement. A wise mother does not trouble about these charming little absurdities; it will all come right in time she knows, and besides, the child is working hard at this great first task of learning to understand and speak; to try and make it articulate all the consonants in such a word as breakfast is as foolish as it is useless. And we "children of a larger growth" how shy we are of new words--we dare not utter them unless perfectly sure of the pronunciation; we ask a dear friend quietly: How do you accent esoteric? or some such rara avis, and if a word is long, how prone we are to cut it down! Look at laboratory, wretched utterance! all the emphasis on lab and the four remaining syllables, on their way to extinction, "rushed" after each other higgedly-piggedly! It was elaboratory once, another generation and it will be plain lab and nothing more in speaking or writing. Yes, new words are stubborn things to struggle with, and to suppose that in the case of foreign words it is sufficient to write and see them, or even in addition to give them some more or less faulty mental utterance, is to prepare the way for inevitable disappointment. No one can get and retain a new vocal impression without repeated pronunciation of the strange word, whether it be English, Latin, or French.

If the master who toils so patiently with classical languages and finds at the end of eight, ten, twelve, or fourteen years that his boys know nothing comparatively of Latin and Greek, had kept this fact in mind, he would have reformed his methods long ago, and would, we believe, have abolished much, nearly all, of the writing employed in acquiring a language. At least he would have realised a more excellent way of using exercises.

If we could persuade a form master to try for a year, for two terms, for one term only, the following method of using exercises! Let us take the very simplest by way of illustration. Select four nouns belonging to the same declension and write them up in the nominative and accusative on the black board, with the present tense of a regular verb--say, amo. Pater, patrem, mater, matrem, amo, amas, amat, &c. Let the boys combine these aloud into sentences, singly if the boys be few, in groups or all together if they be many, or first singly and then together. At the end of twenty minutes or half an hour rub out all the words on the blackboard and make the class form sentences from perfect combinations of nouns and verbs in note-books which they take home to glance at before the next lesson. The master would do well to walk round amongst the boys as they write these and see that no mistakes creep in. At the next lesson ten minutes' recapitulation without the blackboard, then some new words written up, another tense of amo and yesterday's operation repeated. If a master would do this persistently, always increasing the difficulty of the lesson, using a book to save himself the trouble of furnishing all the material, or, as the boys grow older, setting them to learn overnight the rule which in the morning they illustrate viva voce, he would soon find to his astonishment that his class could turn English into Latin aloud with correctness and ease, till at last--oh, triumph of industry and patience!--they would translate without grammar or vocabulary the most crabbed, elaborate and brain-taxing of Dr. Bradley's sentences.

And then when the day, the fatal day of examination comes, the boys will have, not in exercise-books, grammars, vocabularies, and dictionaries, now far beyond their reach, but in their minds the Latin words, grammatical usages, constructions, &c, which they need must have to save them from being plucked.

The Latin, not the English, will have taken root in their brains--why? What the boy sees on the black-board is Latin not English, what he repeats over and over again is Latin, not English, the new vocal impressions he receives are Latin, till instead of muttering over his game of cards, "In order not to be driven into exile, I shall pretend to be mad," he says, vencere [word unclear], for the rogue always wins, and has the [word unclear]  grace to chuckle withal.

Oh, but--objects the classic master--there's such splendid mental exercise for the boys in puzzling out these exercises by themselves at home. If they did puzzle them out by themselves, the discipline would be splendid, the achievement would be scarcely less than miraculous! For, by no amount of thinking can a boy make out how an old Roman used to express his ideas! He asks his grammar and his dictionary, and this "splendid mental discipline" consists chiefly in turning over the leaves of books. Now the viva voce method makes far greater demands on the boy's wits. He must observe, he must be ready, he must turn over, not leaves, but his mind, and that quickly; he cannot dawdle, he cannot do a sentence and then have a talk or scrimmage with his brother before going on; he must attend, or make a fool of himself before the whole class; he does not mind writing "mater" instead of "pater," he minds saying it aloud, he even dreads saying "amo" instead of "amat."

Puzzle it out by himself? The result of that is that he writes down every conceivable mistake, and many that are inconceivable! I have seen exercises where foreign and English alternated in the same sentence. When a boy has had five hours' restraint in school, and does not feel inclined to take pains in the evening with his Bradley, no master, at a distance of a mile or two, sitting snugly over his fire with his book and cigar, can make him; but in class, the teacher can enforce attention.

And how much time would be saved? In many schools ten or twelve hours a week are spent over this exercise-writing and correcting; away with it! and substitute three or four hours of viva voce illustration of grammatical rules, in ten years you will have economised at least 3120 hours of time! 3120 hours, why a boy could learn to swim and dance, or to play and sing, or a modern language, or even to read Latin, a thing he never learns at school, in the time rescued from making mistakes and having them corrected!