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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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The Teaching of French

by Miss V. Partington
Volume 19, 1908, pgs. 900-


In these days of reformed methods of language teaching, an article on the teaching of French must be, to a very great extent, merely a recapitulation or revision of the many excellent ideas and theories which have been propounded and set forth from time to time by those who have been the pioneers and who are now the upholders of the improved methods.

Yet, as teachers who use these methods claim to have achieved eminently satisfactory results by their use, it may be interesting after all to pass some of them in review, and try and see wherein lies the secret of their success. Before setting children down to learn French, or indeed any foreign language, we might ask ourselves why we wish them to take up this study. There may be various reasons. Our object may be a purely utilitarian one; it is possible only that we wish them to be able to express themselves in the foreign language in case they find themselves later in the foreign country, and wish to hold intercourse with natives; or it may be we realize that the learning of another tongue besides their own has a great educational value, and that it is a means of deepening and widening the children's outlook upon life and thus broadening their mental horizon.

Whatever be our object, it is surely our duty to see that the means employed to attain it shall be such as will prove most helpful to the children and render them the greatest services from an educational point of view.

Now when we come to examine the ideas and theories put forward by the advocates and teachers of the Reform School, what do we find out about most of them after all? That they are in reality as old as the hills and based upon common-sense and upon intelligent and sympathetic knowledge of the child's mind and needs. Taking it for granted then that it is a good and desirable thing for children to learn French, let us look closely into some of these ideas and theories and see for ourselves if they can substantiate the claim which they make to be the best and most profitable means of making them acquainted with the language. The primary aim of the teacher is, I take it, to arouse a certain amount of interest and wholesome curiosity with regard to the language he wishes to teach and with regard to the living people and children who use it. If he fails to do this, the lack of interest in the class will inevitably react upon the teaching and deprive it of that vividness and vitality which is so essential to its success.

Now in the early days this interest and curiosity are best aroused by appeals to the child's imagination. These can be made in a variety of ways: by telling simple stories of French children's lives and ways, tales of their home life, their school, etc., descriptions of their daily occupations and habits, the dress they wear, the games they play, the food they eat, their holidays and feast days, etc., etc. And these stories and descriptions will have much more effect and produce a more lasting impression if pictures are used to illustrate them. Not once or twice only has a child said to me after having been shown some picture illustrating a scene of French childlife, "Oh! I should like to go to France and see all that too," and then the natural outcome of the wish has been the resolution to set to work in earnest to learn French soon.

Nowadays, wall-pictures, illustrative of foreign life, picture post-cards, foreign coins, foreign stamps, photographs, foreign toys, etc., all form part of the apparatus of a Reform Method teacher, and all are useful and stimulative, helping the child to realize more vividly that French is a living language used by living children.

Once the wish to begin French is awakened, there will follow naturally, with a wise teacher, some little talk about the difference in the sounds of the language and those of their own mother-tongue. This is most essential if the teacher's aim is to make the children acquire a proper and pleasing pronunciation. I know there are some who think that great attention to pronunciation is out of place, and indeed a mistake in the very early stages, and they maintain that a good "accent" (as they call it) can be acquired later. Let me point out here most seriously and emphatically that if the foundations of a good pronunciation are not laid early, bad habits will be contracted which will cause endless trouble afterwards, and make it much more difficult, if not quite impossible, to acquire the good pronunciation later on.

And this brings us to the much discussed question of the advisability of using Phonetics in the early stages of language teaching. Some prefer to trust entirely to the child's ear and powers of imitation, and they look upon the teaching and use of Phonetics as so much waste of time. But one generally finds that those who take up this attitude have never really given Phonetics a fair trial. They have felt repelled at the onset by the difficulties which seem to present themselves when one first begins a study of the subject, difficulties which are really far more apparent than real, and they have perhaps not had the perseverance or the time at their disposal for a thorough investigation. And one word of warning is perhaps necessary here. Much as one realizes the help and benefit to be derived from a judicious use of Phonetics in the classroom, it is better that they should be excluded entirely than that they should be used by an incompetent or careless teacher.

Given, however, that the teacher has had a training in Phonetics, they will prove an incalculate boon to the children in helping them to realize what are the peculiarities of the foreign sounds which they must learn to produce in order to speak the new language intelligently and pleasingly.

Drill, therefore, in the sounds of the foreign tongue ought to be the next step taken once the children's interest has been awakened and their minds put into an attitude of receptivity. And this drill need not by any means by a dull mechanical thing. By comparing the sounds one with another and with those already familiar to the children in their own mother-tongue, it can be made extremely interesting, and I have never known attention to flag when, as a class, we are engaged in this absorbing analysis and comparison. Besides which, not only are the children making acquaintance with the foreign sounds during the drill, but some other excellent mental training is proceeding incidentally and simultaneously. They are receiving valuable ear training and they are learning to gain control over the movements performed by their organs of speech, and all this will be of incalculate benefit and use to them in acquiring a proper pronunciation of their own mother-tongue, or in learning how to correct their own faults of pronunciation when speaking it. Far from being a waste of time, a training in Phonetics will prove to be an absolute saving time in the long run. There is one seemingly grave objection which is sometimes urged with regard to the use of the Phonetic script. Many a time has it been said to me in all seriousness that it will ruin the children's spelling. Personal experience has taught me however that the danger here is not so great as it seems; and I have found over and over again that by writing words which present some difficulty of spelling side by side in phonetic and in ordinary script, the splitting up of the word into component sounds, and the examining of the letters which in the ordinary spelling are used to represent those sounds, seem to impress the spelling in a far more graphic and thorough way upon the child's mind than when one uses the conventional method of teaching spelling by syllables.

And one fact which is perhaps worth stating in this connection is that it is invariably my experience, when giving a French dictation, to find that those pupils who have had a training in French Phonetics, and who are familiar with the Phonetic script and have been accustomed to use it whenever a fresh word presenting some little difficulty of pronunciation has occurred in the course of the French lesson, make far fewer mistakes than those who have not had this Phonetic experience.

The foundation of a good pronunciation once laid, what ought to be our next step? Our wish is certainly to make the children acquainted first of all, not with the more or less learned language of books and literature, but with the ordinary, usual, everyday spoken language of the French boy or girl. That is the first thing, only let us bear one reservation in mind: Let the language we teach be, by all means, the familiar language of everyday life, but let us be careful never to teach a slip-shod or too colloquial French. Our aim, it seems to me, ought to be to teach the French spoken by the children of the well-educated upper middle and professional classes in France; but whereas a French child may be allowed some license in expressing itself in its own tongue, I do not think it is wise to let English children, and especially beginners, get into the way of using too many colloquialisms. If they do, the effect is most unpleasing to a French ear.

In order to impart a knowledge of this everyday spoken language, we have many means at our disposal, and one great resource lies in our pupils themselves. I am referring to that dramatic instinct which exists to so great an extent in every child, and which I do not think we, as teachers, call forth half as much as we might. It is an invaluable aid, and although a certain amount of drudgery and real hard work must be gone through in learning a language, as indeed in doing well anything in life that is at all worth doing, yet this dramatic instinct of the child will do much to lighten the drudgery and to smooth and make pleasant the hard work it is necessary for it to go through.

What better way could there be of teaching a child a living language than by letting it live that language for the time being? Therefore, find out what are the children's favorite games and favorite amusements, and as far as possible, turn these into French, and above all let the children themselves help you do it. At the first attempts they will have to put most of the words and sentences into their mouths, but in an incredibly short time, they acquire a little stock of their own to draw upon and then the educational value to them of having a hand in the building up of their little game or play is increased twofold. It is a true saying that what you can draw out of a child's mind is of far greater value to it educationally than what you can put into it, and the effort to utilize the little stock of knowledge as soon as it begins to accumulate can have nothing but good results.

Therefore encourage them to put their "pretense" plays into French. Tea parties, afternoon calls, putting dolls to bed, dressing them, making imaginary gardens (or real ones when possible) playing at Doctor's visits, at going shopping, etc., etc. One finds the children very fertile in suggestions, and when one's own imagination fails, one can confidently appeal to them for help that is sure to be forthcoming.

Memorizing of little pieces of poetry, nursery rhymes, riddles, etc., all these are helpful, too, in swelling the stock of everyday phrases and expressions which will come in so useful in the little "play building" lessons. And if the teacher is at all musical, what a delightful resource there is in the teaching of French songs and singing games. How helpful again is this singing in teaching a good pronunciation, especially of the French vowel sounds! At Queens' College School, Harley Street, London, we started last year a French games and conversation class, which is held twice a week, and which is conducted entirely on the lines suggested above. The results have been most gratifying and encouraging.

After a certain amount of familiarity with the spoken language has been acquired in these various ways, it is well to proceed to regular reading and writing lessons, and although one would not devote too much time to them at first, yet it does not seem wise to delay them too long. I know that I am not altogether at one with some of the most successful and earnest Reform Teachers on this point, but experience has taught me that in teaching a language, it is wise to call soon into play other faculties besides the purely oral one.

To some children spelling does not present much difficulty; it seems to be given to them to spell correctly with ease either in their own tongue or in a foreign one; but there are others to whom it is really hard, up-hill work. And I feel sure that when teaching a new foreign word, if the spelling is withheld, the child who has any notion of reading or spelling in its own language will form some sort of mental image of the foreign word, and ten chances to one this will be a faulty one. So in order to counteract this tendency is it not wise, once the sounds of the word are mastered, to present its printed or written form to the child, in order that the mental photograph, so to speak, may be the right one? And this mental photograph will be all the more strengthened if the hand is called into play and the letters which go to make up the form or shape of the word are written down.

But do not let it be thought here that I am advocating the teaching of spelling of isolated words. One of the most logical and sensible rules of the Reform School is to teach all new words in connected phrases or sentences, and it is the phrase or sentence which might be taken down as a sort of little dictation, help being given with the new words as they occur. The spelling of already familiar words is then still more impressed upon the mind, and that of the new and unfamiliar ones is learnt naturally, and in the case of concords, a grammatical and logical connection with the rest.

And this, indeed, is the way in which the Reformers ask for the study of grammar to be carried on. It ought never, in the early stages, to be taught as an isolated part of French, and never ought it to consist in committing to memory a number of rules and exceptions. For a very long time a great amount of grammar can be taught quite well in connection with the reader which is being used. It is only perhaps with regard to French verbs that it is necessary to have them committed to memory. But even in the case of French verbs this memorizing work can be made more pleasant and profitable by learning them in applied sentences rather than in lists of tenses.

And as to putting before beginners sentences and extracts in the mother-tongue which are to be translated into the foreign idiom, to my mind that is the best and surest way of making them acquire hopelessly wrong and almost ineradicably bad habits and distorted ways of expressing themselves in the foreign language. Until the scholars have been studying French some three or four years and have attained facility in reading the language and in understanding it when spoken, and until they show a certain capacity for expressing their thoughts in it, no direct translation from the mother-tongue ought to be attempted. The road to translation should be paved by the teaching of free composition in French, and this can be begun at the very earliest stage. Indeed, the building of the little plays is the first attempt at oral free composition. Later, when a certain amount of reading and written work has been done, the children are ready with the stock of words and phrases at their command, to write little connected narratives in French, and as their vocabulary increases this becomes more and more easy for them.

Then, but not until they have acquired this power, a certain amount of translation from the mother-tongue may be attempted; but I would put this translation stage very much later than it is the custom to do at the present day. There could be nothing but gain to the pupil in deferring it.

And when a really good foundation has been laid, and when our children can read French fairly well and without having recourse to an English dictionary (a state of affairs which is surely one of the goals we aim at in teaching them the language) they will be ready for a systematic study of French literature and French authors, and also at this later stage their minds will be ripe enough for a more concentrated and deeper study of the grammar and structure of the language.


Proofread by Leslie Noelani Laurio, July 2008