Topical CM Series

Charlotte Mason's ideas are too important not to be understood and implemented in the 21st century, but her Victorian style of writing sometimes prevents parents from attempting to read her books. This is an imperfect attempt to make Charlotte's words accessible to modern parents. You may read these, print them out, share them freely--but they are copyrighted to me, so please don't post or publish them without asking.
~L. N. Laurio

The Charlotte Mason Series in Modern English Arranged Topically

Foreign Language

Volume 1, Home Education, pg 80-81

The French Lesson

The lesson to be squeezed in during the ten minute break is French. Children should learn French orally, by hearing and repeating French phrases. They should begin when they're young enough that the difference in accent doesn't sound so striking and unfamiliar, when they're young and uninhibited enough not to be embarrassed to try saying the words. They should learn a few new French words every day, maybe 2-6 words. Words they've already learned should be kept in use so they don't forget them. It is important to keep their tongues and ears accustomed to French words, so the lessons should be done every day without fail. It might be easier to fit it in with whatever is happening on that day's excursions--the new French words might be leaves, branches, or trunk of a tree. Or they might be the colors of flowers, ways a bird gets around, clouds, animals, children. In fact, the new words should be just one more way for the child to express the things that are in his mind.

Volume 1, Home Education, pg 300-307


French [or any foreign language] should be learned in the same way we learn English--not by studying its grammar, but as a living language. Training the ear to distinguish subtle differences in sound, and training the lips to reproduce French phonetic combinations is an education of the senses that should be started as soon as possible. All educated people should be able to speak French. Sir Lyon Playfair was once speaking at a conference of French teachers. He passionately lamented our lack in this area and, as a role model, talked about a school in Perth in the 1500's where Scottish boys were required to speak Latin during school hours, and French the rest of the time. England is the only civilized country these days to be so slow to learn to speak other languages. But it's probably because of the way it's taught rather than a natural inability to learn.

In learning a second language like French, two things are necessary: some vocabulary, and not being afraid to feel awkward pronouncing the new words. Both of these should be taken care of in early childhood. Children should never see French words in print until they feel as comfortable saying them as they do English words. The reason we have so much trouble pronouncing French is because we like to give printed combinations of letters the sounds they would have in our own language--when we see French words in print, we try to sound them out as if they were English. A child should add perhaps six new words to his collection every day so that his vocabulary is constantly growing. At that rate, the child could learn 1500 words in a year! A child who knows that many words and knows how to use them is a child who can speak French. Of course, his teacher will make sure that, as he learns words, he's also learning idiomatic phrases. And as the child learns more and more words, she will make sure that he uses them in sentences every single day to keep them fresh in his memory. If she keeps track of new words by writing them in a notebook, it will be very easy for her to do this. A young child hasn't learned to be embarrassed about pronouncing foreign words. He simply says them as naturally as if they were English.

But it's very important that he acquires the correct accent right from the beginning. It's not generally a good idea to put young children under the influence of a French caregiver, but it might be possible for six families to get together to hire a French lady who could spend a half hour with each family every day.

Monsieur Francois Gouin's Method

There is a serious attempt to approach the study of foreign languages rationally, using science. Francois Gouin's book, The Art of Teaching and Studying Languages, is the most important attempt so far. It makes the scientific study of languages applicable to practical teaching. In fact, the reform we've seen in the way modern languages are taught is because of this book. The foundational concept that new languages have to be learned in the same way children learn their native language, is correct, even if the details of carrying it out aren't. For instance, the method of analyzing a language and dividing it into about fifteen exhaustive series, may not be right. We know that the ear, not the eye, is the physical part of the body that learns language, in the same way that the mouth, not the ear, eats food. If all Gouin's book did was to point out those two facts, it would be an invaluable contribution to educational theory. His third point is just as important--that the verb is the key to the sentence. It is the living bridge between thought and action. He also points out that children think in sentences, not disjointed words, and their sentences have a logical sequence. This sequence is ordered by time, such as the order of events in the growth of a plant, or in baking a loaf of bread. As the child realizes these events, he needs to express them. Then his ear seeks the words he needs to use, his mind remembers those words, and his tongue reproduces them so that he's able to say the thing he thought of.

Monsieur Gouin's method should be more successful than any other in steeping the student in French thought, or German, whether the student is a child or adult. If you spend all day trying to figure out how to express a sequence of events in French, then you will start thinking in French, and dreaming in French, and you'll end up speaking French. And now there's a delightful sense that finally we'll be able to teach all subjects in the new language. You can have any series you want--an Art Series, Bee Series, River Series, Character Series, Poet Series. All it takes is thinking out the subject and sequencing it, then finding the right verbs, nouns and phrases. Soon you can say short sentences and, by combining those with a connecting word like 'and,' you find that you can say everything needed to teach the whole subject. It's quite a surprise, like the child's game where you can find out the most interesting and obscure things just by asking a dozen questions.

The 'Series'

So then, a language learned using Gouin's method is a liberal education in itself! It makes you realize that the ideas that the mind is aware of are really few and simple, and how few words are truly necessary to express them.

You really learn to think in the new language because, even in your native language, you only have vague impressions of these ideas, [but you've worked them out into the new language, so it's easier to consider them in the new language for which you've put words, than in your native language.]

You start ordering your thoughts in the new language and, once you've done that, you'll never forget those words.

Here is an example of an early level 'series.' It shows all the steps a servant goes through to light a fire. [The verb is italicized.]

The servant takes a box of matches,
She opens the match-box,
She takes out a match,
She closes the match-box,
She strikes the match on the cover,
She lights the match,
The match smokes,
The match ignites,
The match burns,
And spreads a smell of burning over the kitchen,
The servant bends down to the hearth,
Puts out her hand,
Puts the match under the kindling,
Holds the match under the kindling,
The kindling catches fire,
The servant lets go of the match,
Stands up again,
Looks at her fire burning,
And puts the box of matches away.

But any attempt to quote the book gives an incomplete picture of Gouin's book.

How Does the Child Learn?

Whatever else can be said about Gouin's methods, the way he arrived at them is undoubtedly scientific. He learned from a real child.

'Unfortunately, children have been a mystery up to this point, and we have never taken the trouble to solve or even examine the mystery . . . '

'A child utters nothing that means anything at two years of age. But at three, he suddenly is fluent in a language. How does he do this? Is there some explanation of this miracle? Is it something we will never know? . . . Ask any child, he will tell you that the part of the body related to language is not the eye, it's the ear. Eyes are made to see colors, not to hear sounds and words . . . This constant stress, [of forcing the eye to be the tool for learning foreign language,] goes against nature, and is bad for the eyes.'

Gouin is referring to the challenge he undertook to learn German. He knew everybody's Methods, he memorized the whole dictionary, and found that he still couldn't truly speak even one word of German.

He returned to France after ten months and found that his nephew, who had been two-and-a-half and not yet talking when he'd left him, had accomplished in ten months what he himself couldn't do. 'What!' I thought. 'My nephew and I have both spent ten months learning a language. He did it by playing around his mother, picking flowers, chasing butterflies and birds, without getting tired of it, without even consciously trying! And now he's able to say whatever he thinks, tell about what he sees, and understand others. When he began, his intelligence wasn't even obvious, it was merely a glimmer of hope. And I, who am an educated, scientific philosopher with strong determination and a good memory, have learned practically nothing!'

'My linguistic training has deceived and misguided me. The classical method of learning languages with grammar books, dictionaries, and translations, is a delusion . . . to find out Nature's secret, I need to observe my nephew.'

Gouin watched the child and his book was the result of his observations.

This method of teaching can be varied, partly because Gouin's method requires fluency in French and teachers who are reserved would rather use the conversational material in books with pictures. They think it's easier and just as effective, maybe more so. Still, Gouin had the fundamental idea for the method.

It is good to see the same principles we have talked about for so long finally written clearly in his book. For example, he writes, 'If a person learns to speak French without learning to read it, like children do, he will have no more trouble with pronouncing French words than he does with English words. You wonder about spelling? You would learn it the same way that French children learn it, the same way you learned to spell in English, which is ten times more difficult. And you'd learn it without losing your ability to pronounce the words correctly. Besides, bad spelling can be corrected, but bad pronunciation can't be. We have to choose between the two.' Gouin writes about the possibility of children picking up another language, perhaps even Chinese from a Chinese caregiver. His words remind me of a child I knew who had a gift for learning languages. I was speaking in public about three children, all three years old, from three different families where one parent was English and one was German. I said that all three of these children were equally fluent in both German and English and could fully express themselves in either language. After this meeting, a man came up to me and confirmed what I had said. He said his son had married a German lady and they were missionaries in Bagdad. Their three-year-old could speak three languages fluently--English, German, and Arabic! The child will most likely forget two of those languages, and I'm not arguing that babies should learn foreign languages, but it does prove that learning a foreign language shouldn't be an insurmountable challenge for any of us.

Volume 2, Parents and Children, pg 7

Families are Obligated to Learn Languages and to Show Courtesy When They Go Overseas

Does regarding all education, community and social relationships from the perspective of family have any practical outcome? Yes--in fact, so much so that there's hardly any problem in life that can't be solved within the context of the family. Take, for example, the question of what we should teach children. Is there one subject that should take priority over other subjects? Yes, one group of subjects has an imperative moral claim on us. The nation is obligated to have relationships of brotherly kindness with other nations. Since the family unit is an integral part of the nation, it's the duty of every family to have brotherly dealings and conversations with the families of other nations when the occasion arises. Therefore, learning the languages of neighboring nations is more than a way to gain knowledge and culture. It's an obligation of moral duty that helps realize the goal of universal brotherhood. For that reason, every family should try to cultivate two languages besides its own from the time the children are tiny.

One time, a pretty young British girl was staying at a German health spa with her mother. They were the only British people there, and they probably forgot that Germans are better linguists than we are. The young lady sat through the long meals with a book. She hardly even stopped reading long enough to eat, and only spoke a few words to her mother, like 'What is that mishmash supposed to be?' or 'How much longer do we have to put up with these dull people?' She should have remembered that no family can live only for itself. She and her mother were representing England, and were all of England that that little German community might ever know. If she had kept that in mind, she might have returned the kind greetings that the German ladies welcomed her with.

Volume 3, School Education, pg 235-236


By age twelve, children should have a good understanding of English grammar, and they should have read some literature. They should have some ability to speak and understand French, and they should be able to read an easy French book. They should have similar abilities with German, but with considerably less progress. In Latin, they should at least be reading 'Fables,' if not 'Caesar' and possibly 'Virgil.'

Volume 6, Philosophy of Education, pg 124

But some will protest that private university schools educate with dead languages--Latin and Greek. Our own criticism is that, no matter how wonderful ancient Greek and Latin literature might be, it shouldn't displace our own English literature. Whatever lessons might be learned from Sophocles, Thucydides, Virgil can be learned just as well from Milton, Gibbon, Shakespeare, Bacon and other great English literary thinkers. Knowledge communicated in our own common language is more easily accessible than knowledge that has to be discovered among a text in a dead language. This fact will help us make more efficient use of the short time we have.

Volume 6, Philosophy of Education, pg 211-213

Students in Form IIB (grade 4) have easy French lessons with pictures for them to describe. Later, in Form IIA (grades 5/6), while they continue using the Primary French Course, children start using narration, which is as beneficial with foreign languages as it is in English. They narrate a sentence or paragraph that's read to them. Young children don't have any problem making their mouths form French sounds. At this stage, the teacher should have the children help her translate the passage that they'll be narrating. Then she should read them the passage in French and have them narrate it. With some practice, they become surprising good at this. The very act of having to narrate helps them develop better proficiency with French phrases than they'd get from memorizing those phrases by rote. Forms IIA and IIB also learn some French songs. Students in Form IIA (grades 5/6) act out French Fables by Violet Partington. The use of careful reading followed by narration is continued in each of the Forms. So Form II (grades 4-6) might have to 'describe, in French, Picture number 20,' or 'Narrate the story Esope et le Voyageur.' In Form III (grade 7), students might also 'Read and narrate Nouveaux Contes Francais by Marc Ceppi.' Form V and VI have to 'write a resume of Le Misanthrope or L'Avare' and 'translate 'Leisure,' on page 50 of 'Modern Verse,' into French.'

We don't have enough space to thoroughly describe in detail the PUS's work in French. Of course, French grammar is studied, and what House of Education students are able to accomplish in their narrations is remarkable. The French teacher might give a lecture about French history or literature for perhaps thirty minutes, and then the students are able to narrate the content without leaving much out or making many mistakes. Mr. Household writes about what he saw in some French classes during a short visit to the House of Education:

A French lesson was given to the second-year students by the French teacher. She was from Tournal, and had come to Ambleside in 1915 (probably about seven years earlier) She had been teaching in England before that, but wasn't familiar with Charlotte Mason's methods. What I observed in her class was that she followed Miss Mason's methods exactly. She used a high-quality literary book, one single reading, and narration (in French, of course) immediately after the reading. The book used was Alphonse Daudet's Lettres de Mon Moulin. The class read the chapter about 'Le Chevre de M. Seguin.' Before the reading started, a few (very few) words of explanation were given in French. Then nine pages from the book were read through without stopping by the teacher. She didn't slow her reading because of the language; she read at the same speed one would read English. The students didn't have their own books, so all they could do was listen. As soon as the reading was done, without hesitating, students began narrating in French. Different students took turns telling part of the story until they got to the end. The narrations were all surprisingly good. All the students were able to think and speak French with ease, yet students only spend 2 hours and 45 minutes on French every week. These kinds of results surely warrant further investigation. I might add that last year, I heard a history lecture about the reign of Louis XI given by this same teacher to a class of seniors. The lecture was narrated in the same way, and had the same great results.'

This tool of harnessing the power to concentrate and use it in modern and ancient languages hasn't been used before. It seems that if we start using children's ability to focus their attention, we will soon have a nation of children who are fluent in two or more languages. We've had good results with Italian and German by using this same method, both in the teaching of languages to our teachers at the House of Education, and the training school where students teach local children. We expect to have the same results in Latin. A classical teacher writes,

'At the House of Education, Latin is taught by thoroughly studying grammar, syntax and style, and then narrating. The literature selected is easy to begin with, but increases in difficulty as the students get more advanced. Only correct Latin is used, so the students gain a sense of style as well as grammatical structure. When students narrate, they often use the same phrases and style as the text being narrated. This way, students learn what Latin really is. They experience it as it was intended, as a living, spoken language, rather than the dry grammar of a dead language.'

In this way, the structural grammar of foreign languages is learned in the same way as English grammar--by hearing it spoken by people who know what it's supposed to sound like. The enthusiasm with which students learn new words means that we might expect that they'll have as large a vocabulary in a second language as they do in English. This is something that had been sadly lacking in this country.

Volume 6, Philosophy of Education, pg 276

I've shown (in chapter ten) how we teach foreign languages. Having a habit of paying close attention, and being prepared to narrate should be a great help for PUS students. I believe that the day is coming when we British will finally become competent linguists. At the House of Education, students narrate in French even more easily and more abundantly than they do in English. They narrate from courses of lectures about French history and French literature that are part of their term's work. In German and Italian, they can read a scene from a play and tell back the scene in character. Or they can tell back a short passage from a narrative. We like to focus on Italian because the language is so beautiful and there's so much good literature. I think other schools should emphasize Italian, too. We teach Latin and Greek the same way that other schools do, except that we also use narration in Latin.


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Paraphrased by L. N. Laurio; Please direct comments or questions to AmblesideOnline.