Friday, June 28, 2013

Foreign language Acquisition, Gouin-style!

by Megan Hoyt

Foreign language acquisition has always seemed completely out of reach for me. I bought Rosetta Stone Italian around a decade ago because my dream has been to go to Italy -- maybe even to live there for an extended time to soak in all that great art, visit cathedrals, enjoy the pace and feel of the country. And enjoy the food! Italian language study is on the rise in America, too. Take a look at this article in the Chicago Tribune from a few days ago.  

But alas, I failed to learn more than a few phrases and greetings after MANY years of trying. Why did I need to learn whether the boy was jumping or walking? Whether he was sitting inside the airplane or beside it? Something just wasn't clicking in my elderly brain. I wasn't "getting" it. I realize learning a foreign language comes more easily when you're young and I am not young anymore. But is there nothing I can do? Here's a list of all the curriculum I've purchased over the years in my quest to learn Italian, some of which I haven't even gotten around to testing out yet.

Italian in Ten Minutes a Day
Muzzy Italian videos
Standard Deviants Italian 
Berlitz Italian
Berlitz Italian Verb Handbook
Berlitz Italian Dictionary
Prego! (textbook)
All Audio Italian
The Berlitz Self Teacher Italian
Barron's Italian curriculum (on cassette -- that's how long I've been searching!) 
Libro Primo and Libro Secondo 
(I have no idea what these are supposed to be since they're all in Italian)
some Italian dvd with kids singing cute songs
The Tale of Benjamin Bunny by Beatrix Potter in Italian 
(thinking I might glean a few words from a little children's book.)

I learned NOTHING. 

This is getting a bit ridiculous, don't you think? In my search for answers to why I seem to be foreign language illiterate, I came across this article delineating the five most common mistakes people make when trying to learn another language. I think I've made all of them!

In discussing Miss Mason's methods, I've never really thought much about how to teach or how to learn a second language. I should have. Here's what I've gleaned in my renewed quest for help:

"Little children learn a new language by phrases, not by words—a phrase happens to hit their fancy—they practice it over and over again.  It is sometimes quite a difficult phrase, and the elders wonder where the child got it from. For instance a little boy of four remarked to me one day, 'Yes, we have had a lot of bad weather lately, and I fancy it is beating up for a storm this afternoon.' That little boy had only learnt English for a year, having been born in France and brought over here at the age of three. The expression  "beating up for a storm" had evidently struck his ears and his fancy, and he reproduced it."

"...when children come to school age, I think no time should be lost before some foreign language is started. Advantage should be taken betimes of the sensitiveness of the ear, the elasticity of the muscles of the throat and tongue, the power of mimicry, which may all become duller and stiffer if we wait till the reasoning powers are more fully developed."

"Picture lessons, songs with actions, and games (these last very sparingly, as children soon think it very much beneath them to play at lessons, they are quick to feel the pleasure and dignity of work)—these all help to practise the ear and tongue, the eye unconsciously helping to bring about the association between the idea and the sounded word."

"Songs bringing in some of the words learnt in the picture lesson help to vivify the impression, and are a reward for good repetition. In the picture lesson, care must be taken to avoid merely naming the objects represented—the actions must all be brought out vividly, and thus the verbs of every-day use are practised."

"By this time the blackboard will be wanted, and the sentences referring to the actions in picture or song can be written down. We will suppose the children are now over eight. The next step will be to copy the sentences for themselves in writing. Soon they will begin to ask questions about plural endings and agreement of adjectives (not, of course, in that grammatical way, but they are almost sure to notice the differences in spelling), and with skilful leading they can find out reasons and rules bit by bit and will remember them because the joy of discovery will be theirs."

"After this we shall use mental visualisation instead of pictures. A slight amount of gesture and action will help to give life and stimulate imagination, but to go through the whole series of actions is apt to make the lesson ridiculous. A big girl learning German on the Gouin method, and taking the series "Walking," was balancing herself with great difficulty on one foot while struggling through the sentence "Ich hebe den rechten Fuss auf." "Ich hebe den rechte (hop-hop) das rechtes (hop-hop) die rechten (hop-hop, hop). . ." Of course, she felt tired, disgusted, humiliated, and fully convinced that, for her, at all events, German was an impossible language. I think Gouin might justly exclaim "Save me from my followers," for some extraordinary teaching has been inflicted in his name by those who have quite failed to grasp his psychological reasoning or his method." (Parents' Review, When and How to Begin Modern Languages, by Clara L. Daniell, Volume 14, no. 11, November 1903, pgs. 808-814).

Imagine my delight in reading this Parents' Review article just after reading another article analyzing Gouin's techniques for foreign language acquisition. Here are a few clips from that article. Then, in closing, I will tell you which current foreign language curriculum I believe follows this method best.
The Parents’ Review, vol. 4, p. 122-126

How to Learn a Language
By The Rev. Henry W. Bell, M.A.

            The appearance of Monsieur Gouin’s book on “The Art of Teaching and Studying Languages,” is a fact ful of interest and significance to linguists. It is a sign that light is breaking upon the darkness of the old methods of study; and we even begin to hope that some of its rays will penetrate the closed cloisters of our universities. A living book, that is, a book in which principles are expounded that go to the foundations, is an active influence, let loose amid a world of forces, and it will control and guide them to true and noble issues. Such a book is the one which we are at present noticing. ...

            The fundamental principle on which it is based is the postulate that a foreign language should be learned in the same way as its mother tongue is learned by a child. The written page must not intervene between the mind and spoken speech. The uttered words must reach the mind by the direct channel of the ear, must be assimilated by the mind, and be imitated by the tongue. It is thus every child of sane faculties learns, and infallibly learns, his own language, which to begin with is unknown or foreign to it; it is only thus that the man can learn an unknown speech. He must become as a little child, taking in his humility the noblest attitude, moral or spiritual, that man can take. He thus enters Nature’s school, which is God’s School, and among other great and greater achievements, learns, readily and pleasantly, foreign tongues. ...

            With marvelous insight and stern logical method, this principle that we must learn a language as a child learns its mother tongue, is carried out from beginning to end, till even the abstract and dry rules of grammar become concrete realities. The results that are reached are astonishing not merely for their profoundness, but for their limpid simplicity, thus showing that all true profoundness is simple with the divine clearness of truth. …

It is the principle of order which brings the whole system into an harmonious unity. All the different forms of language are linked to this conception, and are thus made concrete and, as concrete, memorable. He divides language into three kinds: the objective, or that which expresses the facts of the outer world; the subjective, or that which, as the language of the mind, is the expression of the mind’s reflection on these facts; and the figurative, or the expression of the “purely ideal.” The conception of the series runs through the whole of these. ...

            In the domain of grammar the series make abstract principles and rules concrete. Persons, moods, tenses, the parts of speech, the forms of syntax are all brought to the same touchstone, and are shown to be only the modes or subjects of a child’s experience. For they are attached to the series, and thus become concrete. This portion of the work seems to me the most original and powerful part of it. It makes grammar a thing of life, reduces it, as it were, to action and fact, and makes it to the learner, as the author claims, as simple and pleasant as a game. …

            The secret of Monsieur Gouin’s success lies in his strict loyalty to Nature. This is the thread which has enabled him to pass with ease and grace through the labyrinth of difficulties peculiar to the subject. Nature, to which he has appealed, has given him her secret, hence the truth and clearness of his exposition.

            We have to note finally, in regard to the series, their exhaustiveness. The whole of the objective language is overtaken, every word of the vocabulary is embraced, within the compass of fifty series and their subordinate themes. …
            By no persons in the community will the movement be more eagerly welcomed than by the large numbers in Scotland to whom the natural method in its leading principles is well known, who have been learning foreign languages by the use of the organ of the ear, by imitation of sentences spoken by their teacher, and by their frequent repetition. 

Thus ends the analysis of Gouin's series on foreign language. There are a few more Charlotte Mason recommendations:

"Plays are useful to counteract that excessive shyness in speaking a foreign language which seems part of the heritage of a free Briton. A good deal of effort and concentration will be wanted to master the parts, but I have known this concentration to be amply repaid by the real hold the phrases have taken, and the consciousness of knowing something has given an immense impetus.

Help at home in conversation is most valuable, and something might be done in the holidays. There are many delightful spots in Brittany or Normandy where summer holidays might be spent.

I have hardly touched on the question of grammar—of writing exercises—of composition—of translation. There is no doubt that, however much we may try to clear away the thorns and nettles, there will still be a pretty thick hedge to be struggled through—still a considerable amount of rules and difficulties that nothing but sheer grind can conquer. One of the most ardent of the reformers of modern language teaching was asked, "What do you do about French irregular verbs?" "You must ram them in," was the reply.
The old and the new methods supplement each other's deficiencies. We cannot dispense with either unconscious imitation or conscious effort."

Since I am by no means an expert on foreign languages, I am going to rely here on my good friends at Ambleside Online for help. But the more I study about HOW to teach foreign languages, the more I realize how helpful it would be to already know how to speak another language. I'm handicapped by my inability to explain the nuances of Italian to my children. That's problem number one. I suggest, then, that we all learn together! 

Here is what AO offers. (including a plea to teach Greek!) And if you're still with me, here is a link to free online language lessons for a wide variety of languages. The link takes you to the Spanish page, but there's a long list in the left-hand column. Looks promising. And my friend Kim Neve who teaches Spanish shares here.

After looking over all the curriculum I have on my own bookshelves, I'd have to say the ones that most closely align with Gouin and Miss Mason's recommendations are Rosetta Stone and Muzzy. These two use phrases rather than setting groups of vocabulary words in front of you or offering flash cards with one word on each. They also both utilize pictures to engage the eyes, ears, and voice so the mind can grab the phrase more easily. That said, I think the phrases these two curriculums teach you are often superfluous and not the types of phrases a child would learn from his family and friends from birth. I have one more recommendation to make, and I got this one directly from Charlotte Mason herself. I downloaded it immediately when I realized it was available online through It's called An Italian Conversation Grammar and Guide to Italian Composition by N. Perini. The cover page says: 

"Comprising the most important rules of Italian grammar, with numerous examples and exercises thereon, English-Italian dialogues, hints on Italian versification, and extracts in Italian poetry, followed by A Short Guide to Italian Composition and also an English-Italian and Italian-English vocabulary."

Even if you're starting the foreign language journey a little later than you'd like, don't lose heart. It's never too late to learn, especially if you're motivated and work hard at it. 

Best wishes! 


  1. Unfortunately, my native French speaking nephew tells us that Rosetta Stone French results in French that sounds like a Google translation. I've also heard that their Korean is pretty bad as well.=(
    Wendi Capehart

  2. I didn't know that! Obviously, since I don't speak Italian, I didn't catch that about it. Couple that with the fact that the phrases you're learning aren't all that helpful (the boy is in the airplane; the boy is on the airplane; the boy is next to the airplane) I'm guessing it's not the best choice. It's only the best out of all the ones I already own. But this next year, we're using Charlotte Mason's own recommendation for Italian. Here's hoping! Did you read Kim's blog? I added a link to it to my blog post above yesterday. It's near the end after the AO link.