About once a year, I have a panic about teaching my kids a foreign language. Last year, I panicked right before I left home to walk through the Lake District for three days. I came home to a massive pile of books that I’d forgotten I’d ordered.
My panic comes from regretting that I don’t know a foreign language, and that my husband is fluent in French. Coming into it, I thought that my kids could just learn from my husband; however, despite his fluency, his home and heart language is English and we never managed to create a bilingual home. And then there is that mental countdown clock ticking away thinking that, at some point, my kids are going to age out of picking up a foreign language naturally and easily. Cue panic. Again.
A lot of teaching French has felt like throwing spaghetti at a wall. We’ve tried so many things. Little Pim. Paul Noble for Kids. But there are now more resources available for teaching foreign language from Charlotte Mason’s perspective, and I’ve buckled down this year to make some changes that are showing a lot of promise.
Where to Learn about Foreign Language Teaching (the Charlotte Mason way)
There is not a lot in Charlotte Mason’s volumes about teaching foreign language. The most substantive places are:
Definitely start here. They aren’t lengthy.
After that, Mason’s Living Languages is a good port of call. I decided to purchase the teacher training video, and it is very much worth the price. I appreciate that she has spend so much time looking at the PNEU schedules in order to discern the scope, sequence, and method of teaching.
Because here’s the thing: teaching foreign language in Charlotte Mason’s schools was much more than the Gouin series. I think this is the part that I’ve struggled to appreciate. Becca does a great job of laying it all out.
A Few Principles for Teaching and Learning a Foreign Language
From the above, I gleaned a few general ideas that I’ve found helpful:
- There really needs to be understanding when hearing the new language. Reviewing vocab before reading a story, using actions, pictures, video to give meaning as you go along. This is really essential. Without comprehension, hearing a foreign language is really a bunch of gibberish.
- Where Charlotte Mason tends to take a ‘less is more’ approach, in foreign language teaching, ‘more is more’. Not necessarily more explicit instruction, but more time spent in hearing and (again) understanding the new language. The more of that comprehensible exposure that we can get our kids, the more quickly they will progress toward fluency. I think what really brought this home to me was hearing that children who are successfully learning a foreign language are spending up to an hour a day, most days of the week, in listening, conversation, and instruction. (Although this is something most kids work up to, not a starting point).
- Wait for kids to speak the new language on their own. Don’t force it. I went to Berlin once with my husband and I was so angry that he didn’t order my food for me at dinner. He’s conversant in German while I’ve never had any German instruction. I was mortified to place my order with the waiter. (My husband and I had a discussion about it later 😉 ). So if we’re speaking French at dinner, and my son asks for more pasta in English, I give him more pasta. The key here is no pressure.
How we’re teaching our kids French
So after all that, I’ve pieced together something of a curriculum for us. It has a quite a few moving parts, but nothing is particularly complex.
- Get in the time. Like I said, my husband is fluent and I’m not. So our first step is to speak French at dinner, every evening. I have enough French to participate, and my husband helps me out. The kids don’t have to speak in French, but they do have to listen and try to understand. My husband is getting a lot of practice in acting out phrases like ‘hoover out the car’.
- Keep it fun. After my panic last year, we signed my older two boys up for a French class on Zoom. Now my older son has aged out and my younger son has taken his spot. The teacher is great, they love it, and we get some resources to review and practice from week to week. I credit this class with winning the boys over to French.
- Songs and Poems. These next parts are the really Charlotte Mason-y bits. I’ve chosen a song and a poem for the boys to memorize. We introduce them each line by line so that they understand what it means, and then practice until we have them memorized. Our current selections are Ah! Vous-dirai-je Maman for our song and Pomme et Poire for our poem (hear a native speaker read it here).
- Stories. I’m choosing a short story from Fable Cottage. I introduce new vocabulary, read slowly in French with actions/puppets/pictures, then ask the kids to narrate in English (for now. Eventually French!). I’ve also planned a series of activities to practice the vocab (games with flashcards, looking at a picture together that uses similar vocab), drawing, etc. We are moving very slowly through the story.
- Gouin Series. Like I said, foreign language instruction is so much more than the Gouin series. If you’re not familiar with Gouin, each series is a group of sentences with actions. So ‘I take the book, I open the book, I close the book.’ As you practice saying it in the new language, you actually take a book, open it, then close it. Cherrydale Press is the go-to option for this. I don’t know how far I would have pursued this if I hadn’t found a second hand copy for $10 of the French book. That said, it is a lovely book and my husband enjoys using it. It’s also something that I can practice with the kids during school after my husband introduces it. We take about two weeks per series.
How it’s going
At first my kids really pushed back on speaking French at dinner. Then we made it clear that we didn’t expect them to speak in French and that immediately cleared up the atmosphere. My five year old regularly reminds us to speak French, and all my boys have told my husband that they want to learn three or four other languages now, too. I do think that this was our game-changer – just increasing the amount of exposure.
I know this probably sounds unattainable for those who do not have a member of the family who is reasonably proficient in a foreign language. I think some creativity would be required: just doing the best you can, bringing in a tutor, babysitter, or family friend, reading books in the new language, carefully chosen videos even. I’d look high and low for opportunities to bring the language in.
My boys are pleased as punch to have a few French songs and poems memorized. They enjoy practicing them and we nearly have our current set down and will be thinking about the next set.
It still feels like early days to see how the stories and the Gouin series will bear fruit. However, it’s definitely more exposure, and the words and phrases from the Gouin series frequently come up at other times (or can be worked into the story).
But what’s really impressive is that, despite the ‘You don’t have to speak French’ rule, all my boys are really interested in speaking French. They ask me and my husband how to say things. They repeat back. They use the phrases that they know in the appropriate context (or use them inappropriately as a joke). And their comprehension is accelerating as well.
I think, for the first time, I’m not in a panic about French. Which is a really good place to be.
A letter from me to you, every week.
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