THE WAY TO LEARN MODERN LANGUAGES.
I have always felt a great deal of
sympathy, and even respect, for that good, honest,
straight-forward young British boy who does not easily
understand that in French “a musical friend”
is not necessarily un ami a musique, nor “to
sit on the committee,” s’asseoir sur
lé comité, unless the context indicates that it
is the painful operation which is meant. Poor
boy! For him a foreign language is only his own,
with another vocabulary; and so, when he does a piece
of translation, he carefully replaces on his paper
each word of his English text by one of the equivalents
that he finds for it in his dictionary, rarely failing
to choose the wrong one, as I have already said.
Now comes que. Shall he put the subjunctive
or the indicative? He has learnt his grammar:
he could, if occasion required, recite the rules that
apply to the employment of the terrible subjunctive
mood. He has even, once or twice in his life,
written an exercise on the subject, and as it was headed
“Exercise on the Subjunctive Mood,” he
went through it with calm confidence, putting all
the verbs in the subjunctive, including those that
it would have been advisable to put in the indicative.
This done, he was not supposed to commit any more
mistakes on this important point of grammar.
He might as well be expected to be an experienced swimmer
after once reading Captain Webb’s “Art
of Swimming,” and going through the various
evolutions indicated in the pamphlet, a sec
on the floor of his papa’s parlor.
I admit that the French teacher of
a public school ought to be a good philologist to
make his lessons attractive to the students of the
upper forms, and insure their success under examination;
I admit that he should know English thoroughly, to
be able to explain to them the delicacies of the French
language, and maintain good discipline in his classes;
I admit that he should be able to teach grammar, philology,
history, literature; but I maintain that he ought never
to lose sight of the most important object of the
study of a living language,-the putting
of it into practice; he should, above all things, and
by all means, aim at making his pupils speak French.
It is not enough that he should speak to them in French,
even in the upper forms, where he would be perfectly
understood: understanding a language and speaking
it are two very different things. Neither will
he attain his end by means of dull manuals of imaginary
conversations with the butcher, the baker, and the
candlestick-maker; these will, at most, be useful in
helping a foreigner to ask for what he wants at a
table d’hote. You will not get grown-up,
intelligent, and well-educated boys to come out of
their shells, unless you make it worth their while.
Now, Englishmen, like Americans, love argument, very
often for argument’s sake, and every school-boy,
in England as in America, is a member of some society
or committee, and at its meetings tries his wings,
discusses, harangues, and prepares himself for that
great parliamentary life, which is the strength of
Then, I ask, why not turn this love
of discussion to account?
Start a French debating society in
every school, and you will teach your generation to
speak French. Such a proposition may sound bold,
but it has been tried in several public schools, and
has proved a complete success.
What cannot a teacher do that has
succeeded in winning the esteem and affection of his
pupils? First, make them respect you, then gain
their hearts, and you will lead the young by a thread.
Take twenty or thirty boys, old enough
to appreciate the interest you feel in them, and say
to them, “My young friends, let us arrange to
meet once a week, and see if we cannot speak French
together. We will chat about any thing you like:
politics even. Do not be afraid to open your
lips, it is only la premiere phrase qui coûte.
I am neither a Pecksniff nor a pedant, a dotard nor
a wet blanket; in your company, I feel as young as
the youngest among you. Do not imagine that I
shall bring you up for the slightest error of pronunciation
you make. I remember the time when I murdered
your language, and I should be sorry to cast the first
stone at you. At first I shall only correct your
glaring mistakes; by degrees, you will make fewer and
fewer, although, alas! you will very likely always
make some. What does it matter? I guarantee
that in a few months you will be able to understand
all that is said to you in French, and express intelligibly
in the same language any idea that may pass through
These little French parliaments work
admirably; the earliest were started in two or three
English schools four or five years ago. Each
has its president-the head French teacher
of the school, its honorary and assistant secretaries,
and, if you please, its treasurer, who supplies the
members with two or three good French papers, and,
when the finances of the society permit, provides
the means of giving a soiree littéraire.
I have seen the minute-book of one of these interesting
associations. Since its formation, this particular
debating society has altered the whole map of Europe,
greatly to the advantage of the United Kingdom.
The young debaters have upset any number of governments,
at home and abroad, done away with women’s rights,
and declared, by a crushing majority, that ladies
who can make good puddings are far more useful members
of society than those who can make good speeches.
Young British boys have very strong sentiments against
women’s rights. In literature, the respective
merits of the Classicists and the Romanticists have
been discussed, and the “three unities”
declared absurd and tyrannical by these young champions
The speakers are not allowed to read
their speeches, but may use notes for reference, and
I notice that speakers, who at first only ventured
short remarks, soon grew bold enough to hold forth
for ten minutes at a time. In many instances,
the president has had to adjourn a debate to the next
meeting, on account of the number of orators wishing
to take part in it. These minutes, written in
very good French indeed, do great credit to the young
secretary who enters them. I have myself been
present at meetings of these societies, and I assure
you that if you could see these young fellows rise
from their seats, and, bowing respectfully to the
president, say to him: “Monsieur lé President,
je demande la parole,” you would agree with
me that, so far as good order, perfect courtesy, and
unlimited respect for opposite views are concerned,
these small gatherings would compare favorably with
the meetings of honorables and even right-honorables
that are held at the Capitol, the Westminster Palace,
and the Palais Bourbon.
It is clear to my mind that, by such
means, English boys can be made to speak French in
the most interesting manner, and the one best suited
to their taste. I firmly believe that if the
great schools, public or private, were to start similar
societies, that if all the young men knowing a little
French were to form in their districts, such associations
under the leadership of able and cheerful Frenchmen,
England, or America for that matter, would in a few
years, have a generation of French-speaking men.
I have always been at a loss to understand
how boys who have been studying a language for nine
or ten years should leave school perfectly unable
to converse intelligibly in that language for five
minutes together. It seems nothing short of scandalous.
Yet the reason is not far to be found.
In England, at any rate, modern languages are taught
like dead languages: they are taught through the
eyes, whereas they should be taught through the ears
The French debating society seems
to me the best mode of solving the difficulty.
I have often given this piece of advice to John Bull,
and I myself founded a successful French debating
society in England. Let Jonathan forgive my presumption
if I avail myself of his kind and generous hospitality
to give him the same advice.