09 10

04 May 2018

Experimenting with the Gouin Method of Foreign Language Instruction

As I was writing about the intersection of Charlotte Mason and foreign language instruction, I discovered that the author she looks to for her instruction method, Francois Gouin, has a book -- and that it's online for free. So I've been reading it, and as a result I'm making some tweaks to how we are doing our language instruction. They're not huge tweaks, the biggest changes is the level of intentionality that I'm able to bring to our instruction. I'm pretty excited. Even better, I've got a group of people who are also experimenting with Gouin's methods, so we can all talk it over an see what works and all help each other improve the instruction in our homes.

In a lot of ways, what Gouin suggests is really pretty close to what we've been doing: he suggests making the ear the primary "organ of learning" rather than the eye: listening, rather than reading or writing, is at the heart of his method. We have long made it a priority to keep Japanese in the atmosphere of our home to train our accent, help establish native patterns in our mind, and remind us to use our language; it's remarkable what a difference it makes to have a playlist going in the background! I have tried to teach my younger kids what I can through speaking to them out of what I know. This has been slow, in part because I'm a non-native speaker, and when we started this several years ago, I was really not fluent. At all. I've come far in the time since then, and the kids have come a fair distance, but we still have a long way to go before we're fluent. What Gouin offers us is a way to be more systematic about our instruction, and that's pretty exciting:


Gouin proposes to use narratives to "translate" the experience of the individual into the new language. Doing this, he says, will help to get the internal narrative to transition into the new language, allowing us to think in the new language as well as to speak it. It's still tons of vocabulary to master, but it no longer feels impossible after learning about his method.

So I looked at his samples, such as the Series of the Pump, and decided that things have changed too much since he was writing: pumps and wood chopping are no longer ordinary; he assumes hens will be the most ordinary of birds, but I think that I've spent an afternoon around them twice. In my life. So my descriptions of my own ordinary experiences are going to be at least somewhat different. I decided to work with kitchen words, since that's very ordinary, and it's probably our strongest area of vocabulary right now.

Our first mini Series was only 4 sentences. In Japanese, the subject is often implied, rather than explicit; if I was doing Spanish I'd probably restructure the sentences just a little: "She picks up the apple," and so on.

Pick up the apple.
Wash the apple.
Cut the apple.
Put the apple in the pot.
Cook the apple.

We got out the play food, and practiced saying the sentences. The first time, we just said the sentences, all of them, in order, a bunch of times, while acting them out with play food and a plastic knife. (We couldn't find the play apple, so we ended up doing it with strawberries, but that really didn't matter: the verb is the focus.) It really didn't work very well for the younger children: they had a hard time remembering all the new words, and they were more "listing" the phrases, like a toddler will do when they can list the numbers, but but before they really learn to count, and understand the meaning of each number: they said the words, but it wasn't really conversing. Much like when a toddler says the numbers but isn't really counting.




I could learn them that way, and my 11yo did pretty well, but the 5yo and the 7yo were struggling to take it all in. And none of them could follow me when I started to conjugate the verbs. We did have a lot of fun doing it, using the play food. It got pretty silly at the end. The animals got involved; whole cows got "cooked" and devoured. There was a lot of giggling, which I didn't discourage; I wanted them to be willing to come back to it and try again. I'm a big fan of having fun the foreign language: it's supposed to be a place we're becoming comfortable living in.





I had a couple of lessons at this point:
  • Although I've been attempting to talk to the kids for several years now, this represents a big jump in what I'm asking from them, and they're going to need to have support.
  • They need the vocabulary in very "bite-size" portions, especially the little ones.
  • The use of a story is brilliant. It makes it easier to remember the words, so they can remember more than they have in the past. (Just not a whole mini Series at once.)
  • I skipped a bunch of steps in my Series, if I'm talking about cooking something real, say, making applesauce. Those steps matter in my ability to stay in Japanese when I'm talking in the kitchen.
Interestingly, after this I started asking the kids to wash hands in Japanese, and they learned that phrase probably the easiest that they've ever done, so I think that some of the teaching must have "taken" even for the little ones, even though it didn't look like we were getting very far in the moment.

Also about this time, my friend Jessi asked me: "Why the third person?" Why does "She cut the apple" rather than "I (or we) cut the apple"? This is a good question. I still haven't found the answer to that question in Gouin's work. But it's had me thinking hard about the problem that conjugation poses in this sort of exercise as I basically narrated the first 50 or so pages of Gouin's method to the group that's working on this project with me.

Gouin gives some clues to how he's going about this. First of all, he's sitting at a table with a couple of real "Saxon" (English??) kids. They don't speak much if any French, and he's got no German to speak of. He says that he gets his German sentences from the kids. Kids are going to give him sentences conjugated in whatever they feel fits the situation: first person (I/we), second person (you/y'all), third person(he/they)... it's going to be all over the place, because while he may start out with a written out Series in notes that he wants to use for their exchange, he's going to have to work with a number of verb forms as the kids give them to him. I suspect that if we could look over his shoulder at what went on at that table between him and the kids he made his teachers, it would be much more free-form than the stilted phrases of the written out Series would suggest.

Another clue is how he sets up his Series when he writes them out. You can see that he plans to focus on the verb, but he's got a number of ready-made suggestions for turning his sentences into patterns, where he can toss new nouns right in there. In the Pump, for example, he writes it out with "the maid" doing all the work, but down at the bottom he's got a whole list of additional characters that can be substituted in: the woman, the boy, the manservant, etc. So obviously he's not thinking that this Series is going to be a static thing to be memorized and then you're done. As the preface says, "the teaching must be organic and not mechanical." This series is also quite lengthy, and subdivided into 7 exercises of 8 to 10 sentences each, covering all the details of everything that happens from picking up a bucket, through walking outside, pumping, returning to the house, and pouring out the water.

So I took what I had learned and made some adjustments, starting with rewriting my series, now thinking of it as an Applesauce Series, rather than just a randomly mutilated apple. Not only do we make applesauce every fall, but there are very few ingredients, which will minimize the number of nouns we need to learn to successfully describe making applesauce. I started out with only a single exercise from an Applesauce Series:
Ayako opens the bag.                                    opens
She reaches into the bag.                              reaches into
She pulls out an apple.                                  pulls out
She washes the apple.                                    washes
Ayako sets the apple on the cutting board.   sets
She picks up the knife.                                    picks up
She cuts the apple.                                           cuts
She puts the apple pieces into the pot.           puts
In practice, we ended up working on only two or three of them at any given time. We also ended up shortening things to drop the subject, and focus on only the verb and direct object. Implied subjects are very natural in Japanese, so for us it's not a big deal.

I've also still been mulling over which conjugations I want to introduce first: the kids need to know that verbs are malleable, rather than static. The issue is, even in Japanese with is pretty gentle conjugations (it makes no first person, second person, third person distinctions), there's still lots of verb forms, and I wanted to choose only a few to focus on. Gouin gives us clues for this as well.

Gouin divides language into three broad subdivisions: objective language, which deals with the telling of facts; subjective language, which deals with passing judgement on those facts (eg: that's good/no good, I want to..., I wish...); and figurative language, which deals with metaphor, idiom, and all other sorts of figurative speech. He says that objective language, the ability to describe the facts of the world around you, is foundational to both the other types of speech: subjective language requires facts to pass judgment upon, and figurative language is fed by objective language, which furnishes it with images. Therefore, it is urgent that the student first learn to describe the facts of the world around him. Looking at these subdivisions, I realized that the verb forms I am best with all belong to the objective language, and that's exactly what I want to teach my kids. So we're going to learn present tense, past tense, and what's called the "te-form" which they're already familiar with as a "request" form and an "-ing" form, though it can do more than that; the te-form is incredibly versatile and important. But those three forms will give us a pretty good start on objective language uses of our verbs:
"I am/do [the verb]" (present tense)
"I did/have done [the verb]" (past tense)
"I am [verb-ing]"  (te-form + いる)
"Please do [the verb]" (te-form + please)
At this point I got out the play food and called my kids together again for another go at learning to talk about cooking apples. We worked with only the first three of the sentences from the expanded Applesauce Series.



By this point in time, they were passably good at a couple of these verbs, so we started messing around with some substitutions: a new word for "bag" and some critters to go inside it, as well as some of the fruit. 




I think that as we get the hang of this, it's going to be a powerful way to learn new words and phrases in our language, and I'm excited to see what the other families in the group come up with as they play with it.

I've seen it said that to become fluent is to "get used to" a new language. I think that, from here the the thing we need to do is get used to these new words: learn to integrate them into our regular vocabulary as we're doing ordinary things in the kitchen, and gradually use the Series method to help us expand the words that we know well enough to start to get used to them in regular, every day living.

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