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decisions -- where speedy and condign punishment may follow aggravated offenses; and to assure the malcontent that his transgressions will probably be forgiven by appeal to a lenient superior and certainly follow after tardy litigation, is to destroy all respect for the supremacy of the teacher. If the teacher is un. worthy of confidence, let him be displaced - let a better man assume his chair. If he is worthy, let him not be treated as an incapable fool.
8. A. N.
ON LEARNING THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE.
BY M. A. NEWELL.*
The child commences the study of language in the cradle. One of his first perceptions is the sound of his mother's voice, and perhaps his first lesson in Grammar is to translate his mother's words into the vernacular of infancy. At a very early age,
he knows whether she is pleased or displeased, whether she is upbraiding or soothing him. Long before he can walk without assistance, he has learned a little language, not so as to speak it, but so as to comprehend all that is said to him, and much that is said about him. At the close of his second year, he knows the names of all the objects in the house that are in common use, and understands the language of the family so far, at least, as it concerns himself: he is subdued by threats, encouraged by approbation, and stimulated by promises. Before he is four years of age, he has passed from the purely recipient into the productive stage. What he knows he can tell ; he has a name for every object of his knowledge, an expression for every idea, every feeling and emotion of which he is conscious. From this time until he begins to go to school, every day adds to his stock of words and to his power of combining them. He astonishes his parents by the readiness with which he picks up strange words, and the facility he has in weaving them into sentences. If he could only go on as he commenced, if he could only learn as much of his native tongue in the next six as he did in the first six years of his life, what a foundation would then be laid for extensive and accurate scholarship! Unfortunately he must be sent to school; his parents think it is time his education should commence. In truth, it too often happens that at this very crisis his education is, for all practical purposes, closed, as far as it lies in the teacher's power to close it; or rather suspended, to be resumed when school days are over.
* Principal of the State Normal School of Maryland.
I speak here, of course, of education in only one of its aspects language; though there are not wanting those who maintain that the routine of school exercises, as most commonly pursued, suspends or retards the practical development of the child's mind on every side. The reader may perhaps remember the keen irony of Bulwer on this subject. Mrs. Caxton has a darling son who is devoted to books and study to the imminent danger of his health. His father or his uncle (I forget which) recommends as a cure, that the boy be “sent to school !” The singular advice is taken : the treatment is successful; the cure is complete. But let us inquire into the facts of the case so far only as a knowledge of the English language is concerned.
At six years of age, the child is in possession of a language, limited, it is true, imperfect and incorrect, but still adequate to his wants. At twelve years of age, after having been six years at school, how much more does he know of his native language than when he entered school? (And here let me remark parenthetically, gentle reader, that I am not speaking of your school: I know you manage these things better. I refer to Mr. Smith's school; and I do not speak of the head boy in Mr. Smith's school; I speak of the average American boy in the average American school.) At twelve years of age he has been "through the Dictionary,” I presume; but is his stock of words in common use much larger than it used to be? Or is he more careful in the selection of them? Or has he greater facility in the use of them ? Does the boy of twelve actually express his ideas with greater ease, clearness, or force than the child of six? He has been "through the Grammar;" but does he speak grammatically? and, if he does, is it because he has been through the Grammar? As a matter of fact, is his language more correct than it was six years ago? He has learned to spell, to parse, and to write; but can he write ten lines on any subject without gross errors in spelling, syntax, or punctuation ? There must be something wrong in the method of education that is so barren of results.
Assuming that nature's plan is the better one,—for in six years nature has done much, and in the next six years the teacher does very little toward the acquisition of language, let us inquire what nature's plan is, and how it differs from the methods of the schools.
Nature begins her lesson by placing the child in circumstances in which the knowledge of language is desirable and necessary, The child sees an object: he has a desire-almost, if not altogether, instinctive-to name it; for the mind never recognizes its knowledge as complete until it is named. The child wants the name, lies in wait for it, or asks for it,--gets it, and keeps it. Who ever had occasion to tell a child twice the name of anything he wanted to know? He has an idea, but he has no mode of expressing it. The idea returns again and again, and the desire for the expression becomes stronger and stronger. The appropriate expression, after long waiting and watching is heard, seized upon, treasured up and remembered, not only without difficulty, but without conscious effort. How different from much that is learned at school,—learned with toil to-day, forgotten with ease to-morrow! Or, conversely, (for our object-teachers must remember that the child sometimes travels from the word to the thing as well as from the thing to the word,) the child hears a new word : he is not likely to ask the meaning of it unless it be about something in which he is deeply interested, but the context gives him some vague idea of what it means. The mind, however, is not satisfied with this half knowledge. The child hears the same word again and again, and every repetition adds to his stock of knowledge, till at last he gains a clear conception of it.
On the other hand, at school, children are required to learn what they have no desire to learn, and can see no necessity to learn. What child ever desired to learn Grammar as commonly taught? What child ever felt the necessity of learning all the definitions in the Dictionary? And yet these two books, the Grammar and the Dictionary, are the main instruments for teaching language.
Nature teaches language indirectly: the child fancies he is learning something else (and is learning something else, or does not think of learning at all), but all the time he is learning language unconsciously, but not the less really. These indirect processes of nature are very beautiful, and well worth the attention and the imitation of the teacher. The child thinks only of appeasing the natural appetite of hunger, but in so doing he is building up his constitution. He yields to the natural desire for muscular exercise, and thus aids in the development of his bodily organs. Every legitimate gratification of a natural propensity yields, not only the transient pleasure proper to such gratification, but also a permanent result, which is not the less real and valuable because it comes unsolicited.
Teachers are apt to forget this trick of nature. We think that language must be taught directly, dogmatically, and scientifically; by definitions, rules, diagrams, and formulas. We forget that the language which we use ourselves was learned in no such methodical way; but was picked up unconsciously here and there along the roadside of life, in the nursery, at the dinner table, in the play-ground, from our parents or companions, our story books, our newspapers, our preachers, our favorite authors. What plainer proof can there be of this than the well known fact, that many teachers who are good “grammarians” (so called) speak bad English, while many persons who know nothing of "grammar" habitually use grammatical language?
In the natural plan, the child's mind is active, both in the act of seeking and in the act of assimilating its mental food. In the unnatural plan of the schools, the mind is mainly passive or receptive. In the one case it acts, in the other it is acted on. Out of school, certain materials are presented which the child voluntarily operates on, and converts to his own use. In school, the thinking is done by “another head ;" the food is gathered, divided, and fully prepared in the text-books: all the scholar has to do is to swallow the ready made preparation. (School-books are as plenty as quack medicines, and many of them about as useful.) What wonder that children do not like their books ! What wonder that they can not digest that for which they have not labored, for which they have no appetite, and which they can be compelled to swallow only at the point of the rod! Can such treatment fail to produce mental dyspepsia in its worst forms ?
Left to himself, the child acquires his knowledge in the most rational philosophical way,-by induction. He ascends from particulars to generals, from an acquaintance with individual facts to a knowledge of universal principles. In other words, he proceeds from the concrete to the abstract. Under the guidance of his teacher, or rather of his text-book, the child is expected to acquire his knowledge in the most irrational and unphilosophical way,-by deduction. He is expected to descend from generals to particulars, from general principles to individual facts, from the abstract to the concrete. I say the child is expected to do so; but, in point of fact, I do not believe he ever does it. The knowledge he seems to acquire in this way is either acquired in the other way, or is not real knowledge at all, but only sham knowledge.
I believe a healthy, active young mind makes its own generalizations, and does not readily adopt and apply the generalizations made by another. For example, consider how a child acquires an idea of a chair. He does not get the abstract idea of a chair first, and then try to apply this idea to particular objects; but, by becomirg acquainted with a number of chairs singly, and observing their common qualities, he naturally and necessarily, though unconsciously, acquires the abstract notion of a chair. But a Grammar (from which children are popularly supposed to learn language) consists essentially of a series of abstract propositions, to be learned as abstractions, and afterward to be applied to individual cases. If language is ever learned in this way, it can only be by doing violence to nature, and by a useless sacrifice of time and labor.
Nature gives us, usually, the object or idea first, and then the name; the schools, or rather the school-books, give us the name first, and the object afterward, or not at all. When the animals passed in review before our first parent, he gave to each an appropriate name. His conceptions of each individual were incomplete and unsatisfactory, until he had tied them together, and labeled them with a name. Had one of our old-fashioned school. masters had the supreme direction of affairs, he would have given Adam a list of names and a volume of definitions; and, after causing him to commit them to memory, he would have sent him through the garden to find the objects corresponding to the description. He would have made Adam say elephant, spell elephant, read elephant, write elephant, and parse elephant, before allowing him to see the elephant!
The following corollaries will serve, perhaps, to give a practical bearing to what has been said above. They will, at least, be useful to the thoughtful teacher as theses for argument, which he may either affirm or deny:
That the method by which children, before going to school, learn their simple and limited language, may be applied to the learning of their native language in all its extent and complexity.
That language, being an object, may be studied objectively.
That children should be taught to use good language, by correcting all their improper modes of expression, before they can understand the grammatical reason for the correction.
That as children learn to speak by speaking (not by learning the rules of speech), so children may learn to write by writing, without learņing the rules of composition.