An Claidheamh Soluis, November 25, 1905.
The function of the Director-General of Primary Schools and his staff in guiding, less by actual legislation than by suggestion, criticism, and the diffusion of information, the general policy of primary education in Belgium, will be understood from the following circular issued by the Minister to his Inspectors in 1899. From its issue dates the all but universal movement in Belgium in favour of live methods of language teaching. The first part we have already quoted in another connection: –
“The central section of the Chamber of Representatives charged with the examination of the Budget of the Department of the Interior and of Public Instruction makes enquiries each year as to the number of schools in which a second language is taught. It, as well as the Legislative Assembly from which it derives its authority, thus attaches a high importance to the spread of our national languages.
“Every year, therefore, my Department is happy to be able to count a larger number of schools in the programme of which a second language has a place, whether as an obligatory or as an optional branch. Nevertheless, the movement in favour of the teaching of a second language in the various institutions of public instruction is neither so widespread nor so earnest as the Government would wish; it must be admitted that the progress made and the results attained do not bear any proportion either to the important place given to this subject in the curriculum of the Primary and of the Normal Schools, or to the efforts of the staff charged with its promotion. In many of these schools the study of the second language is either without fruition in result, or else the little learned by the pupils is destined to be soon forgotten.
“This almost negative result is due to various causes, amongst which there is one in the pedagogic order which it may be well to point out to the teaching staff, because it depends on it to make it disappear. This cause is the abstract and too exclusively grammatical character of the lessons and exercises.
“The system generally followed is that which begins and proceeds by way of rules, themes, and translations. Such instruction, from its theoretic and cold nature, is bound to prove sterile: in place of causing a desire to learn a second language to spring up and grow in the pupil’s breast, it makes its lessons a bugbear to him. It fails in vitality and force, because, confined within the domain of grammatical abstractions, it does not awaken those concrete ideas which are directly and immediately associated with the words and forms of the language.
“The true intuitive method to employ in language teaching is that suggested by the maternal instinct. The mother excites the attention and curiosity of her child, not only by the sounds and inflections of her voice, but also by gesture and look. She first addresses herself to those senses which at an earlier stage and to a greater extent than the others are made use of in the acquisition of ideas, – hearing and sight. Thus she makes clear impressions on the child, and these she frequently awakens and strengthens by the ingenious mimicry which always accompanies her words. And her language is not that of grammar, it does not clothe the dry and rigid form of a theme or a translation; it is first a word, often even a syllable, which the child smilingly makes an effort to pronounce, in order to show his mother how happy he is to be able to enter into intimate converse with her. Little by little, the child thus acquires a knowledge of the more usual words of the mother tongue, and to each of these terms there corresponds an idea, or at least an impression which will soon become an idea. He feels more and more the need and the pleasure of understanding and of being understood: he makes efforts to speak, and by dint of these repeated attempts – which his mother elicits and encourages – he succeeds at length in making his thoughts intelligible.
“The pupils of our Primary Schools, and also those of our Normal Schools, are generally, as regards the acquisition of a second language, in a less favourable position than the child to whom his mother teaches his mother tongue. True, they have already acquired their first ideas; but they are at a total loss for words and turns to express these ideas; their ears are not attuned to the sounds and inflections of the new language, and their vocal organs still lack the skill to enunciate them correctly. By the very fact that they are in a position where they can always understand and make themselves understood (by using the known language), they do not feel keenly the necessity of learning the second language; moreover, they hesitate to express themselves in a language which is still unfamiliar to them, their mistakes in which would, as too often happens, excite the merriment of their fellow-pupils and sometimes of their masters. There is here a combination of causes calculated to render language lessons both dull and useless, unless enlivened by the powerful attraction of an intuitive, natural, and living method. Therefore, it is the maternal method which the primary teacher and the professor in the Normal School must imitate if they wish that the first efforts of their pupils in the learning of a new language he encouraged by an appreciable degree of success.”
All this reads like a breezy homily on teaching method from Seaghán Ó Catháin. To us, with the lucubrations of the “National” and the Intermediate Boards in mind, the document sounds the unlikeliest thing in the world to a circular from a central education authority. In Ireland it is reserved for lone enthusiasts like Seaghán and others to think out teaching and kindred problems, and they are laughed at for their pains by the “educationists”; in self-governing Belgium the central educational department really leads educational thought, and is a source of light and inspiration to the whole country.