An Claidheamh Soluis, September 29, 1906.
The primary schools which gave me the greatest pleasure of the score or more that I visited during my stay in Belgium were those at Molenbeek St. Jean in Brussels. The district is a thoroughly Flemish one, and the great majority of the children know only Flemish on first coming to school. At the end of their course of six years they can speak, read, and write Flemish, French and at least one other language – German or English. The Principal of the Boys’ School is M. Jacques Mehaudan, the soundest educationist and one of the most interesting personalities that I remember to have met in Belgium. I shall have to speak of him later on in connection with his invention of L’Image Animée. His wife, Mme. Mehaudan, is Principal of the Girls’ School. My account of my experiences in Molenbeek will occupy several of these chapters.
The simplest type of language lesson on the Direct Method, as given in this or any other up-to-date school in Belgium, may be described as follows: –
The teacher, standing at the head of the class-room, calls out a boy and stations him on a chair or stool in full view of the whole class. Pointing to him (the children are Flemish speakers and are being given their first lesson in French), she pronounces distinctly the words “Le garçon.” She then points to another boy and says “garçon;” to yet another and another repeating the word each time. She next displays some pictures of boys, pronouncing “garçon” as she points to each. Long before she is done the dullest child in the room has learned to associate the word “garçon” – not with the vernacular word “knaapje” which has not been mentioned at all – but with the concrete, living thing which the teacher points to each time she pronounces the word. The first step attained – the child’s reason as well as his memory having been called into play in the very first moments of the lesson – progress becomes easy, and the teacher passes on with surprising rapidity to enumerate in the new language various parts of the garçon’s body, pointing to each. In the first lesson she will probably confine herself to the head. The words selected might be these: –
La tête. Le nez. L’œil.
La bouche. Le cou. L’oreille.
Note that two words taking “la,” two taking “le,” and two taking “l’” are selected; also that, in the early stages, the definite article is invariably used before each noun. These words are repeated by the teacher several times and always in the same order.
Now comes the second great difficulty. Pointing to the boy, the teacher asks, making her voice as interrogative as possible and suggesting by the expression of her face that she is really in doubt: “Qu’est-ce que c’est que cela?” and answers immediately, speaking in a didactic tone as if she were imparting information:
“C’est le garçon.”
Again she asks, pointing to the boy’s head, “Et qu’est-ce que c’est que cela?” and answers:
“C’est la tete.”
So on with the other parts. This may be repeated several times. Hitherto the children have been silent. Suddenly, addressing the class the teacher asks in her most interrogative tone, as she points to the boy; “Qu’est-ce que c’est que cela?” Prompted a little by the teacher, if necessary, the class answers in unison:
“C’est le garçon.”
“Bon!” exclaim the teacher approvingly, and every child present infers instantly that this new word “bon!” is an expression of commendation. The lesson proceeds.
The teacher (pointing to the garcon’s head): “Qu’est-ce que c’est que cela?”
The class in chorus: “C’est la tête.”
And so on with the other parts. After a while the order of the words is varied, the teacher taking care that the correct form of the article is used with each noun.
The next step is to question individual children, first using the words in their original order, afterwards varying them. If a child makes a mistake another is asked to correct him.
Next, to further impress the connection between the word and the thing it stands for, the teacher calls out another boy, and he becomes the subject of the object-lesson, the same words and phrases being repeated. The teacher will then pass through the class rapidly pointing to the head, neck, ear, etc., of different pupils and asking “Qu’est ce que c’est que cela?” getting now the class in a body, and now an individual child to answer. She will also ask the questions pointing to her own head, neck, ear; etc. Finally she will produce pictures of boys and go through the same performance with these as points of reference.
The lesson will conclude with a short drill on the sounds introduced. Not a syllable of the known language has been spoken throughout.
The words selected for a subsequent lesson might be:
La poitrine, Le Dos.
La main. Le corps.
La jambe. Le genou.
Words of everyday occurrence and such as will fit in.
The teacher will be cautious to introduce only useful with the scheme of future lessons. It would, of course, be absurd and almost fatal to commence to teach a new language by giving an exhaustive catalogue of the parts of the human body. In the next article the purpose served by the introduction of the words, “main,” “jambe,” “pied,” and “doigt” will be made clear.
I have found the piquancy of taking one of themselves as the subject of the first object-lesson to appeal to children. In the case of a class of adults I should prefer to commence, as is done by most Direct Method teachers, with such simple objects as books, pens, paper, chairs, tables, etc. The more personal note struck in the lesson described above appeals to the child’s imagination and sense of humour. I have often been amused by the glee with which an Irish child has heard that his chin is called “smig” in Irish and his nose “srón”; with similar glee did the Flemish children in Molenbeek St. Jean realise that the strange words “menton” and “nez” denoted in French those interesting parts of their chubby physiognomies.