An Claidheamh Soluis, March 3, 1906.

In our Ecole Froebel at Antwerp we have seen the Belgian child entering on his school life. We have duly noted that his very first steps are taken in his mother tongue, – that, in fact, as long as he remains in the Infant School he bears no other. We have seen, however, that the teaching of the second language is commenced almost as soon as the Primary School is reached, – that is to say, at the age of six or seven. We have further seen that the teaching of the second language is conducted on the Direct Method from the outset; and that in such up-to-date schools as that of M. de Cleene at Etterbeek special devices of a very attractive and interesting kind are made use of by the teacher.

From this point on the second language enters ever largely and more largely into the scheme of school work. Let us say that three hours per week are devoted to it during the first school year. In the second school year this time will have been increased to four or four-and-a-half hours; in the fourth or fifth school year, to five or six. Furthermore, the second language is after the first year and (as will have appeared from my account of my experiences at Etterbeek), in many cases from the very first moment, freely employed in giving instruction in other branches, – mathematics, geography, manual training, etc. Either of two plans may be adopted, according as circumstances or the inclination of the teacher may suggest; either all the lessons may be given bilingually, as is done by M. de Cleene, or in the alternative certain lessons may be set apart to be given in the vernacular, and certain others to be given in the second language. Thus, it is common to find geography, history, and manual training dealt with in Flemish, whilst mathematics and science are taught in French. The plan of bilingualism all through seems preferable, provided always that the teacher is skilful and conscientious enough to avoid the temptation to have his French lesson a mere translation of his Flemish lesson and vice versa. Yet another device would be to use the languages on alternate days, but I do not remember to have seen this employed. I need hardly add that there is no such thing, at least in the more progressive schools, as bilingual language lessons. French, as a set subject, is taught through French, Flemish through Flemish. This applies also to foreign languages like German and English when they come to be taken up in the higher standards.

It will be seen that a child commencing at the age of six such a course as I have described will, at the end, have acquired a thorough mastery over the two languages, both as written and as spoken tongues. It has been doubted whether a language can really be learned at school; I have satisfied myself by observations both in Ireland and in Belgium that it can. A child who spends half his school time for six years thinking in and speaking a language must of necessity know that language at the end of the six years. It is all a matter of getting really to think in the language; and this again is all a matter of good teaching.

Let me briefly describe my experiences amongst a class of Belgian children who had been subjected to such a process as I suggest for six years. I take the highest class in the Ecole de Filles at Etterbeek. These girls were in their sixth school year. Their ages ranged from twelve to fourteen. Some of them were Flemings, some Walloons. The latter being in excess, French had been selected as the “vernacular” for school purposes. I was present at lessons in Flemish, in French, and in other subjects. During the Flemish reading-lesson the mistress used only Flemish in addressing the class, whether in giving directions, in correcting mistakes, or in commenting on the passages read. The reading finished, “explanation” followed; Flemish, only being used in discussing the lesson whether in reference to meaning, to grammar, or to subject-matter. M. de Vliebergh, the Chief Inspector for the Province, who was present, afterwards questioned the class – also in Flemish.

During the French lesson which followed French only was used; there was first reading, next “explanation,” finally questions from the Inspector, – all in French. The children appeared equally at home in both languages; and even the Inspector, himself a Fleming, had often difficulty in detecting which of the two languages was the actual vernacular of a given child.

I afterwards assisted at a geography lesson in Flemish and at a mathematical lesson in French. Of the methods employed in teaching these subjects more anon.