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THE DIRECT METHOD AND ITS APPLICATION
TO AMERICAN SCHOOLS A large, well-lighted schoolroom, the teacher's desk is still unoccupied; forty-two little girls of from ten to twelve carry on animated conversations while they wait for their French lesson; their faces are bright with anticipation —they are talking French. It is a German schoolroom. In a corner at the front of the room some are preparing the materials they hope the Herr Professor will use. If you know their textbook, you recognize the objects to illustrate the poems and stories they know.
The teacher comes in, greets the children in French and is answered joyfully. An enormous amount of work is done during the hour. Practically the only German word used is the familiar Aufpassen that brings every eye to the teacher's face. Eager hands are raised to quote expressions in which familiar words or sounds have occurred. Presently a pupil is chosen to do all the actions for which she knows the French. She opens a window. A classmate says instantly, Tu ouvres la fenêtre, and the class in chorus adds with excellent expression, Elle ouvre la fenêtre. Practically every action that can be done in the schoolroom is carried out in the same way. The sharpest critic is not the teacher, but the class. Whatever has been omitted is supplied by another child who says in French what she is doing. The class again acts as chorus, part of the pupils speaking in the second person and part in the third. Every child wants to take part in the acting of a story. The Herr Professor has a wide choice of performers. He selects rapidly and they go to the front of the room.
1 Address delivered before Eastern Section of the New York Modern Language Association, Feb. 26, 1916.
eye on them and a dozen ready to take their places, they speak and act perfectly. The story that imprest me most - it was really wonderful in the power of imagination shown in the French spoken, in the delight of the class—was the story of two hunters carrying their guns and followed by their dogs. They are watching for a deer and they rest in the shade of a tree. A girl on the platform begins to tell the story. She is talking French, of course, but her voice is as natural as if it were a new and interesting tale in her native German. As she mentions the hunters, two pupils rise and go toward the platform amid the intense and watchful silence of the class. (Again the class, not the teacher, is the sharp critic.) Their dogs follow the hunters. The dogs are two of the smallest girls. The supposed hunters recline in the shade of a tree. They really sit on the edge of the platform. The tree is a map stand, the guns are umbrellas. They converse aloud when the time comes, the story teller on the other side of the platform keeping a discreet silence. The deer they say they see is another little girl who slips silently across the room at the back. What strikes you most forcibly is their excellent pronunciation and their interest and joy in the work. They write from dictation with admirable correctness and they are well trained in a large amount of practical grammar.
That is the direct method as practised abroad. This class had had French for nine months, five times a week. Such work is absolutely fascinating to the teacher; it is like watching a child grow or a plant bloom.
It seems almost superfluous to give even an outline of what we call the direct method. Its idea is to teach a foreign language without unnecessary use of the mother tongue; to teach first the language of every-day life; the names of objects in the classroom, pointing them out as one says their names in the foreign tongue; to teach how to express all actions done there by doing them and saying what one does. From the vocabulary of the classroom and school life, we pass to that of the home: we speak of the objects in the different rooms, the members of the family,
the clothing, then we mention the names of the seasons, days of the week, the months, and we teach time. Where we can not point to the objects, we use pictures, the calendar or a clock face. It is direct in two senses-first, in doing largely without the intermediary of the mother tongue, and second, in the appeal of the teacher's voice to the pupil's ear without the intermediary of the printed word, for the direct method insists on the importance of correct pronunciation and on much oral work.
Do not imagine that grammar is neglected. That is an impossibility. Every real teacher knows that the only sure foundation on which to build is one of grammar. Every good beginners' book is a sugar-coated grammar pill, and the teacher whose work I have described is laying the foundation for a six years' course. Do you suppose any teacher who can get such results would neglect grammar? But to direct method teachers, grammar is not a set of rules learned beforehand; it is deduced from the sentences learned, the same grammatical usage appearing again and again. Grammar is put in its place: it is learned from correct usage. Examples, many examples, precede the rule which pupils have the pleasure of discovering for themselves; far from being a strain on the memory, it is a real possession. The class develops the keenest scent for phenomena they do not understand.
I remember very well (when I was a child) a Latin teacher saying to me: “Do you think the grammar was made first, or the language?” “Oh, the grammar,” said I, without the slightest hesitation. I loved my Latin grammar and never dreamt it was not vastly more important than anything said. The very opposite of that is the direct method standpoint and practise.
In spite of admiration for the results obtained by the direct method, we often hear the opinion exprest that we have no time for it. Now what is done with the time we have? Ask any French teacher who receives pupils from schools all over the United States and you will receive the same answer. The great majority can not pronounce
even decently, their written work is exceedingly deficient even when the material is dictated. They have often done no oral work. The great stand-by is the number of books they have translated. Often they can not name them, they “do not remember.” When they can, they pronounce so badly that one's attention is occupied in checking off false sounds. And their idea of a good translation is interesting! Now, if translation is our aim, it should surely be combined with a decent pronunciation. A good power of translation, a decent pronunciation can surely be given in a course even of two years if we set about the task properly. If we have three years or four at our disposal, what may we not hope to accomplish?
The greatest argument to my mind in favor of the principles of the direct method, however it must be modified, is its effect on the pupils. It holds their attention, it arouses their interest and their ingenuity, it wakens their desire to excel. Do you ever notice your pupils in turning from a drill in grammar to oral work? I often do it rapidly just to see the effect on the class. Not that they do not like the grammar work, for they do, but they love the oral work. Each one sits up high in his seat as if getting as near the teacher as possible, every eye is on him, every ear alert, every hand longing to go up to show readiness to
There must be something in it when the pupils have that attitude.
Teaching a language to pupils of different ages, to the high school student br the grown man or woman does not differ so much in method as in material. The objects and actions of the classroom and the language of every day life are the best starting point for any beginner. As to other material, it must be simple and it must not be childish. I wonder if we realize what a whole world of difference there is in the signification of these two words? I think correct pronunciation is of extraordinary importance. These first lessons are its best starting point. A few directions make Italian easy to pronounce, a few directions and their careful application make Spanish intelligible and
do not seem to mind a bad pronunciation in speaking German. I wonder why? But what are we to do about French? My only answer is phonetics. There is an easy way of teaching that difficult subject of French pronunciation. As far as I know, it is the only way likely to produce good results for the whole class. Each sound is taught by the correct pronunciation of a word containing it, a word in which it is easy to pronounce that sound correctly. For instance, in the very first lesson the words lit, nez, met, table are pronounced first by teacher, then by class in concert. Then they are written on the board and beside them the sounds in brackets (i), (e), (e), (a). The pupils are told that these are key-words—they must connect each with the corresponding sound. When there is any difficulty in pronouncing the sound in other words (there often is), they should pronounce the key-word, get the sound correctly and apply it to the new difficult word. For instance, I teach them to say une, representing the sound (y). Any one can say "une" correctly. Many can copy it directly from the teacher. Others need to say (i) and round lips quickly. We do this in concert. All get it with little difficulty. Then we practise the list of words containing this sound, saying "une" before each. The list begins dur, rue, plume, juste, jupe. We say, une, dur; une, rue; une, plume; une, juste, and une, jupe. This works admirably with any difficult sound. The result is that later they pronounce best the most difficult sounds and recognize them most rapidly. Every lesson begins with a complete review of all sound work taught. In about four lessons all the sounds of French have been taught. This learning of sounds is the first step toward oral work which is only a mockery if pronunciation is bad.
Is there not an exaggerated idea of the difficulty of producing good oral work and of the amount of time required for success? The very first day that the class meets, in addition to the sound work, oral work is done—by the teacher; the pupils listen and train their ears to understand the words they hear. The teacher points at the different