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The Rudolf Steiner Archive

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Practical Course for Teachers
GA 294

IX. On the Teaching of Languages

30 August 1919, Stuttgart

In the Waldorf School we get children coming in at widely different ages. Besides this, we cannot immediately have—it is a pity—a university as well. So we bring our Waldorf pupils up to the required standards of other schools. And yet in spite of restrictions we can perform our task at the Waldorf School when we work according to those principles which the present evolution of man demands. We shall be able to do this if we apply a golden rule particularly to the older children whom we shall soon have to send on to the other institutions of life: this rule is, teach economically.

We shall teach economically if, above all, particularly with those children of thirteen, fourteen, and fifteen years, we carefully exclude everything which is really only a burden to the development of the human soul and cannot bear fruit for life. We shall have to make room in our time-table, for instance, for Latin; perhaps, too, if it proves necessary, Greek. From the first we shall have to come to a clear understanding about language teaching, for this is of real importance for our method. Take for a moment this position: you get pupils who have learnt French or Latin up to a certain stage. The teaching they have received has naturally been given on certain lines. Now you will have to use the first lesson, perhaps even the first week, for finding out what your children can already do. You will have to repeat what they have already done. But you will have to do this economically, so that your boys and girls, each according to his or her capacity, receive some benefit from this repetition.

You will achieve a great deal by simply remembering that for all so-called foreign language teaching the greatest waste of time lies in translation from the foreign language and translation into it from the native language. A colossal amount of time is wasted with secondary school children, for instance, in translating so much from Latin into German (in this case the native tongue) and German back again into Latin. Much more reading should be done, and there should be far more expressing of the children's thoughts in the foreign language than translation and retranslation. How, on these lines, will you set about teaching your pupils a foreign language—French, for example?

First of all, let us take the oldest children who are to be considered, from thirteen to fourteen years old. You will have to select carefully what you intend to read in the language in question with your children. You will select reading passages, and begin by calling on the children to read these passages aloud to you. You will save the time and energy of the children if you do not at first have the passages translated into their native language, but if you pay attention for the moment to pleasant reading by the child and to achieve, where possible, by reading aloud, a pleasant delivery of the French or Latin reading passage, with accurate pronunciation, etc. Then it is a good plan with children for whom you wish to combine revision of former work and your later teaching, to avoid translation, and to have free oral reproduction of the contents of the reading passages. Simply let the child tell in his own words the story of the passage; pay careful attention to any omission in the retelling, and try from this to find out whether there was something which he did not understand. It is more convenient for you, of course, if you simply let the child translate; then you see where he stops, and cannot go on; it is less convenient for you, not only to see where he cannot go on, but where he leaves something out; in this way you find out where he did not understand something, where he has not reproduced a phrase in his own words. There will be children there, of course, who can reproduce the passage very well; that does no harm. But first go through it with the children.

Then we proceed to do the opposite. Let us discuss in our own language some subject or other, anything which the child can think over and feel with us. And then let him try, in terms of his mastery of the language at this stage, freely to recount in the foreign language what we have discussed. In this way we shall find out how far the child who has come to us from some other class has mastered the foreign language.

You cannot study a foreign language in school without really practising grammar—ordinary grammar as well as syntax. It is especially necessary that children after the age of twelve are made fully conscious of the value of grammar. But here, too, you can proceed with extreme economy. And if, in the Allgemeine Menschenkunde (Lecture 9) I told you that you form conclusions in everyday life and then pass on to “judgement” and “concept,” you cannot of course give the child this logical teaching, but it will underlie your teaching of grammar. You will be wise to talk over the things of the world with the child in such a way as to evolve grammar as though of itself from the very use of the foreign language. The only question is the right approach to this process. Start by forming with the child something which is a complete sentence and is no more than a sentence. Draw his attention to what is going on outside. You can quite well combine your teaching of the foreign language with the child's statement; for instance, in Latin and French as well as in his own language “It is raining.” Start by eliciting from the child the statement “it is raining” and then draw his attention (you are here, of course, always concerned with older children) to the fact that when he says “it is raining” he is simply stating a mere activity. Then go from this sentence to another by saying: “Now just think for a moment of what happens, not in the whole of space where it is raining, but think of the meadow-grass in spring.” Get the child to say of the meadow-grass (“es grünt,” it greeneth) that it is growing green. And only then go on to let the child change the sentence “it greeneth” into the sentence “the grass is growing green.” Lead him on to transform this sentence “the grass is growing green” into the idea, into the concept “the green grass.”

If you excite these thoughts, as suggested, one after the other in the language lesson, you do not begin by teaching the child pedantic syntax and logic, but you direct the entire disposition of his soul into a channel by which you convey to him economically what his soul should possess. You introduce the child to impersonal sentences. They contain more activity without subject or predicate, they are shortened conclusions. Then you touch on something for which it is possible to find a subject: “The meadow greeneth,—the meadow which is green.” Then you go on to form a sentence expressing opinion. You will find it difficult to form a sentence similar to “the meadow greeneth” in regard to “it rains,” for you cannot get the subject. It is impossible to find one. This practice with the children really takes you into provinces of language about which philosophers have written an enormous amount. The Slav scholar, MiklosiÄ, for example, was the first to write about subject-less and impersonal sentences. Then Franz Brentano occupied himself with them; then Marti in Prague. They hunted up all the rules concerning subject-less or impersonal sentences like “it is raining,” “it is snowing,” “it is lightning,” “it is thundering,” etc., for their logic could give no clue for their origin.

Subject-less sentences, as a matter of fact, arise from our profoundly intimate relation with the world in some respects, from our place as microcosms in the macrocosm, and the still unsevered state of our own activity from the world's activity. When it is raining, for instance, we, too—especially if we have no umbrella—are very intimately bound up with the world; we cannot isolate ourselves properly from it; we get just as wet as the stones and houses round about us. For this reason we isolate ourselves only slightly from the world, we cannot find a subject, we describe the activity alone. Where we can detach ourselves more from the world, where we can more easily escape from it, as from the meadow grass, we make a subject: “The meadow grows green.”

From this you see that you can always bear in mind—in your very manner of talking to the children—man's reciprocal relation to his surroundings. And in introducing the child to these things—especially in the lessons devoted to foreign languages—where grammar is bound up with the practical logic of life, try to discover how much grammar and syntax he knows. But please steer clear, in teaching a foreign language, of first taking a reading passage through, and then of pulling the language about. Try to evolve the grammatical side as independently as possible. There was a time when the foreign language textbooks contained crazy sentences simply for the purpose of illustrating the right application of grammatical rules. Gradually this came to be thought foolish, and sentences taken more from life were introduced into the books which were to teach the foreign language. But here, too, the golden mean is better than extremes. You will not be able to teach pronunciation well if you confine your sentences to life, unless you intend also to use sentences such as we took yesterday for practice, like this one:

Lalle Lieder lieblich
Lipplicher Laffe,
Lappiger, lumpiger,
Laichiger Lurch,

which is based merely on the element of language itself and not on the thought content. Try, therefore, to study grammar and syntax with the children by forming sentences expressly intended to illustrate this or that rule. Only you must so arrange your teaching that these sentences in one or another foreign language, illustrating grammatical rules, are neither written down nor copied into the notebook, but so that they are practised; in this way they come into being, but are not preserved. Such a procedure is an extraordinary factor towards economy, particularly in foreign language teaching, for it instils rules into the children through their feelings without any need for the examples to be retained. If you let the children write down the examples, too vivid an impression is left with them of the outward form of the examples. In grammatical teaching the examples must be dropped and in no circumstance be carefully entered into notebooks, but the rules must remain. For this reason you do well in the living language, in conversation, to take reading passages as I have already described, and again to practise the turning of the children's own thoughts into the foreign language, in which process their thoughts are borrowed to a greater extent from everyday life. But in teaching grammar, use sentences which you actually know in advance that the child will forget, and he will therefore refrain from a mere bolstering up of the memory by writing them down. For all the work which you do when you teach the child grammar or syntax from sentences is expressed in living conclusions, and these must not lapse into the dreaminess of habit, but must always be a part of fully conscious life.

Naturally, this introduces into teaching an element which makes it slightly strenuous. You will not come to grief, because the teaching, particularly of the pupils whom you take on in the higher classes, is bound to create for you a certain exertion. You will have to proceed very economically. But the “economy” really is only a benefit to the pupil. It will take you yourself a great deal of time to discover the most economical form of teaching. Prefer to teach grammar and syntax, therefore, in the form of conversation. In doing this it is not a good plan to give the children actual books on grammar and syntax—as such books are at present—for these, it is true, include examples, but examples should only be “discussed.” As a permanent object for the child's learning in grammar and syntax there should be only rules. Consequently, it will be very economical indeed, and will do the child an incalculable amount of good, if one day you derive with the child, from some example which you have invented, a rule necessary for the mastery of the language, and then the day after, or the day after that, return in the same foreign language lesson to the rule, and let the child find an illustration for it in his own “top storey.” Only do not at any price underestimate the value for educational method of these things. In teaching, in fact, a tremendous amount depends on finer elements. It makes a gigantic difference whether you simply ask the child for a grammatical rule and make him echo, from his book, an example taken down at your dictation, or whether, on the other hand, you give him an example especially selected to be forgotten, and encourage him to invent an example himself. The work which the child does when he finds his own example is particularly educative. And you will see, even if you have the naughtiest, most inattentive children, that if you get them to find grammatical examples—and you can do this very well simply by taking an active part in the lesson yourself—the children take pleasure in these examples and particularly in the work of discovering them for themselves. And when, after the long summer holidays, you get the children back in school, after they have played and romped about for weeks in the open air, you must realize that they feel little inclination, after weeks of this life, to exchange playing and romping for quiet sitting in class and quiet listening to things which are to remain in their memory. But even if you find this disturbing the first week, perhaps even the second, if you conduct your foreign language teaching so that the child is allowed to take part in it with his soul by discovering examples, after three or four weeks you will have a class of children who take just as much delight in inventing these examples as they previously did in romping about. But you must take care, too, to think out examples of this kind, and must not omit to give the child this impression so that he is conscious of it. It is a very good thing for the child, when he joins in this work, and is always wanting to do it himself, that while one child is producing an example the other will call out; “I have one, too,” and then they all want their turn to give an example—it is a very good thing to say at the end of the lesson: “I am very glad, but most of all because you like doing this now as much as you used to like romping out of doors.” Such a remark lingers in the children's inner ear. It haunts them all the way home, and when they get home they tell their parents about it at table. But you must really say things which the children like telling their parents at table. And if you succeed in interesting the child so much that he asks his father or mother at table: “Can you find an example of this rule, too?” you have, in actual fact, won the day. These things can be done, but you yourself must take part in the lesson with your whole soul.

Only reflect on the difference, whether you discuss with the child in a spirited way the transition from “it is raining,” “it grows green” to “the meadow is growing green,” or if you evolve grammar and syntax, as is most usually done, by expounding: This is an adjective; this is a verb; and if a verb stands alone there is no sentence. Do not merely string things together as is frequently done in grammar books, but develop them in a living lesson. And compare this way of studying grammar, as it should be done in living teaching, with the other frequent procedure: the Latin or French teacher comes into the class; now the children must get out the books or exercise-books for Latin or French; then they must have done their “prep.”; now they must translate; now they are to read. By this time everything is beginning to hurt, because they feel how hard the benches are. For, as a matter of fact, there would have been no need to pay so much attention to benches and desks if children had been properly educated and taught. It is only a proof that education and teaching have not been sensible if people have had to bestow such care on the making of the benches and desks, for if children are really interested in the lesson such life enters the class that when they are supposed to be sitting they are really not quite sitting. And let us take a delight in the fact that they are not sitting properly; it is only if you are lazy yourself that you want a class to sit as rigid as possible, and go home at the end of the afternoon completely tired out. The point here again is to keep in view the principle of economy, and this point of view will be particularly useful to you in teaching a foreign language.

We must obviously see to it that the grammar and syntax teaching are fairly complete. For this reason we shall find out from the pupils, who come to us from other classes, where there are gaps in their knowledge. We shall then have to start by filling these gaps, particularly in the grammar and syntax lessons, so that after a few weeks we have a class with the old gaps filled up and ready to go on with new work. But if we teach as I have described—we can do this if we have our heart in the lesson—if the lesson interests us ourselves, we are preparing the children eventually and in the right way to pass the usual college entrance examinations. And we teach the children many a thing which the ordinary schools do not give them, but which makes the children vigorous and alive and is of permanent value in their lives. It would be a particularly good plan if it could be arranged for the different languages to be taught simultaneously. A tremendous amount of time is lost when the children of thirteen to fifteen are taught Latin by one teacher, French by another, and German by a third. Very much, on the other hand, is gained when a single thought worked out by a teacher with a pupil in one language is allowed to be worked out by another pupil, too, in another language, and by a third pupil in the third language. One language would then bear out the other very effectively. Naturally, such methods can only be followed in so far as the means—in this case the teachers—are available. But what is available should be taken full advantage of. The help that one language can be to another should be taken into account. This facilitates in grammar and formation of sentences the constant reference from one language to another, and this involves something of tremendous importance for the child.

A pupil learns a thing far better if, in his soul, he can apply it in different directions. You will be able to say to him: “Look, there you have made an English [The word German in the original is changed to the word English when it refers, as it does here, to the mother tongue.] sentence and a Latin sentence; in the English sentence, if the first person is referred to, we can hardly ever miss out the ‘I;’ in a Latin sentence the ‘I’ is there already inside the verb.” You do not need to go a step further; in fact it is not at all wise to go further, but it is a good thing just to touch on this difference, so that the pupil comes to have a certain feeling for it; then from this feeling there emanates a living aptitude to understand other things in grammar, and I beg you to absorb this fact and to think it over very deeply, namely, that it is possible, in a stimulating, living lesson, to develop during the lesson the faculty necessary for teaching. The fact is, if you have only touched, for instance, on a thing, and have not enlarged on it pedantically, if you have said to the child: “The Latin language has not yet developed the ‘I,’ it still has it in the verb; but our languages have developed it,” there is momentarily awakened in him a faculty which is otherwise absent. This is stimulated into life at this moment and not before, and you can more easily study grammatical rules with the children after such insight is awakened than if you had to evoke them from the ordinary condition of the child's soul. You will have to think out how you can create the aptitudes you want for a certain lesson. The children do not need to have all the capacities which you intend to use, but you must have the skill to call them up in such a manner that they disappear when the child no longer needs them.

This process can be exceptionally important in language teaching if this is allowed to consist of correct reading, accurate pronunciation—without giving many rules—first reading yourself and letting them repeat it; then have the reading-passage retold and thoughts about it formed and expressed in the different languages—and, quite independently of this, study grammar and syntax with rules to be remembered and examples to be forgotten. There you have a framework for language teaching.