Language Learning and Charlotte Mason: Forming the Habit of Attention

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Like many of you, when I first started thinking about homeschooling my boys, I also started doing some serious research. Collecting books from the library and from friends, I started reading as much as I could about the subject, trying to figure out both the whys and hows of homeschooling. Along the way I found myself—again, like so many of you—particularly inspired by Charlotte Mason’s writings and intrigued, in particular, by her focus on habit formation.

As a former classroom teacher, both at the high school and college levels, I know how important good habits are to a student’s success. And as a learner myself, I saw how the development of good habits was also key to my own academic development. I don’t mean just study habits, like scheduling review sessions and making flashcards—I mean the disciplines of the mind, such as those that Miss Mason emphasized in her writing.

And guess what?

The mental habits of attention, mental effort and memorizing are essential to successful language learning, and, in my view, they are also habits that can be built through the process of language learning itself.

To be sure, one can cultivate these habits through the study of other disciplines and skills: mathematics and musical performance are two that come to mind. But there are a few unique elements of language study that make it an excellent way to develop one's attention, mental effort, and memorizing. Today, I’d like to share some of my thoughts on how language learning can help children develop the habit of attention—though my thinking on this is still evolving, so thank you in advance for your patience with my philosophical-pedagogical musing.

Thought #1: Language learning both requires and naturally develops the habit of attention.

In the book “Laying Down the Rails,” the habit of attention is described as “turning the whole force of the mind to the subject at hand.” This is what language learning requires—full devotion to the practice of listening, speaking, reading, and writing in an unfamiliar tongue. Because foreign languages are so….well, foreign….there can be no complacency in learning them, at least not for older children or adults. I admit that my young children, being raised in a bilingual home environment, probably do not have to exert the same habit of attention to learning Spanish that an older learner would. But as someone who has learned two languages to fluency as an adult, I recognize that for most of us, the habit of attention is a necessary one.

It strikes me that in identifying this habit, Miss Mason anticipated an extremely important educational theory by about 100 years—that is to say, the theory of metacognition, or "thinking about thinking.” After all, to “turn the whole force of the mind to the subject at hand,” one must not only pursue the subject itself with gusto and intentionality, but one must also exert a significant amount practicing self-monitoring, gauging the direction and force of one’s mental energy and adjusting it as needed.

So where do we see the habit of attention being exercised and developed as we study languages? I can think of a few places, to start:

  1. We practice attention when we notice the differences between our native language and the target language. Students can develop the habit of attention by making meaningful comparisons between their native tongue and the language that they’re learning. A student of Spanish, for example, might observe that word order in his target language differs from that of English; in Spanish, we often use the adjective after the noun that it describes—the “perro blanco,” literally “dog white." Noticing these things—and keeping those observations in mind—helps students to understand the rules of the new language better, and remember how to apply them. This is one reason why older children and adults can often learn languages faster than younger children—they have an awareness of how language functions and can use comparisons between one language (or more) to improve their grasp of new grammar. 
  2. We practice attention when we monitor and correct our communication in the target language. This is probably the most difficult application that language learning requires of our attention, because cognitively speaking, it falls into the category of higher-order thinking. In order to be able to correct mistakes as we are communicating in a foreign language, we need to know the rules of the target language, know how they should be applied and recognize when they are misapplied. That’s requires some complex thinking! And yet, if we’ve developed the first basic practice of attention to the language itself (see above), it becomes more natural to correct ourselves. One note: this is an area in which it is really helpful to have an actual human being working alongside your child. It is extremely hard for a student to develop the habit of self-correction if she has never had anyone to point out mistakes and prompt a correction. While I love apps and online programs for language practice, this is an area in which the immediate, expert feedback of other human beings will always trump technology.

Thought #2: The habit of attention that we develop as language learners can be transferred to other subject areas.

I was recently chatting with a friend who is thinking about introducing her kids to foreign languages, but doesn’t feel like she can encourage them to fluency, given constraints on her time and attention. She asked me if it was worth it to even bother studying a language, knowing ahead of time that her family wouldn’t have the time or energy to “go all the way.” My answer was a resounding YES, and here’s why:

The practice of attention that children develop when studying languages can help them study any other subject. My evidence for this is purely anecdotal and based on a sample size of one (i.e. me), yet I am convinced that it is true. Learning how to learn a language taught me how to study other subjects. Specifically, studying Spanish in college taught me to approach new subjects both holistically and systematically.


As to the former, this is where my four years of high school French language education failed me, or where I failed in it. Although I graduated from high school able to conjugate many different verb tenses and had memorized a fair base of vocabulary, I never challenged myself to integrate those skills for the purpose of true communication in French. I saw verb tenses and vocabulary as discrete units to be learned and missed the “big picture”—the simple fact that those skills were only useful to the extent that they could be applied together, in relationship, to achieve something bigger. That may seem like a really obvious observation, but the fact is that I think that many of us approach language learning in the way that I did as a high schooler: we do grammar drills, we make vocabulary lists, we even practice listening comprehension…but we do that all as an intellectual exercise instead of as a real-life skill. We take pride in amassing the foundational skills of language learning, but we miss something greater—we miss the holistic purpose of language learning, which is to be able to communicate with other human beings on this great wide planet.  


Luckily, in taking up Spanish in college, I was given a chance to re-do my language education. Starting another language “from scratch” allowed me to renew and focus my attention on the holistic purpose of language study, which also changed how I studied the language systematically. Now, I could study the parts of the language with an eye as to how they fit together, and I could persevere through learning the more difficult concepts, since I knew that mastering them meant progression towards a greater whole.

Now, as an adult with an understanding of how to exercise this practice of attention,  I would personally love to have a full re-do of my math education. Rather than being defeated by math, I think that I would approach it with a lot more confidence, understanding it as an opportunity to develop my capacity of attention further, and to devote myself more fully to the discipline itself. I have secret hopes that I’ll be able to do this in the course of educating my own children, but we’ll just have to see.

What about you—have you seen your children develop the habit of attention through their language study? What has that looked like in your home?