Language Learning and Charlotte Mason: The Habit of Mental Effort

homeschool girls board game.jpg

*This post may contain affiliate links.

If you’re a homeschooling family inspired by Charlotte Mason’s writings, how do you think about habit formation?

When I was first researching homeschooling as an option for our family, I tended to equate habit formation with chores. And that’s not wrong, per se—there are certainly strong arguments to be made as to how household chores help children develop good habits, which, in turn, strengthen their characters. And Miss Mason did want children to take an active role in the care of their bodies and their home environment, so chores are indeed an important part of habit formation. 

However, since I’ve had the chance to read more of Miss Mason’s work, I’ve come to discover that the equation “habits = chores” misses a lot of Miss Mason’s thinking on habit formation, since her definition of “habits” was so much broader than mopping, sweeping, and dressing oneself.

Last week, I shared with you some musings on Miss Mason’s “habit of attention” and how language learning can help our children develop this essential skill. Today, I’d like to write a bit more regarding the habit of mental effort in relation to language learning. The questions I’m thinking through are these:

  1. What are the tasks of language learning that especially require mental effort?
  2. How can we help develop the habit of mental effort through language learning? 
  3. Can mental effort applied to language learning be transferred to another subject? 

Before we start, however, I should reference Miss Mason’s actual definition of “mental effort,” which is cited in Laying Down the Rails as: “exerting oneself to apply the mind.” While that seems straightforward enough, it can be helpful to do some more concrete thinking about what that means in terms of a particular subject. So let’s move on to explore my first question: What are the tasks of language learning that especially require mental effort?”

Language Learning Tasks and Mental Effort: Nailing Down a Schedule

I’ve said (wrote) it before, and I’ll say it again: consistent and deliberate practice is key to successful language learning. But that kind of effective practice takes time—and mental effort!

At first, children and their parents exert a lot of mental effort developing a schedule for practice. Even if you have time carved out in your daily schedule for studying a language, review sessions are important, especially for children who are trying to master a new alphabet or a new set of vocabulary words. And of course, if your family is committed to using authentic resources in your homeschool (which I strongly recommend), those take additional time to put to use. So simply making the puzzle pieces of our daily schedule fit together requires mental effort in itself.

Actually remembering to practice—well, that’s the next step! Research shows that it takes about sixty-six days (or two months!) to build a new habit, so language learners should expect to use a lot of mental effort remembering to practice in the early days. Developing a weekly schedule for language practice can help immensely with this—that way, the process is more automated and easier to follow, so your child’s mental effort can be expended in learning, not scheduling. If I were studying a new language myself or had an older child who was, the schedule that I would use would likely look like this (a good mix of drills and authentic practice with the language):

Monday: Create vocabulary flashcards for the week on Quizlet
Tuesday: Do 15-minute practice session on Duolingo
Wednesday: Review vocabulary flashcards on Quizlet
Thursday: Listen to short audiobook in the target language
Friday: Do 15-minute Duolingo session and review Quizlet flashcards
Saturday: Watch Netflix show in the target language

That’s a schedule that would work for middle school or older homeschool students (or moms who are learning alongside their kids!). Just note, however, that this is in addition to, not in place of, your typical language lessons—i.e whatever curriculum or classes you’re using.

Exerting mental effort to practice a language has myriad benefits, not only enhancing your child’s language proficiency, but also teaching the value of regular, dedicated practice towards any desired goal. And so this is one area in which we see the fruit of mental effort in our children’s lives.

Developing Mental Effort Through Language Learning: Learning to Self-Monitor

Aside from teaching children the value of regular practice (and how to make it a part of their lives), language learning also helps kids develop their capacity for mental effort through the learned skill of self-monitoring. This is closely tied into the habit of attention, which I wrote about last week, and it means this: self-monitoring is how language learners judge their comprehension of and communication in the target language. Basically, whether or not they’re “getting it.”

In all areas of language learning—speaking, reading, writing, and listening—developing this skill is key to growing in fluency. Without it, language learners would just continue to make mistakes! But it requires a second layer of mental effort on top of practicing the language itself, because students must also exercise an awareness of their own communication while using the grammar and vocabulary they’ve learned. 

How can homeschool language students develop the skill of self-monitoring? When we learn our first language, it’s usually our immediate social circle who models this for us—our mother corrects us when we say “aminal” instead of “animal," or our friend tells us he’s confused when we use the wrong word to express ourselves. And if your child is learning a language with a teacher, he or she will likely step into this role. Hearing corrections from a fluent speaker is one way to help children learn to self-monitor.

But what if your child is studying a language through an app or online program? Will they (or can they) develop the skill of self-monitoring?

I do believe that it is possible, but it takes a bit more effort on the part of the student. Here’s where it is essential for the student to write down the mistakes that they find themselves repeatedly making—such as conjugating a verb incorrectly—and dedicate time to practice that skill correctly. Engaging in this form of self-aware learning helps children to progress in any subject. Which leads me to my final question…..

Mental Effort: Does It Transfer?

The other day in our Language Learning at Home Facebook community, we had a conversation about study skills and I found myself having to make a confession: I really didn’t know how to study until I started studying a foreign language. Which was in college. I was 17, with 12 years of school behind me.

I’m not really sure how I got by in high school—I don’t really remember studying regularly. I mean, I remember trying to collect information to prepare for finals—one year, I even sold my classmates outlines of my notes at $20 a pop—but I never did any sort of scheduled, spaced review. Knowing what I know now about how to study, I was probably doing it all wrong.

But once I got to college, my desire to learn Spanish forced me to learn how to learn—essentially, how to exert mental effort most effectively. I learned to schedule and plan out review sessions, to hold myself accountable for regular study, and to challenge myself to recall old information and master new skills. And since then, I’ve had the opportunity to use those practices in other areas, so I do believe that they transfer well.

How about you—have you seen language learning help your homeschooler (or yourself) develop the habit of mental effort? Share your experience in the comments!