The Series Method by Francois Gouin
One of the earliest reformers of modern language studies was the Frenchman, Francois Gouin. In many histories of language teaching, Gouin fails to get a mention. There are several reasons for this, including being somewhat overshadowed by his contemporaries such as Berlitz and the lack of channels for Gouin to share his ideas. Nevertheless, Gouin had some interesting perspectives on learning languages.
Failing to Learn German
Sometime in the 19th Century, Francois Gouin decided to move to Hamburg to learn German. While there, he memorised a German grammar book and a table of 248 irregular verbs. Gouin then went to the academy where he very quickly learnt that he could still not understand anything.
Seemingly undeterred, Gouin threw himself into memorising more words, more grammar rules and trying the classical, grammar translation method. If the accounts are correct, Gouin memorised a dictionary of 30,000 words! The results were however always the same. Gouin could not understand his German interlocutors.
It may seem surprising to us nowadays that Gouin did not make many efforts to learn through speaking with the local population. He did try this on at least one occasion in fact, but he found that he was laughed at, which was (as it is today) very demotivating.
As you might expect, Gouin returned to France disappointed. However, it is here that Gouin developed his approach. While he had been away, his three year old nephew had started to acquire French. Naturally, Gouin was curious how a child could learn their first language so effectively, while he had struggled and ultimately failed in a second language.
Gouin observed his nephew on a trip to a mill. He noticed that the boy would ask for the name of everything, contemplate this silently and later use these labels with anyone who would listen or just with himself. And so it is that Gouin concluded that language learning involves turning perceptions into conceptions, using language to represent the world around us. It is not an abstract set of conventions, but a way to organise our experience and understanding.
The Series Method
In Gouin’s series method, language is presented and learnt as a sequence of related events on a particular situation. As far as possible, Gouin would use gestures and actions to get across meaning. For example, in the first lesson, the following sequence would be taught:
I walk towards the door. I draw near to the door. I draw nearer to the door. I get to the door. I stop at the door.
I stretch out my arm. I take hold of the handle. I turn the handle. I open the door. I pull the door.
The door moves. The door turns on its hinges. The door turns and turns. I open the door wide. I let go of the handle.
The series method is predicated on a number of assumptions:
- We learn words by “direct” translation, i.e. from seeing things or actions and learning what they are;
- We learn sentences or phrases rather than word by word;
- The verb is the most important element;
- It is easier to learn a sequence of events if they are in order;
- It is also easier to learn a sequence of events in a particular context;
- Learners need to use the language in production or at least think about the language to aid acquisition;
- Grammar governs language but need not be explicitly taught.
It is not difficult to see links between these assumptions and later approaches and methods. The organisation into situations returns in situational language teaching, while gestures and actions are a key part of total physical response. The presentation of language in this way is somewhat similar to Krashen’s comprehensible input hypothesis. While we can perhaps see sense in a number of these assumptions however, the series method was largely ignored in favour of the direct method (which it is sometimes lumped in with).
Criticisms of the Series Method
As hinted at above, Gouin’s series method may have been a more preferable route for language teaching to take. If this is the way it had developed, we may have arrived at our current position earlier. Nevertheless, the series method can be easily criticised for a number of reasons.
Firstly, the method was solely based on the observations of one three year old. This is of course a very small sample size. We might hope that nowadays any approach to learning languages would be based on the experiences of many students. It could be said though that when compared to Grammar Translation, at least the series method was based on something!
Further, Gouin’s nephew being three means that Gouin had missed some critical stages in his language development, most notably the holophrastic stage. This was therefore not accounted for in Gouin’s method, and nor was the role of stories in a child’s development.
Another issue is the teaching of subjective language such as “good” and “bad”. The meaning of these words is subjective to each person and therefore do not relate to one common experience.
Gouin’s series method has become something of a footnote on a page about the direct method when discussing the evolution of teaching methods and approaches. While Gouin’s observations may have eventually become incorporated into several later approaches, it is interesting to note that these were proposed almost 150 years ago!
Gouin’s series method was an attempt to move away from the classical/grammar translation method.
Lessons based on the series method consist of a sequence of actions related to a common situation in the order they happen.
The verb is the most important component in a sentence, and while grammar governs language, its rules do not need to be taught.
Brown, D. & Lee, H. (2015). Teaching by Principles: An Interactive Approach to Language Pedagogy. Pearson Education.
Richards, J. & Rodgers, T. (2014). Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching. Cambridge University Press.