Jean Jacque Rousseau's Emile or on Education Essay

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Philosophy of Education - Rousseau


Rousseau on Learning Language and Limiting Early Vocabulary:

Let the child's vocabulary, therefore, be limited. It is very undesirable that he should have more words than ideas, that he should be able to say more than he thinks. One of the reasons why peasants are generally shrewder than townsfolk is, I think, that their vocabulary is smaller. They have few ideas, but those few are thoroughly grasped." [201]

Throughout Book I, Rousseau explains his criticism of the way that modern society (even in his time) teaches language to children. Rousseau's characterization of the way that children learn language naturally was prescient for his era, but was perfectly consistent with modern understanding of infant babbling. Today, it is known that infants in all cultures babble all of the sounds used in all languages spoken by man. During the first year of life, infants gradually discard the vocalizations not used in their language of origin because their linguistic experiments are modeled after and reinforced by the sounds (and mouth shapes) of their parents and caretakers (Gerrig & Zimbardo, 2007).

As described by Rousseau:

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Children hear people speak from their birth. We speak to them not only before they can understand what is being said to them but before they can imitate the voices that they hear. The vocal organs are still stiff, and only gradually lend themselves to the reproduction of the sounds heard. It is even doubtful whether these sounds are heard distinctly as we hear them." [185]

Rousseau goes on to explain that in modern society, so much effort and attention are devoted to the learning of language in infancy and early childhood that it undermines its own purpose. When children are subjected to such intense pressure and the artificial acceleration of their natural learning of language, it makes some of them unnecessarily shy as well as self-conscious and it promotes lazy speech because when adults listen so carefully to any sound they make, there is less reason to learn to speak clearly.

Essay on Jean Jacque Rousseau's Emile or on Education Assignment

A when children] are urged to speak too much, as if people were afraid they would not learn to talk by themselves. This indiscreet pressure produces an effect directly opposite to what is meant. They speak later and more confusedly. The extreme attention paid to every-thing they say makes it unnecessary for them to speak distinctly, and as they will scarcely open their mouths, many of them contract bad pronunciation and a confused speech, which last all their life and make them almost unintelligible." [188]

Rousseau believed that this is one reason that poor peasant living in the country learned to speak more clearly and earlier than their counterparts in the developed towns where formal education began earlier. Rousseau points to his own experiences living among peasants [189] and recounts that very young children typically speak as clearly as children more than twice their age in the towns. Rousseau contrasts the relative independence and self sufficiency of peasant children with the town children and relates it further to their respective language fluency:

This results from the fact that, up to five or six, children in town, brought up in a room and under the care of a nursery governess, do not need to speak above a whisper to make themselves heard. As soon as their lips move people take pains to make out what they mean." [190]

Children scattered about the fields at a distance from their fathers, mothers and other children, gain practice in making themselves heard at a distance, and in adapting the loudness of the voice to the distance which separates them from those to whom they want to speak. This is the real way to learn pronunciation, not by stammering out a few vowels into the ear of an attentive governess." [191]

In analyzing the manner in which modern society promotes the learning of language, Rousseau points out the fundamental difference between genuine language and mere mimicry. In this view, when children are encouraged (or in Rousseau's characterization, forced) to learn language artificially and prematurely, much of that rote learning tends to be mimicry of sounds or words for which the child has no use yet. The result is poor pronunciation and incorrect choice of words in speech. Conversely, when children are permitted to learn language more naturally and at their own pace, the words they learn tend to be those that they acquire because of their usefulness in the context of their lives and family relationships rather than arbitrary words selected by others and forced upon them. They also tend to learn to use the words they discover on their own more accurately.

Children who are forced to speak too soon have no time to learn either to pronounce correctly or to understand what they are made to say. While left to themselves they first practice the easiest syllables, and then, adding to them little by little some meaning which their gestures explain, they teach you their own words before they learn yours. By this means they do not acquire your words till they have understood them. Being in no hurry to use them, they begin by carefully observing the sense in which you use them, and when they are sure of them they will adopt them. [199]

Rousseau goes much farther than merely criticizing the process of teaching children how to speak; he touches on the much more philosophical issue of the relative value of form over substance represented by the traditional way that French focuses so much more than other modern languages on pronunciation instead of the content of verbal expression. Rousseau points out that the emphasis on superficial components of language (such as those taught to children as soon as they begin to speak) are comparatively unimportant and that, if anything, that concern detracts from the essential purpose of language: to communicate concrete ideas and abstract concepts accurately.

In Rousseau's view, the tradition of ensuring that all Frenchmen sound the same detracts from the ability of the individual to express himself completely because it removes any idiosyncratic accent or feeling. Furthermore, Rousseau believed that the elements of individuality extinguished by such religiously trained universal pronunciation also allows language to be used more deceptively because natural inflections and tones are often more reliable indications of meaning than the literal meaning of the words in spoken conversation. Ultimately, Rousseau blames the reputation of Frenchmen as obnoxious snobs on this approach to language as well.

But, to begin with, this extreme strikes me as much less dangerous than the other, for the first law of speech is to make oneself understood, and the chief fault is to fail to be understood. To pride ourselves on having no accent is to pride ourselves on ridding our phrases of strength and elegance. Emphasis is the soul of speech, it gives it its feeling and truth. Emphasis deceives less than words; perhaps that is why well-educated people are so afraid of it. From the custom of saying everything in the same tone has arisen that of poking fun at people without their knowing it. When emphasis is proscribed, its place is taken by all sorts of ridiculous, affected, and ephemeral pronunciations, such as those heard especially among the young people of the court. It is this affectation of speech and manner which makes Frenchmen disagreeable and repulsive to other nations on first acquaintance. Emphasis is found, not in their speech, but in their bearing. That is not the way to make themselves attractive. [194]

Rousseau returns to the specific notion that children should not be rushed to learn vocabulary any faster than their natural rate. Moreover, he suggests that children need the psychological privacy to practice their language skills and pronunciation without the overwhelming pressure of being observed or monitored continually, especially in the critical sense where every wrong utterance is corrected. Therefore,

The child who is trying to speak should hear nothing but words he can understand, nor should he say words he cannot articulate. His efforts lead him to repeat the same syllable as if he were practicing its clear pronunciation. When he begins to stammer, do not try to understand him. To expect to be always listened to is a form of tyranny which is not good for the child. See carefully to his real needs, and let him try to make you understand the rest. Still less should you hurry him into speech; he will learn to talk when he feels the usefulness of it." [197]

According to Rousseau, premature formal language instruction is also counterproductive, because the constant repetition ritual for learning language reinforces the wrong pronunciation [192]. Ironically, Rousseau characterizes all the mistakes in childhood speech that parents and teachers worry about are inconsequential because they ordinarily are self-correcting with time. On the other hand, the consequences of premature exposure to language and the forced attention on learning in early childhood are long lasting. Specifically, the focus on… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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