First proclaimed by UNESCO in November 1999, International Mother Language Day is celebrated on 21 February. This observance recognises that “Languages, with their complex implications for identity, communication, social integration, education and development, are of strategic importance for people and planet”.
In this report by the UN Multilingual Education Working Group, we are reminded of the importance of multilingualism; we live in a multilingual world. We all “walk together on this path of life, for all things are part of the universe, and are connected with each other to form one whole unity” (Montessori, M. To Educate the Human Potential , 2007: 11, Kindle Edition). And yet, the report suggests, most educational systems ignore this multilingual reality.
It is agreed across the board that the earlier one begins with the acquisition of 2nd or even 3rd and 4th languages the better. Montessori herself observed the young child’s skill to absorb language:
“It may be said that we acquire knowledge by using our minds; but the child absorbs knowledge directly into his psychic life. Simply by continuing to live, the child learns to speak his native tongue… Impressions do not merely enter his mind; they form it. They incarnate themselves in him. The child creates his own “mental muscles,” using for this what he finds in the world about him. We have named this type of mentality, The Absorbent Mind…He learns everything without knowing he is learning it, and in doing so he passes little by little from the unconscious to the conscious, treading always in the paths of joy and love.”
Montessori, M. The Absorbent Mind, 2007: 32, Kindle Edition
The Montessori environment is well primed to teach additional languages. The use of concrete objects in many of the activities and presentations in the environment, support the multi-sensory learning approach, and the 3-period lesson is a systematic way of introducing new language to a child. But what matters most, of course, is how multilingual learning is promoted, and the report by the UN Multilingual Education Working Group stresses that mother tongue-based multilingual education, in other words, education that begins in the language that the learner speaks most fluently, and then gradually introduces other languages, is the most productive.The benefits of multilingualism go beyond the ability to communicate across boundaries. As this article in Nursery World states: “Bilingual and bicultural awareness implies a broadening of thinking to acquire additional skills beyond speaking and reading a foreign language. These skills include being capable of critical thinking to make choices and think laterally. They are also likely to have developed more profound understanding as they find out that people of other cultures may behave, and even think, differently. They can appreciate that there can be at least two ways to solve the same problem” (Dunn, O. Nursery World, 22 September 2014).
The concern that maintaining the home language (or mother tongue) may prevent a child’s progress in the main language of the educational institution must be addressed; parents as well as educators need reassuring. Research now proves that maintaining the home language is vital for many reasons, but particularly to ensure that children see that their home language is valued, allowing them to build a positive and healthy self-identity and stronger sense of pride in their cultural and linguistic heritage. (Iris Centre, Peabody College, Vanderbilt University)
Let’s remember this: there are over 6,000 known living languages in the world. The United Nations has observed that at least 43% of these are endangered. Only a few hundred languages have genuinely been given a place in education systems and the public domain, and less than a hundred are used in the digital world. “Equitable quality education and lifelong learning for all is only possible when education responds to and reflects the multilingual nature of the society. Children, youth and adults require learning opportunities that are relevant to their lives and needs, in and through their own languages” (UN Multilingual Education Working Group Report). Multilingual education is vitally important for the times in which we live, but let’s make sure we don’t only offer our children windows and glass sliding doors, but mirrors as well to reflect their own experiences, culture and language.
Do read Barbara Isaacs’ blog post from last year, ‘Mirrors and Windows‘ in which we are invited to consider our environments and think about whether they truly hear the children’s voices and reflect their stories.
And join us on Tuesday 15 February at 18.00 (UTC) / 19.00 (CET), as we join Montessori Europe at their webinar on Learning a Second Language in the Montessori Environment. You can register here.