By Dr. Kateri Carver-Akers and Kristine Markatos-Soriano
published in Montessori Life Magazine Issue 2, 2007
“Todos somos amigos,” says a five-year-old Indian-American girl. She produces this phrase with ease and warmth in her voice. As the Montessori guide has modeled for her with grace and peace in her eyes, this girl models for two 3-year-old Caucasian boys who are resolving a conflict. We are all friends. Although the children use and hear this phrase in a language that is not their native tongue, they feel its universal love and importance in cultivating community. They are students at The Language Center Montessori School in Chapel Hill, NC, and they are learning in a language-immersion Montessori environment. The school offers a choice to parents: Spanish immersion or French immersion; but the Montessori comes with both.
Our motivation for promoting bilingualism is to improve communication across cultural boundaries and to promote peace, respect, and an appreciation of diversity. Though it is proven that bilingualism increases cognitive development, this is not our driving force. We want to foster a generation of “cultural ambassadors,” who can negotiate racial and cultural diversity in a productive and peaceful manner as well as build cross-cultural communication bridges.
When we sing our song called, “Especial,” which describes each child as special, a 5-year-old child purposefully changes the lyrics from “Yo soy muy especial” (I am very special) to “Todo el mundo es muy especial” (Everyone is very special). Without inhibitions, hesitation, and most importantly, without cultural stereotypes, these children go to Montessori school in a second language; and they grow their hearts and minds in that second language, all day, every day.
Our children are entering a diverse and challenging modern world. One key issue-immigration-can paint a realistic picture of what our students face. In our town, Chapel Hill, NC, the Latino population increased about 400% from 1990 to 2000. (http://www.duke.edu/web/latinovoices/). Immigration, an international concern, is linked to education, race, poverty, ethnicity, oppression, women’s issues, healthcare, religion, and other issues. In classrooms, teachers struggle over their planning books as they learn about and create methods that best reach our new neighbors from all over the world. As these new faces increase, so does the need for cultural awareness and sensitivity, for all communities.
As an amazing world citizen herself, Maria Montessori inspired hope in generations of people that our Earth could be a more peaceful home. If she could see the modern world that our children are entering now, she probably would stress this hope even more fervently. How can we equip our children for this modern world? What must we do to ‘follow the child’? Among other things, we must support the child’s pure desire to make friendships across cultural boundaries, we must learn from the absence of racial prejudices and cultural stereotypes in her young heart, and we must foster her natural ability to learn languages at an early age. Following this modern Montessori child will help create a new generation of peacemakers who value tolerance, diversity, and hope, and who effect change at home and across borders. In a language immersion Montessori classroom, the skills of these peacemakers-these cultural ambassadors-take root in a very profound way.
The language immersion model has shown itself to be the most effective way to teach language. The Canadian government developed these classrooms in the 1970s and, after 30 years of experience, the results have been very positive. Reading achievement scores of immersion students generally outperform those of non-immersion students when tested in English (http://www.statcan.ca/english/freepub/81-004-XIE/200406/imm.htm). Stephen Krashen, an acclaimed professor emeritus of foreign language acquisition at the University of Southern California, says that “Canadian immersion is not simply another successful language teaching program-it may be the most successful language teaching program ever recorded in the professional language teaching literature” (1985, 15.) Its method of comprehensible messages to the students in the target language contextualizes the learning, unlike the traditional method of memorizing colors and months. When a child in the Montessori environment learns, for example, Grace & Courtesy lessons or Sensorial lessons in Spanish, the target language takes on a life of its own-the child’s everyday life in the classroom.
Language is not simply a combination of nouns, verbs, and other parts of speech. Rather, it is an integral part of culture. It is the vehicle through which a child defines meaning and experiences the world. When children learn to navigate their world through multiple languages in a warm and loving environment, they receive keys to new cultures and develop a spherical view of the world (rather than a narrow and ethnocentric one). While a young child cannot be transformed into a child from another culture, his bilingual skills and his open heart, acquired in his language immersion Montessori classroom, serve as critical building blocks for his diplomatic leadership in cross-cultural communication. As stated on the U.S. Department of Education’s website: (http://www.ncela.gwu.edu/pubs/nysabe/vol10/nysabe101.htm)
If we provide consistent, thoughtful and meaningful cultural teaching for our bilingual students, they will be better equipped for the 21st century than their mono-cultural counterparts, be they native speakers of English or native speakers of a language other than English. Indeed, bilingualism and biculturalism are not only a step toward the future, but also an intermediate stage in the journey toward multi-culturalism in its most positive sense, and perhaps ultimately to a shared global vision of world peace.
The marriage of language immersion education and the Montessori Method is straightforward, effective and deeply rewarding. While any Montessori school considering the implementation of a language immersion program should understand why the merger of the two methods is so successful, many teachers and administrators want to know immediately how it functions so smoothly. We will describe below our approach we have developed and refined over the past seven years, which will include, the Role of the guide, Gathering time activities and examples of lessons from Practical Life, Sensorial, Language.
In our two 3-6 classrooms, we have two Co-Lead guides and an Assistant with 24 children, about 10- 25% of whom are high fluency or native speakers due to the language of one or both of their parents. Our Co-Lead guides are fluent speakers who may or may not be native speakers. We always have at least one native speaking Co-Lead guide. Our Assistants are often college graduates with a degree in Spanish or French and thus, have a strong interest in speaking the language on a daily basis and working with fluent colleagues. The Assistants come away not only learning a great amount about Montessori and often pursing training afterward, but also come away with an increased knowledge of the target language that they could never have gotten from a college classroom setting, and only rarely from a study abroad experience (for example, how to comfort a child in Spanish, how to solve a conflict between two children in French etc). Our Assistants often achieve the same feeling of thorough fulfillment from their job that the Co-Lead Montessori guides experience. Unlike other bilingual Montessori programs here and abroad, both teachers and the assistant in our classrooms speak Spanish or French to the children.
We speak to the children in the target language between 90%-100% of the time with the exception of the opening six weeks of school during which time we may speak slightly more English for communicating certain ground rules, separation issues and/or lingering potty training issues. When observers inquire about the English they hear in the classroom among the children, we explain that we never tell a child that s/he may not talk when s/he comes to our school! Of course, the new three year olds use English for talking to both their guides and their peers, as that is, in most cases, all they know. We listen to these young threes and, right from the beginning, we respond to them in simple Spanish or French with gestures so they can grasp the gist of the meaning and, more importantly, feel heard and emotionally secure in the environment. It is unreasonable to ask the children not to speak English among themselves. Furthermore, since the timeframe of 3-6 years old is such an important psychological and developmental period for positive and interactive communication, we would never endorse an environment that outlaws self expression or inhibits clear communication.
The guides give all lessons in Spanish or French – from all the areas of the classrooms. The entire environment is in Spanish or French, from the nomenclature cards of the parts of a frog to the heading on a math extension worksheet that asks the child to do addition with bead bars.
The Role of the Guide
Over and above the countless tasks of caring for her/his Prepared Environment, maintaining records, class management and on and on, the language immersion guide must be extra vigilant in the role of modeling. She must model the language for the children, taking into account their age, level, interest etc. For example, a new three year old from an English only home, who is just transitioning into the classroom receives very “tailored” language so as to assure comprehension and a home-like feeling of security in La Casa or La Maison. A 4 ½ year old, who already has a year and half under his belt, will receive a very different “tailored” message so as to challenge his growing ability in Spanish or French, but also to ensure understanding and a positive result. Just as the Montessori guide invites a child to a lesson that is destined to meet and go beyond his/ her actual developmental level, so she does when she speaks in the target language to the children. Luckily, this comes easily to a seasoned Montessori guide because she already used to “customized” lessons due the multi-age environment and the method in general. The variations in the ways of communicating to the child in the target language can also vary according to any special concerns the guide may have about a child, his fatigue at that moment, her personality, and even her mood at the moment.
Each Fall we provide a special training for our language immersion Montessori guides. Throughout the workshop, we use the analogy of a child stringing a necklace in order to explain the language acquisition process. However, this precious necklace is not made with the familiar pasta and recycled hole punched paper. Rather, the metaphoric necklace is made with beads, suggestive of the Montessori beads which we call les perles/las perlas in our Spanish and French classrooms. The gift of language is precious and miraculous, like a pearl. Each time the language immersion guide models a new word or series of words, she give the child a new “pearl” to add to her linguistic necklace.
In the workshop, we explain the process of how the child receives these “pearls” and, for a while, simply passes them back and forth between himself and the guide. In other words, the child repeats the exact same words or phrases that the guide models. While this is, in itself, an extraordinary process to witness, the real miracle happens when, one day, usually late in the first year or in the beginning of the second year, the child begins to assemble these “pearls” and fashion his own necklace. One of the clearest signs of mastery in the target language is when the child begins to re-arrange these words and phrases and make his own communicative message from the individual units that were given to him over time by the guide. He has figuratively ‘strung his own necklace’, and he will restring it thousands and thousands of times from then on, re-arranging, varying the language, incorporating new words, tenses, forms etc.
Language immersion Montessori guides are extra vigilant in their observations as they must pay attention to the child’s linguistic development. This evaluation process however, becomes second nature to her/him because of the pre-established role of the guide as an intense observer, and the one-on-one teaching style. This acute awareness enables the experienced language immersion Montessori guide to, when a child says “quand tu auras fini ton travail, viens t’asseoir à côté de moi” (when you finish your work, come sit next to me), note the child’s productive language use, her grammar, her syntax, and the communicative value. Just as an experienced guide observes so many small details in the children’s development, an experienced immersion guide may further note that the child’s phrase was generated without any assistance, that she used the correct future tense, the imperative form, and that this particular utterance was produced without being recently modeled for her. She put the words together completely on her own. She has figuratively ‘strung her own necklace’ from the “pearls” given to her by her guide. A final observation the guide may make: the phrase is actually a gentle invitation to a classmate.
Gathering time in a language immersion Montessori classroom has a different focus than a traditional Montessori classroom. While the time, process and style are similar to a typical Montessori environment, the content of our circle times are carefully planned. Although always preceded by a Grace and Courtesy lesson, our Gathering times focus on language related activities about three times a week. These often take the form of a game, and are designed to increase their knowledge of nouns, verbs and expressions.
One game we play is matching pairs. We distribute randomly 12 pairs of matching fruit cards face down in front of each child. The guide invites a first child to place her card face up on the rug in the center of the circle. Using her knowledge of each child’s ability in Spanish or French, she may ask that same child, or another to name the fruit. Then she asks each child to peek at his card to see if they have the matching fruit. Each time, the teacher can help the children identify fruit if needed, or ask further questions related to its size, color, taste etc. The Point of Interest rests in the thrill of who has the matching card! A variation is to use animal cards, professions, actions (running, eating). An extension is to have some of the words of the fruit written down on cards and to hand out the fruit word-card to the children who can read in the target language so they can match their word-card with the picture card.
Another game is to make Silence and then to go into a game of mime. We begin miming simple Practical Life activities, such as “couper et manger une pomme” (cutting and eating an apple). The guide leading circle acts out cutting and eating an apple without any words. Then she asks the children to guess her action, encouraging them to use the infinitive forms of the verb first and then later, a full sentence, “tu coupes et puis tu manges une pomme.”
Memory game: the guide selects about ten small objects from the classroom just before gathering time, without letting the children be aware of what she is doing. She places all the objects on a tray and brings them with a table cloth to a rug placed in front of her. She gently removes each object off the tray and places it on the rug naming each object, as in the first part of a three period lesson. The objects are varied: the continent puzzle piece of Asia, a third brown stair, the vowel i, a sponge, a snake, a pouring cup, a napkin, a paint brush, a ten bar and a compass. The guide asks the children to study the objects on the rug. She then opens the table cloth, lifting it high to make it float down, spreading itself gently covering all the objects. She covertly slides her hand under the cloth, snatches one object and, in one gesture, takes it way wrapping it in the cloth. She puts the cloth next to her and then poses the question as they await with such impatience: ¿que falta? or qu’est-ce qui manque?( what is missing?) The children always over enthusiastically throw up their hands to reveal the name of the object that lies behind the hidden cloth. Each time we play this game, we are amazed not only at their repeated joy in the “covert snatching,” but in their outstanding memory skills.
This area, which requires constant maintenance needs to offer rich and diverse works from each of the subcategories of Practical Life: Fine motor; Grace and Courtesy; Care of the person; Care of the Environment and Food Preparation. We have anywhere from 35-50 individual work choices on our Art and Practical Life shelves. The rationale, in terms of language acquisition, for having such a variety is to offer the children an array of verbs, nouns, expressions in an every day context. For example, in a traditional classroom where Spanish or French is two- three times a week for 20 minutes, the children may learn nouns such as grandmother, sister (from unit on family) or airplane, train (from a unit on transportation). While these are good, common words to know, the children do not touch, manipulate or use these objects while functioning in the Montessori classroom. Giving the children the language of their own daily environment lets them immediately apply it. Thus, they learn verbs in French or Spanish that translate as to pour, to squeeze, to fill, to punch, to thread, to glide, to sweep; and nouns such as sponge, flask, container, watering can, dropper, sink, broom, needle, bucket etc. Practical life lessons are done over and over again as we know. From a language acquisition point of view, this is very convenient! If the child absorbed “flask” and “sponge” during the second time doing the work, perhaps during by the fourth time, she will internalize additional descriptive language such as “funnel” and “spill.”
Practical Life offers the opportunity for the infinite use of verbs in present, past, and future, and the imperative form as well as a wide variety of nouns,: “Por favor, va a vaciar el balde en el lavado” (please go pour out the bucket in the sink). In a language immersion Montessori classroom, we use real-life sentences that give multi-step directions with verbs, adjectives, interrogative, and imperative forms. Simply put, we use natural speech and the children absorb it completely.
We follow the traditional approach of giving Practical Life lessons in near silence. If and when we do speak during a lesson, it is only to say, when holding a sponge: una esponja, or when making a motion of tweezing to say: pincer. This touches on one of the ironies of our language immersion Montessori classroom: the target language prevails yet silence reigns. Silence is the blank in between the words on a page: reading would be so difficult without them. Our acquisition process, especially in Practical Life, would not yield such results without silence. Instead of naming a work at the beginning of a lesson as many guides choose to do, our language immersion guides decide, at that moment, whether the child is ready for any words at all to accompany that particular Practical Life lesson. Frequently, the language is actually applied at the most practical moment, that of clean up: “n’oublie pas de chercher une nouvelle serviette blanche pour la prochaine personne qui se lave les mains, merci bien” (don’t forget to go get a new white towel for the next person who washes his hands, thank you).
Most second language teachers would be overjoyed to witness the breadth, diversity, and potential learning opportunities that lie within the Montessori prepared environment. For example, how much more personally meaningful, engaging, and experiential is a Sensorial lesson on caliente, tibio, frio (hot, warm, cold) using the Thermic Bottles than a more traditional presentation that teaches the concept by circling pictures on a worksheet? Sensorial lessons offer the opportunity for numerous repetitions and for repeating the actual words in their true and natural context on the learner’s schedule. Furthermore, they introduce a very wide range of nouns, adjectives, and grammatical structures. For example, the pink tower and the red rods present wonderful opportunities to teach the comparative and superlative forms: petit, plus petit, le plus petit (small, smaller, smallest). Most language teachers would not introduce this grammatical structure until the student had several years of the language under his belt. Not so in a language immersion classroom, where the children are just as ready to hear it in a second language as they are in their native language. They learn both the concept and meaning directly in the target language, while they are in their sensitive period for language.
A Montessori guide knows the important role of language in the prepared environment. She knows when it is not yet appropriate to use language in a lesson and when the moment is ripe to add the language to the lesson. It is a Montessori guide who knows when the actual word should not yet be given since the child’s explorations are primarily sensorial. It is the language immersion Montessori guide, so sensitive to the child’s linguistic development in the target language, who recognizes that when she does in fact give, for example, the French word that describes the sensorial impression of lisse (smooth) and rugueux (rough), these words fall on ready ears and on a prepared mind.
We have created our own language curricula that reflect the standard French or Spanish Montessori language album and yet incorporate second language acquisition techniques. All the children learn to read in Spanish or French first, no matter how much or little of that language they know when arriving at our school. All our Sandpaper letters are the French or Spanish alphabet. For example, we have the Sandpaper letters in French for é, eau, au, etc and in Spanish for ñ, rr, ll, etc.
Our “I spy” games are with objects second language students will know and recognize. The first 3-5 consonants and 2-3 vowels we teach are very carefully chosen to reflect the first syllables they will blend and will find in Object box 1. Unlike English, in French and Spanish there are very few concrete consonant-vowel-consonant words, such as cat, bat, sat, hit, fit. Our approach reflects how native children learn to read in French and Spanish which is with syllables. Once a child knows for example: m, c, r, t, a, i, o with Sandpaper letters, we immediately teach them to blend ma, ti, co, ri, ca, mo, ta etc.. Though these are only rarely words, they are the building blocks for thousands of words in French and Spanish. After a child successfully blends, we move right to the moveable alphabet. Usually by the early Spring of their second year, the child has begun to blend and make syllables. Once the child blends with ease, he is on his way to 2 and 3 syllable words almost overnight; pala, vaca, luna, canasta, or vélo, moto, ami, café, canapé.
In our 3-6 classes, the 3 and 4 year olds have no English language lessons whatsoever. They receive many language lessons for literacy awareness, for example, sequence stories and right to left orientation. These concepts are applicable to the English language yet are taught in the target language. They usually speak English fluently and know their alphabet from the traditional song they learned outside of school. But is only at 5 years old, when the children are in the third year in the classroom that we begin teaching them to read in English. By this time, they are already using early readers in Spanish or French. When we begin reading in English, we do not return to Sandpaper letters, “I spy” etc. The child already knows the entire process of reading from her experience with the target language. All the skills transfer completely to English and are applied without the 5 year old even conscious of the transference.
Much of the communication in our language immersion Montessori classroom is meta-communication, thus, about the act itself of communicating. The children function in an environment where communication is constantly evolving, sometimes challenging yet always collaborative. The children constantly help each other: during the language games at Gathering time, the child who knows the word will help the child who can not retrieve the word in Spanish; when a child does not understand the directive from the guide to first get a tissue before putting on her shoes, the older child shows her where the tissues are and explains the guide’s request. They learn thus, that communication does sometimes involve misunderstanding but they learn respectful, peaceful ways to resolve these differences from both each other and the Montessori guide. They are comfortable with difference. They are flexible. They negotiate meaning on a regular basis. We see cultural ambassadors begin to emerge who may continue Montessori’s vision.
Children in a Montessori language immersion classroom learn that there are two ways to see, to feel, to smell, to say, to sing, etc. Within a few months, they learn that there are actually several ways, even in the same second language, to see, to feel, to smell, etc. They begin to experience multiple perspectives for everything. They become completely accustomed to living linguistic diversity.
The process of educating the next generation of Montessori cultural ambassadors through language immersion is the same process as that of learning first on a concrete level and then proceeding to the abstract level. On a concrete and practical level, learning in a second language makes students clearly aware of multiple perspectives. They learn that an object has multiple signifiers. In other words, “slipper” is the same as pantoufle. The children come to understand that only the signifier changed; the actual slippers, the signified, do not change. What makes the whole process of negotiating difference so effective and smooth for our young cultural ambassadors is the underlying universality of our world. Slippers are slippers after all, no matter what the language.
Just as the Montessori guide follows the child’s transition from the concrete Golden Beads to the abstract Stamp Game, so it is for the older child’s ability to transition from concrete linguistic differences to abstract cultural differences. The primary child who has learned to accommodate difference on a linguistic level develops into the elementary child who translates this ability to an abstract philosophical level. The growing elementary child begins to understand differences for what they are, rather than reacting to them with fear, negativity, and disrespect. The process of educating respect for difference takes years, much support, and the dedication of a community. Given that ethnocentricity is one of the bases of racism, this Montessori language-immersion student is poised to be an ambassador who breaks down cultural barriers-and not only linguistic, but also the more important and profound philosophical barriers. The student’s experience of negotiating all the various types of ‘difference’ on a daily basis has allowed her to internalize the concept of diversity in mind and heart.
Just as it is difficult for non-Montessorians to fathom that a child can successfully carry a porcelain pitcher filled with water across the room with grace and pride, so it is also difficult for many adults to grasp how children can operate comfortably and successfully in a language-immersion environment. Does it really work? It works just as effortlessly as the transition that all Montessori children make, for example, from the Sandpaper Letters to the Moveable Alphabet. They develop a deep and authentic awareness of other cultures that informs their actions and they are bilingual and biliterate.
Our goal is to open hearts and minds to diversity, engender authentic cultural sensitivity beginning with cross-cultural communication, and to prepare children to be cultural ambassadors of Peace and Respect for our world.
Krashen, S.D. (1985). Inquiries & Insights: Second Language Teaching; Immersion & Bilingual Education; Literacy. University of Southern California; New Jersey.
http://www.statcan.ca/english/freepub/81-004-XIE/200406/imm.htm. Retrieved July 26, 2006.
http://www.ncela.gwu.edu/pubs/nysabe/vol10/nysabe101.htm. Retrieved July 26, 2006.
Dr. Kateri Carver-Akers founded The Language Center Montessori School DBA International Montessori School in Chapel Hill, North Carolina after witnessing the ease of her own children’s bi-lingualism in French. Having chosen to educate them in a Montessori environment, she soon began to investigate the merger of the Montessori philosophy and language immersion education. Ten years later, she is now Head of School to two 3-6 language immersion Montessori Classrooms, one French and one Spanish. The International Montessori School 3001 Academy Rd. Durha, NC 27701 919.401-4343