Language as our Human Heritage

Human communication is formed by a combination of varied systems: body language; artistic expression, dance and music; symbolic languages (such as traffic signs or pictograms) and the written language. However, we focus on spoken language as one of the pillars of human development and our humanity itself: a complex and intricate system that likely shapes our minds as much as our activity shapes our environment. It seems that the potential for language is a unique, fundamental and universal function of the human mind; although there are many differences in the grammar, structure and systems of the many different languages spoken around the world, the development of language in children unerringly follows the same general timeline and shared milestones.

Words and language exist as a form of social contract, one that is constantly living and evolving. New words and new ways to combine them are created or borrowed to suit the needs of each culture, time and place. The process of communication requires two individuals sharing a common experience and an agreement as to how it is shared. They must first organize their thoughts and ideas, express them in the symbols, structure and order of their language, and finally decide to speak to one another. When we consider the true depth of this task we so easily undertake every day of our lives, it should become obvious the enormous mental accomplishment of the young child who learns how to do so for the first time.

To acquire the ability to speak – to learn a native language – a child needs four basic resources: the physiological ability to hear, the functional vocal apparatus that will enable speech, spoken language directed at the child herself, and the desire to communicate with the people around her. Neither of these is more or less important than the others, and a problem with each and every one will disrupt her language development. Parents are routinely advised to check their infants‘ hearing but few are advised that just as crucial it is to form, from the earliest age, the habit of speaking directly to their child as well as listening to the child’s response – even when it may only consist of babbling or non-verbal expression.

Technology cannot replace human speakers to young children. They do not understand and will not accept the radio, tv, or – increasingly – a tablet or smartphone as a partner in communication, and will therefore not learn from it; although recordings and videos can be an invaluable resource for language study later in life, Montessori educators do not recommend it for use before the Elementary years.

On the other hand, there is no limit to how much children can learn from the environment if approached through a meaningful relationship with a speaker of another language. An infant or toddler child is, neurologically, a specialist in language acquisition, a characteristic that is diminished after the age of six or seven, and fades by the onset of puberty. There are many who discourage exposing a young child to more than one language, suggesting that the time to introduce this great burden and challenge is when children are older and more mature, but the opposite is true. Waiting until the child is in Elementary or even Middle School only ensures that his brain is no longer ready to engage and process a new language – he has moved on to other challenges. We need not look far for the proof that in  a multilingual environment, it is not only the gifted or privileged who gain fluency in multiple languages – in Switzerland and the Netherlands, for instance, nearly the entire population speaks at least two languages, and about four fifths speak three or more.

This article is a contribution by Michaela Tučková, lead teacher in the Toddler 2 classroom, International Montessori School of Prague. She developed an interest in this form of education when volunteering in schools in the United States. She loves working with children.

Photo Courtesy: IMSP