What a hot topic this has been in the Park City public schools this year – “dual immersion”, “Spanish immersion”, “French immersion”. Public schools have been experimenting with the idea for decades. Park City public schools hope that dual immersion Spanish classes will provide an accommodation for the growing number of ESL students. There’s nothing like travelling to another country to remind yourself that everyone else in the world seems to know at least two languages – why don’t most Americans? It’s about time we took our foreign language instruction to the next level. But we have to be thoughtful about how we teach children multiple languages.
The sensitive period for language acquisition in children is 0 to 6 years. From the time the hearing apparatus develops in utero the fetus begins to hear the sounds and cadences of language. The baby practices mimicry as she prepares for speech. Toddlers begin by naming everything and then combine words to make short sentences. Through the early-childhood years children are expanding their vocabulary at an astonishing rate and practicing correct pronunciation and grammar. By the elementary years the primary language is almost mastered.
Children can easily absorb languages, with an especially sensitive period between 18 months and 4 years of age (Infant and Toddler Journal, Spring 2011). We want to introduce a second language when the children are young enough to absorb it easily; however, we need to be sure they have mastered their primary language first. We want to be sure that new concepts are introduced and mastered in the primary language so that the child can form a solid foundation of understanding before translating new information into a second language. Studies of language immersion programs report some success for kindergarten and elementary aged children. Children who participate may demonstrate increased cognitive ability, memory and creative thinking; however, they may also lag behind in some academic areas (Baker, 1993; Center for Applied Linguistics, 2008).
The Montessori method is based on the principle of mastery learning. Each new concept is introduced in concrete form and practiced in myriad ways until it is mastered. Then new information is added to that foundation allowing the child to progress at her own distinctive pace. Children’s learning styles are as varied as their personalities. Some do very well learning many things at once. Others need to focus on one task at a time, especially if it is one that is challenging for them. Montessori students typically advance quickly compared to those in traditional schools because they can move ahead as soon as they have mastered a concept. Teachers are careful to introduce each new lesson in a simple and concrete manner allowing the student to focus on one skill at a time. We are careful to introduce new concepts in English and allow children to master the idea before reinforcing the same idea in Spanish.
In our toddler classes (1½ to 3 years) every new experience for the young student is introduced with a paucity of words. Lessons are given with a simple instruction, “watch”, and a slow, graceful and dramatic demonstration of the material. Simple sign language is used to supplement communication of key phrases such as “please”, “thank you”, “more”, “potty”, “all done”. Students practice new vocabulary, phrases, songs and games in English. Later in the year we begin substituting Spanish versions of the same words and songs into the daily routine. By spring toddler students are familiar with numbers to thirty, days of the week, months and a few simple songs in Spanish.
In our early childhood classes (3 to 6 years) the school year also begins in English with Spanish songs, games, and calendar rituals introduced in the fall. Teachers add simple vocabulary and phrases throughout the school year until by spring children can name many of the classroom furnishings and use common phrases in Spanish.
At the elementary level (6 to 10 years) children add to their vocabulary and learn to read and write in Spanish. Spanish lessons are taught immersion style, bringing in lessons, games and projects, which are conducted entirely in Spanish. By the end of the school year the class makes it’s annual field trip out to lunch in Spanish. To this curriculum we have added a bilingual teaching assistant so that these immersion style lessons will go on all day every day instead of just a few times each week.
We have offered lessons in French, German and Latin in the past but find that Spanish is the most useful and one of the most widely spoken languages worldwide. Following the Montessori method of introducing a key concept in English until the students reach mastery, then reinforcing the same idea in Spanish provides students with a firm foundation of academic skills in both languages.
Duna Strachan, AMS
Soaring Wings International Montessori School
Park City, Utah USA