First, “freedom” in the Montessori environment needs to be explained. Freedom is a goal, not a starting point. Freedom comes with knowledge. Once children have received an initial lesson on a material or understand the limits set within their environment, they are free to move about the classroom at will, to talk to other children, to work with any equipment appropriately whenever or as long as they want or to ask to be introduced to something new. This freedom of choice is not total freedom. Children learn that to enjoy freedom they need to respect the rights of others to enjoy similar freedom.
Learning a language is a process. Within the first five to seven weeks, most children begin to repeat parts of songs and appropriately use repeated phrases. By the end of eight to ten months, most children begin to spontaneously use the second language. Language comes in two steps. First, the child will begin to understand. Then, speaking begins.
Children who learn a second language develop another capacity in the brain. This is true just like developing an artistic capacity. Not only do they learn the second language, but they learn how to “be” in another language. They absorb the culture and expressions belonging to that language. Children become more tolerable and accepting of others as well. They realize there are other ways to communicate and it makes sense. Finally, it is said that children also achieve a higher sense of concentration and listening skills. To understand what is going on around them takes an extra effort to concentrate and hear how the words are formed and to catch a familiar word.
Montessori emphasizes learning through all the senses, in other words, learning by doing. Montessori education emphasizes “learning how to learn” which means it is more important for children to learn how to process, discover, understand, and make choices on their own rather than merely learning to repeat information that has been presented and follow the lead of the teacher. Montessori classrooms are composed of children in three-year age groupings to allow for the flexibility of children to learn at their own pace and for spontaneous opportunities for older children to assist the younger ones.
Montessori comes from the name of the first Italian woman to become a physician Dr. Maria Montessori, in the early 1900’s. Through her observations and work with children, she developed her educational methods based on the development of children’s learning processes. She observed children have a natural desire to learn for themselves and, thus, she designed a “prepared environment” in which children could freely choose from developmentally appropriate activities and work at their own pace.
Children will learn a second, or even third language more quickly and fluently when they find themselves in a total immersion environment as early in life as possible. Language in an immersion environment is acquired naturally by making an association of what is seen and experienced to what is heard. The children develop the ability and willingness to tolerate ambiguity and to search for meaning.
Children should start a Montessori program between two and a half and three and a half years of age, or earlier. Around two and a half, a child enters a new phase of development. Children entering at a later age have passed many “sensitive periods” and have foregone stages of opportunities to fully benefit from the developmental activities that build upon each other.
The goal is to achieve “inner discipline”, or control which the child develops over his or her own behavior. To achieve inner discipline, children need to understand what is acceptable and what is not. Children are redirected to an acceptable activity or are given a choice. The teachers also give the children tools necessary to work out their own problems. For example, children need to learn the proper vocabulary and expressions needed to communicate dissatisfaction with another or to apologize. Children also need to learn what alternatives are acceptable to modify their own behavior or make a situation acceptable to all in the community.
The Montessori teacher is specially trained to assume the roles of guide, observer, and maintainer of the environment. She carefully prepares the environment by including stimulating materials and opportunities for the children to teach themselves and eliminates all obstacles. She presents an initial lesson to introduce the child to a particular activity or material and then allows the child to experience it on his own and repeat the activities. She also is constantly observing to assist the children when necessary, redirect them appropriately and determine the individual and group needs.
The sensitive period for language begins at birth. Any language at this age is acquired naturally. The earlier a child is exposed to another language the better chances the child will acquire a “useable fluency”. The period for learning a language begins to close around eight to ten years of age. By age nine, children begin to lose the ability to produce a foreign language without an accent.
The Kindergarten year in Montessori is a critical component of the three-year cycle. During the third year, all the earlier experiences are internalized and reinforced. All the activities and skills come together this last year and are completely understood. The five year old often helps the younger children with their work, becoming a “teacher”, reinforcing his own skills, and gaining an incredible sense of self-confidence.
Montessori environments are full of concrete materials and activities needed to help make the associations of language to object and actions. As teachers are speaking, they need to use more concrete cues such as showing pictures or acting out motions to help the children make the connection. With the mixed-age group, the older children take on the role of interpreter for the younger and newer students. The older children also stimulate the younger ones to use this other way to communicate.