Montessori toddler programs, preschool and elementary school are the perfect environments for learning a second language because they naturally provides many of the key elements for optimal language learning:
- Differentiation. Children learn language at different speeds and levels. Good language instruction is able to differentiate in speed, method, emphasis and so on. Montessori preschool instruction is individualized by design. Our Montessori teachers are masters at observing each child and tailoring lessons to his or her abilities. As a result, no student is ever pushed beyond what he is capable of or held back to remain at the level of his peers. Each child is free to progress at his own pace, guided with nurturing support by a native Japanese or Chinese speaker who understands his unique growth as an individual.
- Real-life interactive instruction. Linguists look for opportunities to provide language in a real-life context, rather than out of textbook pages. In the Montessori preschool Chinese or Japanese immersion environment, teachers are responsive to children’s activities. A child who works with the pink tower learns about abstract concepts of size; one who sets the table learns the names of household utensils; another who runs across a classmate’s mat receives vocabulary centered around walking slowly and respecting the needs of friends.
Montessori preschool environments abound with words of objects and ideas — from animal figurines to actual screwdrivers, from math concepts to the language of good etiquette — all words they don’t have to memorize from a textbook, but rather get to use and hear everyday in the classroom! This is Japanese or Chinese, the way it should be learned: through interactive experience.
- Care for a child’s growing sense of self-esteem. Children learn better when they aren’t anxious to be put on the spot and perform, when they are confident in themselves and "at home" in their environment. In much of traditional language instructions, children are called upon in a group to say things in the other language. This can provoke performance anxiety. In contrast, mistakes in a Montessori preschool are always learning opportunities. Much of the interaction in Montessori preschool happens one-on-one between the teacher and the child, so there is no threat of failing in front of one’s peers.
- Monitoring and self-correction. You only get better at speaking a language if you realize when you have made a mistake. The Montessori environment is ideal in this regard. Many Montessori preschool materials have a built-in "control of error", where the child naturally sees and corrects his own mistake (spilled rice, a cylinder that doesn’t fit, etc.). By repeatedly observing when things don’t work — and independently correcting them — children learn to monitor their activities and self-correct, rather than waiting for a teacher to show them how.
- Knowledge of grammar. Especially in the elementary years, knowing grammar is critical for becoming literate in a second language. Montessori excels here as well. Students start learning the parts of speech with the Montessori grammar symbols as early as Montessori preschool, and continue a rigorous grammar program in the elementary school years. (This formal teaching of grammar at such a young age is only possible because of the sensorial nature of Montessori grammar materials. If you’ve never experienced them, please come visit — they’re quite wonderful!)
- Clear, intentional language. Children absorb language habits from their environment. How teachers speak is critical. Our highly-trained Montessori preschool teachers are careful speakers, every day, all the time. We say things like, "I invite you to get up and wash your hands so we may come together for Circle Time" rather than, "Ok, Circle Time, kids!" And as we have two teachers in each class who speak Japanese or Chinese, children also get to hear authentic, quality dialogue in the target languages between adults daily.
- Modeling. Children learn language better if they are used to repeating what adults do. Linguists are amazed how naturally this happens in Montessori preschool: our students are used to teacher demonstrations followed by their own student practice. They have internalized learning by modeling after their teachers! Thus, they naturally want to repeat after their Montessori teacher, when she speaks in Japanese/Chinese, fostering strong language skills.
- Cultural competency. Language is inevitably tied to culture. In fact, children often default to speaking the language of the surrounding culture. A Montessori preschool classroom provides a rich environment for cultural experiences. Practical life activities can incorporate Japanese or Chinese customs, from foods we prepare together, to the type of fabrics we use in our materials. Songs and stories from China or Japan bring Asian culture to life in the classroom. And, of course, the strong Montessori preschool geography program enables our students to locate the cultural regions where Japanese and Chinese are spoken on the world map!
- An early start. Language learning happens most easily during early childhood. In fact, Dr. Montessori first identified a "sensitive period" for language learning in children from birth to age six, where they can apparently effortlessly absorb language skills from their environment. A Montessori Japanese or Chinese preschool immersion program which starts as early as infanthood or the young toddler years, and continues on at least until age six, leverages the child’s "absorbent mind" by surrounding him with Japanese or Chinese so he can absorb his second language just as naturally as his first.
In the end, Montessori and language immersion are the perfect match. Now if only we had had such a rich experience as children — as opposed to reading dry language texts and taking superficial multiple-choice tests in high school!