When I founded my school 20 years ago, one of my main goals was to give my children a chance to speak a second language fluently (ie English) as if it was their first language.
In my opinion, school must provide to children everything they need to succeed in the better possible way in their adult life.
Nowadays, how is it possible to live without speaking English?
Virtually, all jobs and often in everyday life, speaking and reading English has become almost indispensable: explanatory notes, scientific information, many documents, Internet…
Moreover, it has become common to travel abroad, where speaking English makes everything much easier and can allow some amazing encounters.
It is also very important to be ready to live in a foreign country under certain circumstances. When you are able to speak English, everything is much easier. When my children started getting into graduate school and working life, I could see even more how their knowledge of the English language made things so much easier.
Consequently, in 1988-1989, I did many researches on language learning. Returning to the theory of sensitive periods of Maria Montessori, it then seemed essential to me to introduce a second language during the sensitive period of language, before 7 years old and as soon as possible.
Indeed, until this age, children are fascinated by everything related to language and have the ability to integrate all that corresponds to the vocabulary without making the slightest effort. In addition, they have no inhibition and can repeat anything without fear of being ashamed.
It is also a time when the child’s senses are developing fast and his brain plasticity is booming. His hearing is so sharp that he perceives perfectly the music of another language. This enables him to speak a second language with a completely perfect accent.
If you want your child to speak a second language as its native one, it is essential that he only thinks in that language without ever having to translate it in its mind. To achieve this, the child must be in total immersion. His teacher has to teach in his native language. He shall in no case do the translation even if the child displays his misunderstanding. He must only speak in the language he is teaching.
This is exactly the same thing in families whose parents have different native languages. It is essential that each parent speak one language and one only, always the same.
It is also essential that the teacher has his own class because when an English and a French teacher share the same class this leaves the child the choice of the ease by speaking one or the other according to his first language, greatly reducing the foreign language immersion.
When the child is in a class during a half day with a teacher who speaks only English, he has no choice; he must speak to his teacher, trying to be understood and to understand what is said. Thus he begins to utter his first words.
However, my concern was to put children in not too much difficulty. The environment of a Montessori classroom is therefore a huge help. Indeed, the child can find in each classroom the same material, he can continue his activities and is definitely not lost. He takes the material on the shelf and can keep himself busy even if he does not understand. Moreover, because he knows in his own language the name of the material he handles, he will quickly make the link with the word in English.
This is exactly the same for children whose parents are often changing countries. Montessori schools with their specific equipment help these children to adapt.
For me, the important thing is not only learning a new language. The cultural transmission is also essential. Indeed, if we want to adapt and understand foreigners, vocabulary knowledge is important but not sufficient. You have to be able to understand how the other one thinks, what is his lifestyle, traditions, culture…
This is why it is imperative that teachers teach their native language and transmits their culture at the same time as their language. This requires each teacher to have his own classroom. Thus the settling, the organization, how to manage will allow the child to immerse himself in another culture (the friezes of letters are in English, the legends of the posters too, books in the library, reading materials, math, geography, science and history is written in English…).
Very quickly the child will realize that if other people live differently, that’s not why they are inferior or superior. He will develop a high tolerance. Furthermore, when this child, even older, will be in contact with people speaking this language, he will adapt his attitudes much better and understand others’ reactions. With this adaption faculty, he will implement it in any new situation, especially in an insightful understanding of its future environment in the student, professional or private world and their specific requirements.
So I decided that children would follow half days in one language and the other half-day in the other language. To make them feel good in an environment in which they do not understand the language, it was important that the course of each half-day was the same. If we started by doing a collective activity about the date, weather, season… the other half day has to take place in the same way.
So the kids could make the direct link between the same two words in different languages.
The child learns to read in both languages at the same time, beginning with letters that sound the same. Once he understood the mechanics of reading and has acquired some vocabulary, he can learn in both languages very easily.
Some parents believe that learning to read simultaneously in two different languages impedes learning. I can attest the opposite: my long experience has shown me that this is not a problem.
Of course we must be patient. You do not become fluent in a few months. Parents often ask me how long it will take. It’s a question I cannot answer because, again, it’s very different from one child to another. Often the first year, the child begins to understand and can say simple things of everyday life. The second year he speaks more and understands almost everything. Then, the progression depends on many things and especially on what is done at home: do children watch English films? Do they listen to English music?
It is also important that they study, in English class on books or files from English-speaking countries (above all no French textbook). So, again, there is no translation and the child can learn like a real little English pupil.
It is also very positive that they take Cambridge exams: the Young Learners one. These exams are well integrated in the Montessori pedagogy because children are presented only when they are ready. Therefore they never fail, getting a number of patches according to their performance.
These exams include listening tests, reading, writing and conversation. Cambridge examiners make children take the tests in real Cambridge exams conditions.
This allows teachers and parents to realize the true level of each child, which is very motivating. In addition children – and their parents – are extremely proud to take exams at a really young age.
This way of learning a foreign language must continue at least until the end of primary school. It is then easy, natural and effortless. For twenty years I have implemented these methods in my school, I proved hundreds of times its effectiveness in light of the success of most of my students in the Cambridge exams and in their entrance in great Universities.
My youngest daughter Angelique, for example, has only learned English in my Montessori School. She never studied abroad and never had an English Baby-Sitter. I am proud to say she was admitted to the prestigious University of Warwick in England, at 17 years old, where she studies business and management. My oldest son, Stanislas, in the same case, got the grade of 20 out of 20 in English for the entrance in a Business School. Many of my former students use English in particular, but also Spanish and other languages, fluently in their daily lives.
Children who have benefited from this bilingual and even multilingual method of teaching, from the earliest age in total immersion, are much more tolerant, more open to other cultures and are eager to learn other languages and to discover new countries. Having studied several languages from an early age is very positive for them because now they are open to such learning. The additional language is learned more easily, the brain being totally used to doing this work.
“These cables were installed during the construction of language affecting the whole future of the child.
Indeed, what happens in the neurological domain, is that some connections between neurons (synapses) are solicited when the malleability of the brain cortex works in full swing, connections that, in monolingual children, were closed at the age of language with the result that a cognitive window is closed forever.
In addition to excellent results in language ability, it was also observed bilingual or multilingual children have a mental flexibility, mobility and conceptual capacity to solve problems much larger than monolingual children.
The impact is particularly impressive in the field of mathematics where children from bilingual education have consistently higher scores than their monolingual peers.
This phenomenon is explained by the intellectual stimulation provided by bilingualism. Specifically, phonological, grammatical and computing abilities are governed by the same brain area: the frontal one (Broca’s area). Thus stimulation of this area by early bilingualism leads to the creation of many neuronal connections that would have a direct impact on the intellectual potential. “
Ref : Maria Kihlstedt – The benefits of an early bilingualism.