Introduction to Language
Language can be defined as,
‘a system of communication consisting of sounds, words and grammar, or the system of communication used by the people of a particular country or profession’
(Cambridge Online Dictionaries, Cambridge University Press, on 10th Nov 2011 at http://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/british/language?q=language)
Language is a set of abstract symbols which the group, through convention, uses to indicate a particular idea. It can take many forms, oral, written, signed, symbolic (e.g. + for First Aid) and through gesture. We also use language internally to hold abstract ideas in the mind. In order to acquire language exposure to a group of able users is necessary.
Language has two components, vocabulary and syntax
- Vocabulary – words become linked to their meanings by associations in the brain
- Syntax – gives the relationship between words to create meaningful phrases and sentences
Spoken language connects a limited number of sounds, there are around 44 phonemes in English Language, the exact number depends on the speakers accent, in a systematic order to create infinite meanings
The creative use of language is a unique human attribute, though we are increasingly finding that other species communicate to make plans in groups, establish relationships and Dolphins even simplify language when communicating with their young. As far as we understand, only humans have the capacity to enjoy the detailed nuances of language for it’s own sake, for artistic, cultural and even humorous purposes. Each human has the capacity to use language to express our ideas in a unique way. This role in our culture makes it out most powerful tool, for advancing our thoughts and bringing human beings together – it is the root of our civilisation – as evidenced by the way that humour differs from one language to the next and that a piece of writing must be translated by an emotive as well as technical mind.
Alongside the will and memory Dr Montessori refers to language as a ‘psychic organ’, which a child must build from scratch the whole of human achievement. After exposure to spoken language the child speaks and at certain point in an individuals development it becomes convenient to ‘fix’ the language with graphic symbols – allowing information to be transferred through time and space. She draws a parallel between the development of communities, developing syllables with meaning, forming words, using drawings and later developing a written language to that of each individuals acquiring oral and written language and the ability to read the writing of another. (However, many individuals and communities have successfully developed other ways to record information which do not require writing and reading.)
The Mechanism of Language Development in the Child
Language is developed in the formative years by the Absorbent Mind, during the Sensitive Periods for Language and Order and with the Tendencies, to communicate, explore and be gregarious, to do this it must be a stimulating part of the child’s environment. The child’s ability to acquire language allows her to pick up those languages to which she is exposed. To acquire them involves the sense organ, the Central Nervous System, the larynx, the diaphragm and intercostal muscles (for breathing), the pharynx (throat) and the muscles of the mouth and face, each of which have their own role in speech production.
In right handed people the right hemisphere pays particular attention to spoken human language and pronunciation, searching for the associations and meanings of the vocabulary and syntax, while the left attends to tones, pitch and rhythm. The Auditory Processing Area listens for speech and it’s meaning, music and noises. While the Motor Speech Area co-ordinates the various parts listed above to physically produce sounds. While these areas exist from birth, children need to be stimulated by their environment to synchronise these parts to function systematically.
The child takes in a great deal of language passively through the Unconscious Absorbent Mind and strives to imitate the behaviour she sees because of her ‘Link of Love’.
Preparation for Language Production
To speak the child needs;
- Auditory Processing Area – the child becomes able to connect the spoken language she hears. To do this the child needs to hear clear, rich spoken language.
- Motor Speech Area – muscles become strengthened and co-ordinated, the child needs permission to suckle, blow bubbles, babble, produce proto-speech
- A desire to communicate with others, she needs a secure, confident environment, to be confident, healthy and sufficient stimulation to produce curiosity which drives the need to speak.
The milestones for language acquisition are universal, they require immense inner development, a continuous and unconscious acquisition which intermittently ‘explodes’ from it’s latency, the language which is understood by the child is not in proportion to the language she initiates.
Stages of Language Acquisition
There are two phases;
- Pre-linguistic Stage (twenty weeks after conception to one year)
- Linguistic Stage (one to three years)
- Pre-linguistic Stage (twenty weeks after conception to one year)
Beginning in the womb the foetus enters into the Sensitive Period for language, she is soothed by the voices of her parents. By three months old her muscles have developed sufficiently so that she can turn her head in the speakers direction and she watches the movements of the lips with fascination. At three to four months the child begins to babble vowel sounds, to ‘coo’ and at five months makes those consonants which are performed by the muscles used to suckle, particularly, ‘m’, ‘t’, ‘k’ and ‘g’ and links them to the vowels. At eight to ten months she becomes aware that the sounds used by humans have meaning and that many require a response from her (e.g. ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’ require waves, she recognises the sound of a kiss being blown and the inhibiting command, ‘no’). By the end of her first year she is able to compare and comprehend sounds and make her first word – conscious intelligence has arrived.
- Linguistic Stage (one to three years)
The child increases her vocabulary, babbling with meaning, intent to satisfy her needs through language. The Auditory Processing Area recognises the sounds but the muscles of the Motor Speech Area are unable to articulate it – she must strengthen the Horme, putting effort into co-ordinating the various parts used in speech production in an orderly way (this is helped by the Sensitive Period for Order). To do this the baby talks to herself, she is able to use nouns to make requests (e.g. ‘banana’, ‘juice’) though she often uses ‘hollow phrases’ her own sounds consistently for the same object, these will be understood by her carers though they are not the one belonging to the adult language (e.g. ‘nana’, ‘uce’). Simultaneously the child begins to use ‘fusive words’ where two nouns run together forming a command (e.g. ‘mummy lunch’ become ‘munch’).
At the age of two years the child has an ‘explosion of words’, with two hundred words at her disposal, including many different parts of speech – nouns, verbs, adjectives, conjunctions, and a few months later she has an ‘explosion into sentences’, allowing her to verbally express her thought and feelings and use the future tense. Her pronunciation improves and she becomes increasingly articulate. She is able to differentiate similar ideas (e.g. ‘big’ from ‘tall’). The quality of the child’s language will depend on her experiences, but she may have five hundred words by the time she is two and a half and is ready to enter the Casa.
Montessori’s Approach to Language
Language in the Casa is offered a a developmental activity, responding to the child’s needs and as an ‘aid to life’, the child is linked to various activities through which she will teach language to herself. Her learning builds on her past achievements, which her Absorbent Mind, her Sensitive Periods for Language and Order and her Tendencies to explore, to communicate and to be gregarious have already unconsciously and globally acquired. In the Casa her spoken language is refined and consolidated as at this time her Sensitive Period for Language is at it’s peak. Conscious and confident of what she has already learnt she becomes able to express herself more clearly.
The verbal activities provide the base and are the starting point for other opportunities, for the child to develop writing (expressing herself) reading (understanding the thoughts of others, which requires more intellectual maturity) and further social skills which will drive her need to express herself. The verbal activities continue throughout the child’s time in the Casa.
The Role of the Adult in the Casa
- The Child’s speech should be carefully listened to, it is a good idea to reflect back what the child has said to check you understand and demonstrate clear pronunciation. The freedom to speak encourages her expression and self confidence. The adult acts as an interpreter supplying the words which the child searches for.
- Children must be exposed to clear, rich, precise language – the same as one would use to speak to an adult, treating the child as an equal member of the group and aiding the child’s tendencies towards gregariousness and communication.
- To self express the child must feel secure, respected and valued – this enhances both her language and emotional development.
- A variety of positive, rich, factual experiences provide stimulus for expression and increased use of vocabulary.
Duties of the Director to the Child entering the Casa
The Director herself is a ‘means of development’, in the field of language, she aims to increase the quality and quantity of the child’s spoken language through clear conversation and the accurate and specific giving of terminology. She allows the child to follow her freedom to speak and to be patiently heard, responding appropriately and allowing the child to communicate with her peers. The Director links the child to the Prepared Environment – refining and consolidating her spoken language of objects used for the Exercises of Practical Life and giving adjectives alongside the Sensorial Materials. This language will later be used in Reading and Writing activities.
Assistance offered to help the Child develop Skills
Experience precedes the development of language
I Enrichment of the vocabulary – the development of self expression
II Communication Skills – opportunities to practice
I Enrichment of the vocabulary
Precise terminology is given through the ‘Orientation Game’, at three years, during the child’s ‘What?’ period when she is eager to receive the names for objects and parts of objects which, until now, she has been unconsciously exposed to and those which are new to her. During the Game the child is asked to perform a specific item related to an object, e.g. ‘close the window’, later objects used for the Exercises of Practical Life are shown and named, later still the child is shown their function and how to carry them. The child’s attention is drawn to how some objects have the same name but are different, brushes and lids for example and to the fact that each object itself contains many parts which have names.
Nouns are offered throughout the day in an informal manner, conversationally and while the Exercises of Practical Life are being presented (e.g. jug, pipette), verbs are given in the naming of the activity (e.g. pouring, rolling, polishing). The child’s attention can also be drawn to objects in the garden or on Neighbourhood or Nature walks. Adjectives increase the child’s vocabulary and help her to classify her environment. Precise words are formally offered for the properties of matter after the child has had sufficient experience with the Sensorial Activities, (e.g. light and dark, rough and smooth, thick and thin, and the comparatives and superlatives relating to these). The technical words help the child to classify her experiences.
II Communication Skills
Terminology is offered in Grace and Courtesy activities, which offer the language of formal social life to small groups (e.g. please, thank you, sorry, excuse me, may I?) and shown actions such as greeting, offering and moving with quiet consciousness. These experience give the opportunity for the child to conduct herself in a harmonious way within the Casa and her society and give her a sense of dignity and confidence.
News Period and structured conversations offer the child an chance to listen to others, hear the Director present information about herself and try to present information about her own news to a small invited group. The child has the opportunity to speak front of a group and to listen to others.
Classification Cards and Pictures
The child is shown known objects and given their names, then classified pictures of those familiar objects are shown in the ‘Environment Cards’, here the Director shows pictures of the Home Environment and teaches the names of the rooms a child cannot identify. The Director discusses the objects and activities associated with each room. Later cards with neighbourhood scenes represent the child’s wider (social) environment, including buildings found in her town, local street scenes and still later images from wider culture are shown showing plants, animals, artists, dances, costumes, climates and regions.
Stories and Poems
Based on the child’s age and interest stories and poems help her expand her vocabulary and appreciate the style and structure of language. A child entering the Casa benefits from narratives about her ‘real world’, everyday experiences, the power to imagine and differentiate between fact and fiction comes later. Beautiful, purposeful illustration enhances the experience. Reciting poems and rhymes appals to the child’s developing auditory sense, use poems which can be learnt and have relevant content as well as purely aesthetic, entertaining ones.
The child is presented with simple songs, with lyrics that relate to ‘real life’, broadening out from aspects of her own culture to regional and global levels – singing songs should remain a purposeful activity.
- The Question Game – The child is encouraged to ask questions around a story given by the Director, possibly illustrated by pictures or objects, in the beginning the Director emphasises questions about the verb, subject and object. This helps the child to develop logical thought and prepares her for written compositions.
- Phonetical I SPY Game – This game, with many stages of complexity, is used to draw attention to the fact that each word can be divided into phonemes. This helps to improve the child’s articulation and indirectly preparing for writing and reading, words start of simple building up to ones which contain many phonemes drawing attention to the volatile (temporary) nature of sounds.
- Later the ‘Function of Words Game’ introduces children to a group of nouns, verbs or adverbs through short preliminary group. Later, at the reading stage the child will become familiar at decoding the meaning behind the different forms of syntax.
Strong Oral skills make it simpler for a child to develop writing and reading, to express herself directly and to be understood clearly. Other basic skills are also necessary for writing and reading, including the developing conscious co-ordination of movement, uniting the will, intelligence and motor movement. Exercises of Practical Life and using Sensorial Materials have been developing the child’s ability to co-ordinate her movements and discriminate shapes, a lightness of touch, and her capacity for will-power, concentration, to work independently, resilience and to make choices.
Later when the child can read the Environment Cards and Orientation Game are revisited, only the Director will write and later give printed slips with commands or labels for the child to read and place. The Question Game is extended to include all parts of speech with questions given to identify adjectives and adverbial phrases and along with the News Period, stories and poems may be discussed and used as a basis for the child’s own writing
Writing (graphic self expression) enables thoughts to be recorded and transmitted through time and space. In an established Casa writing is a developmental activity which is performed as a culmination of many lengthy indirect and direct presentations, which help the child develop the use of the hand and the mind. Like oral language development, writing is self expression which requires the confidence and desire to communicate and the knowledge of content. Writing has two aspects; intellectual and physical, beginning with an idea sparked in the mind, translation of content into unspoken words in the thinkers conscious intellect into oral language and then the mental ability to break the phonemes into graphemes and finally the physical ability to produce the graphemes (in phonetic alphabets such as English and Hindi).
The preparations of the mind and the hand take place independently, although they follow convergent lines of development, the intellect develops before the motor mechanism (just as the intellectual processing of heard language occurs before the physical ability to produce it). The Metal Insets and the Sand Paper Letters prepare the child’s hand for using the instrument of writing. While the Moveable Alphabet allows the child to express her intellectual drive towards the ‘Explosion into Writing’, so that when the child is able to begin writing without hurrying the hands full development. When the hand is ready at around four and a half years the indirect preparations allow the child to feels as though she is writing spontaneously. Ideally the child writes in the same way she speaks, making an account of her experiences, rather than being told what to write, conversations, oral work and exposure to real world experiences are used to inspire content for the child’s writing.
Dr Montessori observed that children were not interested in reading until sometime after the ‘Explosion into Writing’. She concluded that the child’s natural rhythm of development brings her own to express her thoughts before deciphering those of others. Reading calls for a higher level of intellectual development, indirectly prepared for by;
- Correct Pronunciation
- Correct and Specific Vocabulary
The pronunciation and vocabulary are enriched through Conversation, News Period, the Question game, I Spy and Oral Phonetical Analysis, so the child has a large range of vocabulary she can understand as the writer may use terms she doesn’t herself use. By being a writer the child has an incite into the mind of an author, the things that might be written and at a certain stage spontaneously becomes interested in the thoughts of others and will be seen trying to read words in her environment.
The Child’s reading begins with Object Box I in which she attempts the ‘read the mind’ of the Director, who writes short phonetic words which pair with objects the child can identify. She is then encouraged to read short phonetic words from the Reading Baskets and Phonetic Booklets. However, to read even the simplest sentence in English she must also be able to recognise some ‘Puzzle Words’, words which are puzzling because they are not phonetic, so they are taught. The child now has experienced some double consonants and words in which graphemes are made of two or more letters these activities are presented later than or alongside the Green Sand Paper Letters which can be revisited at any time to help with the convergence of the child’s oral, auditory and kinaesthetic ability) to match the graphemes she reads with the phonemes. In unphonetic languages working with the Reading Folders helps to distinguish common patterns for graphemes and phonemes which match more problematically. Now unphontic material is available for the child to read and she is able to use printed labels to identify objects in the Environment, her Casa, home, local environment and culture.
The child begins to play the ‘Function of Word Games and eventually follows the Interpretative Reading, fully understanding the nature of the adverb she is preparing for drama, she has an understanding of the authors intent and character and so is now considered to be capable of “Total Reading”. She fully understands the mind of another through graphemes, is an independent, satisfied, reader. Comprehending, interpreting and appreciating the thoughts, sentiments and style of the writer. Reading encourages the child to want to produce more writing and to be read herself.
In the Casa reading is
- A purposeful activity
- The activity satisfies a present need
- The skill/disposition acquired is helpful for later activities
- Each difficulty is isolated
- The child is encouraged to explore and have her own experiences
- The child becomes familiar with her language, enjoys it and learns to guide herself.
- Not a subject but a means of development, necessitating discoveries in a secure, nurturing environment which accepts and values her contribution.