A young child’s brain, it has been said, is the most efficient and powerful learning machine in existence, hardwired to identify and categorize differences between itself and the world around it. This early intelligence is perhaps most significant in the area of communication: babies as young as six months can recognize a discrepancy between a happy voice and an angry face, have an understanding of basic vocabulary, and even use sign language to communicate their wants and needs. This ability to communicate using compositional language is what sets us apart from other species; it is the magic that makes us human.
But how did you or I learn to speak? A parent does not point to a toy and say, “Toy. T-O-Y. That’s a singular noun.” Instead, children are simply immersed in language, and parents use gestures, facial expressions and intonation to communicate meaning before a working vocabulary is firmly established. It is a natural acquisition that relies on the genius of a child’s growing mind.
This magical ability to acquire language is what we language teachers attempt to harness in our lessons, and this instruction is particularly well-suited to young children’s natural ability and development in the Waldorf classroom. Immersed in a constant flow of foreign language, young children sing and play, using vocabulary that they do not always understand, although the feeling and intent behind the language is clear.
As children grow and their ability to analyze language improves, this foundation of music, art and play proves its worth. The rhythm and music of the target language suddenly unfold for them: a lesson on the four seasons reveals to them that they already know three or four songs with this vocabulary, a poem they learned by heart in grade three becomes material for learning the past tense in grade 6. In this way, children are led gently to an understanding of a foreign language, just as they are in their own native tongue, and without pushing them to labor over the nuts and bolts before they are ready.
A natural question emerges: what is the point of foreign language education, particularly if my child does not become fluent in the target language? The answer to that is manifold, but as a parent in a multilingual household, the benefit I value the most is the perspective that speaking another language gives. When we encounter people of different cultures, who speak different languages, my children respond not only with curiosity, but with a feeling of a shared human experience– “They speak a different language, too, Mamma!” This, coupled with the brain benefits of increased concentration, attention, creativity, and memory, make this choice an easy one.
Will my students’ knowledge of German change the world? Probably not. Will they go on to be fluent German speakers? Maybe. But those small changes in their brains, the perspective shift they experience when we begin a lesson, their exposure to a different culture: these things can shape and enrich many lives. And at the very least, they’ll be stretching that capacity we all share, strengthening the communicative muscles that make us human. Not bad.