The Acquisition of Language

“The child bathes in language.” - Delacroix

The acquisition of language is the stuff of magic. It seemingly just happens. One day the child ‘babbles’, as if unable to articulate any words, let alone an appreciation of the world, described with any degree of precision or accuracy. Then, as if all-at-once, the child suddenly starts to speak, more clearly and concisely, somehow able to categorize the world, and even articulate complex thoughts.

What’s happening here?

While children throughout history have naturally come to develop their own language, usually in relations with a parent, guardian, or even institution, there’s something seemingly special about how it almost effortlessly transpires in a Montessori classroom. Needless to say, and it’s important to stress, Montessori believed that everyone learns differently and at their own pace. Yet, at the same time, when a child is placed in the right environment, the magic, as Montessori observed, seems somehow more conducive to development.
What’s at work in this process?

The French philosopher, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, delivered a series of lectures at the University of Paris, the course of which was entitled, “Consciousness and the Acquisition of Language”. Through lecture notes taken by students, we now have written documentation of the content that was presented. This exposition has proven to be illuminating, especially in placing Montessori in a much broader historical, and philosophical context. 

While the focus of the talks was philosophical in nature, it’s helpful to note that Merleau-Ponty expected his students to know more than just the theory. For the written examination in child psychology, for example, he stressed that, “candidates must be able to interpret the results of a Rorschach plate, or be able to analyze a drawing.” 

Whereas Montessori schools typically don’t conduct Rorschach tests, at least not in the front rooms, our guides are, in a very real sense, making daily, actionable observations, trying to help support and personalize the learning experience; and, at the same time, working to empower students to invent their own questions, respond to their own learning needs, having the confidence and charisma to share their drawings, for instance, with the world. 

Montessori works because of the environment. 

One of Merleau-Ponty’s primary remarks into the nature of the acquisition of language directly involves thinking through our relationship with that environment. As he says, “the child receives the ‘sense’ of language from the environment”. At one and the same time, this is a very simple and a very complex thought. It’s important to ask a series of questions: How does the environment structure language? How is that language incorporated by children? How does the environment allow children to find their own expressions? In what way do we prepare such an environment?

In a comment that might help us think through this dynamic, Merleau-Ponty states that, “The working vocabulary of an adult, as well as a child, is much more limited than the vocabulary he understands or which he would know how to use if he really felt the necessity.” 

Which is to say, so many of us are physically capable of using a certain word, we might even have the knowledge of how to actually use it, but we don’t have the necessity, or rather, the right environment in which to express these words - to have these words make sense, so to speak. As a result, we become uncertain, lacking the confidence to try to express the thought - more abstractly. We may understand when a certain word is used, but it’s the context in which it is utilized that helps us articulate what was expressed. 

An example might be helpful to unpack this thought. A Montessori guide might enthuse, “I see some debris on the floor, would you like to help clean it up?” The child looks at the floor, sees some trash that doesn’t belong there, and understands, without knowing he understands, what the word ‘debris’ means. He looks at his environment, sees concretely what the teacher is speaking about, and intuits the problematic. This is the context by which he comes to acquire language.

If we take a step back, and try to place ourselves into the shoes of a child, an individual that has not yet come to adopt the structures of language, but that finds themselves immersed in an environment, we come to understand the challenges, and possibilities, that the environment affords. It becomes important, then, as adults, not to talk down to children, as if they don’t understand, but rather, to support them in their efforts to engage with the world. 

The acquisition of language is magical.

Language can be beautiful and delightful. It has an allure, a toothsome quality that’s hard to escape, and that none of us completely understand. Despite the inexactness of how language is acquired, we know that Montessori leads the way, in how it treats children, creating an environment in which everything has significance, in which everything matters. As Merleau-Ponty writes, “That they have no signification by themselves does not signify that they are insignificant.”

Conversation on Toddlers

Bobby George and Jamie Bauer sit down to have a conversation about the toddler environment. They talk, more specifically, about what the toddler classroom looks like, how it works, and why it is so special. They also touch upon how to prepare children to transition to the primary classroom, and why we, as a society, still have so much yet to learn from the amazing minds of children. We hope you enjoy this second podcast in our series.

Montessori Elementary

We’re looking for someone special. Someone who embraces opportunity, is eager to overcome challenges, and is as inspired about leadership, as they are strengthening the team. We’re not looking for employees, we’re looking for passionate, hardworking optimists. Of course, precision and rigor are important, but so is joy and attitude. This role requires thinking big, as you will be an integral part of pioneering the first accredited AMI Elementary program in the state of South Dakota, but it also requires a commitment to details, because those matter too. So, you see, we want people who imagine things differently, individuals who want to be a part of something bigger than any one of us. Is that you? We're also willing to sponsor the right candidate to complete their Elementary AMI training. 

Profile Jamie Bauer

We can’t wait to introduce you to Mrs. Jamie Bauer. She received a Bachelor’s degree in Elementary education, pursued a teaching career in the public school system, but then decided that environment just wasn’t the right fit for her. Now, in her third year at Baan Dek, she’s gone back to receive her Montessori certification from The Montessori Institute Denver, and has spearheaded our Toddler program. 

Mrs. Bauer has that patience and graciousness that only the best gardeners, farmers and teachers have: the ability to plant seeds, nurture them with care, love, and respect - and believe, above all else, that they will produce amazing things. We're continually inspired by how much Mrs. Bauer has grown, and, more than that, how much she is willing to help everyone grow. We hope you enjoy the conversation.

Q: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself? Your background, your interests, your dreams?

A: I grew up in a small town in Iowa. Until attending Denver for training, Sioux Falls was the biggest city I’ve ever lived in! I have a super cool husband that I met at Northwestern College in Orange City, Iowa. There, I studied Elementary Education with focuses on special education and reading. I worked for 2 years in the public school system, before deciding that it just wasn’t working out. I started looking for alternatives, and began at Baan Dek as an assistant in the primary classroom.

My hobbies? I like reading and outdoor activities, especially in warm weather. I’m not a huge fan of the cold! My husband Aaron and I love to go for bike rides, and breakfast on Saturday morning is our special treat. In Sioux Falls, our go-to is M.B. Haskett, downtown. :)

Recently, I’ve started learning how to use my sewing machine a bit better, although I wouldn’t call myself a seamstress. My mother sews well, and hopefully I’ll learn from her one day.

Q: Now that the hardest question is out of the way: What's your favorite color?

A: Blue or gray, I tend towards those color in all my decorating and clothing.

Q: Switching to Montessori, how did you find out about us? And Montessori in general?

A: In March or April of 2012, I was getting married and didn’t know what I wanted to do, although I knew I didn’t want to go back to a public school. I was a little stressed out about it, and was chatting with a colleague of mine when she mentioned Baan Dek. I shot Bobby and June an email and expressed interest. I got an email in response that said, come on in, let’s chat! The rest is history, I guess...

Q: I guess! What makes Baan Dek unique to you?

A: Baan Dek doesn’t only care about the outcome of the child, but every person we come in contact with, moms, dads, brothers, sisters. We are welcoming and loving and embrace people.

Q: You went to receive your training after working one year as an assistant in the classroom. Did having prior experience shape your training experience? In what way?

A: Having previous experience was really good, I think, because I knew the outcome of what I was learning. I was doing things in reverse, really. I had experience with two through six year olds, then went back to school to learn about children age 18 months to two years. I had experience with children whom I would, essentially, be creating.

Q: Did you have a “Montessori moment”?

A: For me, it was in second grade. I was super shy and didn’t like to talk. At that time, I had a teacher who invested in me as an individual, took time to find out what I was interested in, and to foster it. She made me feel like I was special and had value, and that experience shaped how I wanted to be as an educator. Montessori has that same focus on education as an individual and unique experience.

Q: What advice would you have for someone thinking about receiving their Montessori certification?

A: It’s a job that requires abundant patience and grace and love, and you don’t do it for you, you do it for them.

Traditional education and Montessori may have similar goals, but they are manifested differently. I was teaching for love of children in the public school as well, but there was no freedom in it. Every child had those milestones they needed to achieve, and that was the most important thing, with little flexibility or thought about the child as an individual.

Q: Can you tell us a little more about your training experience in Denver?

A: It was fantastic.  I felt extremely lucky to be at that training center, The Montessori Institute Denver. I went to Denver two consecutive summers, 8 weeks and 9 weeks, while working at Baan Dek in the interim. During the school year, I put in 250 hours of observing children from birth to three, which was so intense! My trainer, Judy, was in the very first A-I class in Italy, which is getting excellent first-hand experience. She was the very first class to be trained for this age group.

Maria Montessori herself wasn’t in charge of the first A-I program, but before she passed, she was in the process of designing the program along with her colleagues.

It was nice to have a little previous experience in the classroom before starting training, but I would say not necessary.

Q: We feel that there are similarities in our path to discovering Montessori. We started down a traditional one, but then had a strenuous transition to get to where we are now. Can you speak about that?

A: Definitely. For me, what caused the switch in mindset was being in the public system. I was in a classroom for high and low achieving students. They have a recommended formula that just wasn’t working for the mixed classroom. It was stressful and hurt my heart, and I felt like I was failing as a teacher. I had learned about Montessori briefly and remember the independence component, and that really resonates with me. So the transition was difficult, and the realization that something needed to change only came after hardship and some self-reflection.

Q: You’ve started the first Montessori toddler program in the state of South Dakota. That’s huge!

A: It feels so exciting! When people ask about what I do, I have such great things to say. At the same time, it’s a big responsibility, and I want to do the age group justice and our school justice. There’s some judgement when I say I work with toddler’s, and I try my best to educate people. At Baan Dek, we strive to be the best of the best, and there’s pride along with responsibility in that.

Q: What are some of the challenges of starting a toddler program?

A: It was hard to build the program from nothing because the toddler environment is a different framework than Primary, which was what I had experience with. Also, because I am the first and only trained Toddler guide, I haven’t had someone to speak with about my decisions. Not having a mentor within the building has been a challenge, but ultimately a good thing. It’s made me be more independent and decisive.

Q: What are your greatest hopes for your students?

I hope that they will learn how to love others and to have a passion for life with self- control. I want them to be passionate, but also in control. I want them to explore and to desire to explore, and to desire everything they can.


Spotlight: How We Montessori

We are greatly looking forward to introducing you to Kylie, operator of one of our favorite blogs on the interwebs, “How we Montessori”. We first came across her site completely by happenstance. We can't remember exactly what we were searching for, or hoping to discover, but we suddenly found ourselves immersed in a treasure trove of rich and meaningful content, written from the perspective of a Montessori parent in Australia. Since then, we return frequently, with the same sense of original delight. Now, we're so very excited to share her story with you.

Q: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself? Your background, your interests, your dreams?

I live in Brisbane, Australia with my husband and two sons. Caspar is seven and Otis is three. My professional background is in Environmental Health which led me to work in Local Government for many years before having children. I grew up in a rural area and although I love the city I also long for wide open spaces. I dream of good friends, good food and a healthy family. I currently blog at How we Montessori and I am a small business owner.

Q: Now that the hardest question is out of the way: What's your favorite colour?

Yellow. It's bright, sunny, warm and optimistic.

Q: Do you have a favorite book? How about a film?

I'm addicted to news and politics which besides Montessori covers most of my reading material.

Q: Can you tell us about your hobbies?

I think more about hobbies than I actually do. Most of my free time is spent researching. I love cooking and I would love to develop more of my professional skills. I would love to try pottery.

Q: Switching to Montessori, did you have a “Montessori Moment”?

I have had many Montessori moments. One that was most special happened at Canberra Montessori School. My son Caspar had already been attending for a couple of years. One afternoon I went to pick him up early for an appointment. The door to the classroom was open and no one knew I was there. I stood out of sight watching the children for few minutes. The sun was streaming in through the large windows, the Directress was with some children washing the class pet, other children were busy working. I had tears in my eyes, the scene was so, so serene and simply beautiful. It was like wow - this is how it is supposed to be! That moment confirmed that I wanted my children in a Montessori school.

I've had many very moving moments observing my own children and their personal achievements. Moments where I can see their sense of achievement on their face, 'yes I did it'. From Otis using his weaning glass to standing and walking - all of these have been Montessori moments for me.

Q: How did you start, “How we Montessori”?

I started blogging as a way to reach out to other parents. I was reading a lot of home Montessori blogs but found them unsatisfying. They didn't give me enough practical information. I wanted to share the details of Montessori in the home, the exact what, where and when. Even today many blogs and Montessori/educational websites touch the surface but very few go deep enough or are honest enough for me.

I also had difficulty getting advice or information from people in my own community. When I was pregnant with Otis I reached out to my local Montessori community. Although there were many experienced Montessori teachers and parents - I couldn't find anyone who had used a floor bed or a Montessori mobile. There were very few Australian resources to help me parent the way I wanted to, the Montessori way from birth.  I personally thought this was outrageous and decided to go on a wholehearted education campaign about infant Montessori. Through the blog I would share step by step, day by day what we were doing. Very soon I formed many close friendships and lots of connections with other parents. I ended up receiving more help than I was giving! Now I have progressed even further with my own store where I stock many of those materials that previously were so hard to find.

Q: It’s such a wonderful resource, and it really presents the importance of a Montessori way of life. Is this how you envisioned it from the start?

I really didn't start with a vision. I started writing from the heart. I wanted to be honest and informative. I wanted to be as true to Montessori as possible and to be an advocate.  I'm not great at communicating especially the depths of Montessori in our home - but I give it a shot and hope that readers can sense our commitment to the philosophy and why it's so important.

Q: Can you share this sense of a life’s journey? What we mean is, some of your readers may have been following along for years…

Very rarely do I stop and look back on our journey. We end up where we are supposed to be. It's wonderful that many relationships formed through the blog have been enduring. I think that time also builds trust. We have walked the walk for many years and it's there for everyone to see. I also love the familiarity that blogging brings. I love hearing from readers who I have known for years and have become good friends. I love that on the blog you can read about Montessori from birth through to primary age. There are a lot moments and experiences within those blog posts.  

Q: We also love your shop. Can you tell us a bit about the inspiration behind your products, and what the process has been like to get it going?

The process has been very difficult and very consuming from the start. I wish I had completed a business degree first! I have made so many business related mistakes but I am learning all the time.

I am inspired by Michael Olaf and the work of Susan Stephenson. I am also inspired by the many makers, the crafters who make Montessori materials. I  wanted a way to bring these makers together and have the materials accessible to Australian families. In Australia there are many toy shops and Montessori school supply places but there wasn't a place where you could buy Montessori materials for infants and toddlers for the home. Previously in Australia you couldn't get Montessori toddler aprons, Interlocking Discs or Gobbi Mobiles. The process of connecting with these makers, parents and Montessori teachers has been a really special part of my life.

The inspiration behind our products is simple. We stock the materials we love and use in our own home. If we haven't used it I don't stock it. Items like the Topponcino are an exception. I couldn't find one when Otis was born but would have used one if I could. It's never really about the materials. It is about what the child can do, it's what they can achieve with the materials that is important!

Q: What’s your favorite education related quote?

It has to be 'follow the child'. I remind myself of this every day. It's not about the parent, what you want the child to do or to experience. It is not about what you want them to learn. It is about meeting the developmental needs of the individual child at that exact moment.

Q: What do you think is the best introduction to Montessori?

Visit a Montessori school, ask around, connect with other parents. Sign up for a toddler class. The internet isn't always a good place for genuine Montessori information. Parents need to have access to real life experiences. Find someone in your community who is Montessori trained and connect. I honestly believe you have to see Montessori in action (in homes or schools) to really understand it's significance.

Q: And lastly, with that in mind, what advice can you give to people who are interested in Montessori, but who aren’t quite sure where to start?

Don't allow yourself to get overwhelmed. Take it step by step. Make small changes. Observe your child and see if the changes are working, if they are continue. If the changes are not working reassess. Montessori puts the child first, life is not a race. I suggest starting by creating a calm and organised home environment, immerse the child in nature and most of all respect the child.