“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.”