By Mary Cox, with contributions from Lee Sanchez
Walking into our Richland campus, you will see the students receiving lessons in math, literacy, music, and much more. The lessons are, of course, following the Montessori method, but would otherwise appear pretty standard at first glance. If you listen closely, though, you will hear something unique — some of the lessons are being taught in Spanish, and, even in a new language, the students are understanding the subject matter with ease.
We have nearly completed the first year of the bilingual program out our Richland campus, and in that time it has been amazing to witness how quickly our young children have taken to the Spanish language. Lead by our two Spanish-speaking guides, Lee Sanchez and Teresa Cavanagh, primary students in both classrooms have been able to explore the language at their own pace by electing to take lessons in Spanish or English as they wish. “Children are free to choose which lessons they receive in either language at any given time,” explains Lee. “They may avoid individual lessons in a certain language for a season if they desire, or they may choose to immerse themselves extra.” This approach reduces anxiety and transitions, as the child is immersed to their comfort level. Given the agency to decide, many are motivated to dive in. They are eager to engage in Spanish with the barriers of time and fear removed.
While it certainly is an awesome sight to observe, the young children’s adeptness with language is nothing of a surprise to Lee or Teresa. It is a phenomenon supported by decades of neuroscience research and also noted by Dr. Maria Montessori, who observed a unique ability to effortlessly absorb through the senses and permanently store information in children under the age of six. The brains of children age 0-6 collect and store information differently than adults — while adults must work intentionally to learn new information and commit it to memory, children are able to absorb stimuli from their environment which is then stored permanently, consciously or not. During this developmental stage, children have an uncommon mental flexibility that makes introducing a new language less daunting than in adulthood, or even adolescence. “Regardless of whether or not children will continue learning Spanish after attending The Montessori School, the language and mental flexibility will stick with them in a way it would not if it was learned later in life,” says Lee. “They may not remember the language but if they choose to learn it in college, for example, they are likely to learn very quickly or remember much of what they learned. It will also help them learn other languages and subjects in the future.”
The bilingual model employed at our Richland campus, the one-person-one-language model, is used in Montessori schools across the world. Each classroom has two Montessori trained guides, one Spanish speaking and one English speaking. They both give individualized Montessori lessons to the children entirely in their designated language. It fits nicely within the 3-year Montessori curriculum cycle; there is time for children to receive all lessons within their own timing and comfort level. As there is no set Spanish class or Spanish elective like there would be at a traditional school, the children are dually immersed in both Spanish and English daily in multiple subject areas, enabling them to acquire the two languages concurrently. “Children learn to read and write in both languages simultaneously without confusion,” says Lee, excitedly
We are ecstatic with the success of the bilingual program thus far, and are thrilled to continue to see our students thrive in a bilingual, multicultural environment. We are looking forward to seeing how this program will grow and watch our students excel and grow alongside it.
Lee Sanchez is one of two Spanish-speaking guides at our Richland campus. She taught in bilingual Montessori schools in the Dominican Republic for over three years at the primary and elementary levels. She has also taught at the first Montessori school in Guatemala and helped to start their bilingual program. She has a Masters in Education in World Language Instruction from Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota and has written her thesis on simultaneous bilingual literacy development in children ages 3-5.