Foreign Languages in a Waldorf School July 13 2015

The United States as a monolingual culture – rigidity and judgment about English

In front of the restaurant, famous for its Quebequoise regional cuisine, a cluster of tourists was gathered examining the menu. As one couple read with excitement the menu, glad to find a place with regional cuisine as part of their experience in the beautiful old cit of Quebec, another couple was heard saying, in loud, harsh despair with a sharp New York, distinctively American accent, “Oh no! The whole menu is in French! Can you see anything on there that looks like it could be a steak?” Couple number one turned and explained that the restaurant’s menu was very specifically not American, but devoted to genuine, Quebequoise cuisine. Couple number two expressed disgust and stalked off, expressing loudly their anger and hunger, to find a “better restaurant”.

The first couple was embarrassed at that moment to be fellow Americans with couple number two. The want of grace and respectful curiosity about the culture of the place they were visiting exhibited by their compatriots made them feel that the tag of “ugly American” seemed to be warranted after a display like the one they had just experienced.

In all the talk of “multiculturalism” that seems to never penetrate to the hearts of us all to generate tolerance of the rich variety of cultures in on our beautiful Earth, the Waldorf school curriculum offers a breathtaking and effective alternative approach to building respectful appreciation for the fact that all cultures, though equally valuable, are not at all equal in practices or inner attitudes: foreign language teaching.

The younger the more ease of absorbing international languages
From nursery school age through to grade twelve, Waldorf schools teach foreign languages. It is plural whenever possible –– languages, not language, though budgetary restrictions often make only one language possible. Scientific studies have demonstrated that little children are unusually receptive to learning foreign languages. This receptivity drops dramatically at age five and again at age seven. The decline in receptivity continues as human beings age.

These dry statistics can be made more flexible within different contexts. For example is a child is exposed to a culture that has embedded in it the chance for children to hear many different languages, living in New York city or in Toronto, Ontario, to name a couple of examples, the receptivity might decrease less rapidly.

In the United States, however, with some exceptional pockets in concentrated urban settings, English is all that anyone is likely to hear. With this as the case, it becomes harder to learn different languages and can often increase impatience with those who do not speak American English (or prepare and eat American food, for example!).

In Waldorf schools the receptivity of little children is optimally utilized by introducing in little songs and games a couple of times a week for fifteen or twenty minute, two different languages, languages that are not English. Some Waldorf schools teach German and French, or Spanish, or Mandarin, or Russian. German often appears as one of the languages taught because it is the native tongue of Austrian born Rudolf Steiner. Many Waldorf schools keep Spanish as an anchor language that does not change because of the increasing number of Spanish speaking people in the United States and Canada.

The fruits of foreign language teaching
Waldorf schools continue the practice of having foreign languages twice a week each for two different foreign languages. By the time students who have gone through nursery school to eighth grade reach grade eight, they can be fluent. Many are not much to the alarm from time to time of parents of Waldorf students. The point behind the teaching of foreign languages in Waldorf schools is missed in this sort of alarm. In the end there is a total time of about two months spent on language teaching spread over the many years a child might spend in a Waldorf school. Fluency is hard to attain under these circumstances, though there are many students who are semi-fluent or completely fluent. What is a reliable benefit however, is a courageous ease of learning languages going into high school and adulthood. In addition to this benefit come the crown jewels of foreign language teaching: flexibility of thinking and deeply ingrained tolerance.

To learn from age four or five that different people think in different ways is a very helpful observation to make. To hear foreign languages encourages children to be subliminally aware that languages from different lands can express things in different ways from the ways of our native tongue. Some people put their verbs at the ends of sentences, some in the middle and some in the beginning. This pushes the child’s just-awakening thinking to be more playful in expressing thoughts. It instructs in the profound truth that there is no single correct way to form and to express a thought. The variety is limitless. From early childhood, then, flexibility in approach to formulating thoughts is the seed bed into which ideas are placed. The blossoms from such a prepared garden bed are rich and multifarious indeed!

That people do form thoughts, ideas, and languages differently starts a child’s heart from early imprinting to feel delight in discovering differences instead of impatience that we do not all speak alike. Respect for the differing ways people think things, say things, do things promotes tolerance, respect and delight in the wondrous variety in humanity. More potent than teaching tolerance s an object lesson, a child’s heart becomes wise with knowledge that we all need a chance to say things differently. To be tolerated we need to tolerate and that understanding different languages is exciting, difficult, daring, and very necessary in a good world filled with different people from different cultures! Viva Во многих שונות idiomas!!