[This article originally appeared in Volume 5, Issue 1 of Montessori Life, Winter 1993.]
Andrew, age 5, communicates comfortably in three languages. He speaks English at school, Italian to his nanny who has been with his family since his birth, and French at home with his parents. Although English is Andrew's third language, he has no French "accent" like his parents, who still speak English haltingly after more than a year in the States and some knowledge of English from their school days in France.
According to United Nations statistics, children like Andrew are the norm. The number of people around the globe who are multilingual is greater than the number of those who are monolingual. Bilingualism is present in practically every country in the world, at all levels of society, and in all age groups (McLaughlin, 1987). This is sometimes difficult for Americans to appreciate.
Dr. M. J. Rosanova, social psychologist at Yale, traces our attitudes toward multilingualism to a historic contempt for speakers of languages other than English-such as immigrants who often entered U.S. society on the bottom rung. "The United States has managed to construct a social and economic island where monolingualism has come to look 'normal,'" he writes (Rosanova, 1991). "In the age of the Global Village, however, this long-standing illusion threatens to make America look . . . like the village eccentric."
Many educators will agree with Rosanova's assessment. In recent years we have seen greater emphasis placed on second language acquisition in our schools. To be prepared for life in the 21st century, to function within an increasingly interdependent world society, to be free from the petty biases that hinder understanding and from the larger hatreds that lead to confrontation, our children will need to acquire the basic tools of communication-including a working knowledge of other people's languages.
Although early learning of another language is often viewed as exceptional and sometimes as undesirable, studies conducted around age-related issues find that children before the age of 7 tend to acquire second languages with great ease and fluency. Their older brothers and sisters, in traditional high school or college foreign language courses, seldom reach such communicative competence-even after 4 or 5 years of instruction.
In studies of bilingual development in preschool children, Genesee (1987) found that "second language learners who begin language acquisition during the primary language development period ultimately achieve higher levels of proficiency in the long term than those who begin later. In most cases, they achieve native-like levels of proficiency, given adequate and 'naturalistic' exposure (in contrast to formal second-language instruction), whereas older learners do not. This difference has been explained in terms of a neurophysiologically-based critical period for language" (p. 55). Maria Montessori's discovery of the sensitive period for language acquisition has long been validated by research and is often cited in connection with the acquisition of a second language.
Research data, personal observation, and anecdotal information about children like Andrew suggest encouragement of early second language introduction. However, a sizable number of parents and teachers voice reservations about introducing a second language while the first is still in formation, their perception seems to be that exposure to a second will retard the development of the first.
Hakuta (1986), who has written comprehensively on the subject of childhood bilingualism, found that children growing up in homes where two languages are spoken initially treat the two languages as a single system (thereby appearing to confuse them), but they rapidly separate the two grammars. "The commonly held fear that early simultaneous bilingualism causes retardation in language finds little support in data" (p. 231-232). …