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Apr 21, 2017

When languages become the business of the youngest

plurilinguisme-beast

110 years ago, Maria Montessori invented the principle of the “absorbing mind” of children. It is a concept that finds its source in the integration and selection of information by children within their psychic life. To find out about this natural learning process, BEAST met with Dominique Godard, founder and managing director of L’Enfant Roi, the first French-language Montessori nurseries in Luxembourg. For several years now, it has been working on stimulating children through language learning, which has become essential in the multilingual and multicultural context of Luxembourg.

Multilingualism is an important concept at L’Enfant Roi. When did it become part of your programme and how is it characterised at your crèches?

Even before our very first crèche opened in 2004, it was obvious that multilingualism would play an active role in our teaching concept. That is why French and German have both been spoken at our crèches from the very beginning; English and Luxembourgish have subsequently been added to the mix.
This approach is fully in line with the ministerial objective of developing quality at educational childcare facilities (SEA), especially as far as the quality of the process is concerned.
The discoveries of Maria Montessori, not least in relation to what she refers to as “the sensitive periods” and the “absorbent mind”, promote the learning of a second language by children from a very young age.
Immersion in a multilingual setting at our crèches takes several forms. Firstly, our teachers speak their mother tongue to the children, which is very important as it allows them to “absorb” the particular features of each language as precisely as possible. Several activities are then carried out which seek to promote language learning. These consist of the particular activities related to our teaching methods, especially the use of our language materials, but also games, music and pictorial art.

How important is it to teach several languages to children from an early age and especially in Luxembourg?

Luxembourg is the very definition of a multilingual country. It is therefore important for children to become familiar, from a very early age, with the various languages spoken in Luxembourg, not least Luxembourgish and French and subsequently German and English.
Besides what is referred to as “ear opening”, which is a natural process that occurs when young children hear several languages from a very early age, the aim here is to prepare children for the school environment in Luxembourg. Indeed, the observations are clear: failure at school is largely due to a poor command of the various languages used at public schools in Luxembourg: that is why the government has instituted the national reference framework for non-formal education to ensure that, among other things, children practice two languages, i.e. Luxembourgish and French, before they start school in Luxembourg.
For any children that do not follow the Luxembourg syllabus, the exposure to several languages is also highly valued because, irrespective of the education system, linguistic ability is rewarding for every child. Indeed, it has been shown that bilingual children are less inclined to be shy and very quickly develop an open mind, no doubt because they are exposed to a multicultural world from a very early age.

What makes your approach unique?

We have chosen linguistic immersion and this has always been our platform: children develop in a bilingual or even a trilingual environment throughout the day.
Observing a group of children exposed to such an environment is an impressive and highly enriching experience: unlike adults, children are not concerned by any complex or embarrassment. Children absorb information, very quickly understand the adult and respond either in the language of the adult or the language in which they feel most at ease. They very quickly know “who says what” and spontaneously address the adult who understands them the best, according to their needs.

Do children understand everything that is said to them? Does language learning continue outside of the crèche?

Naturally, that is often the case and very quickly if they are exposed to a multilingual environment from an early age: i.e. from the age of 1, as required by our Minister responsible for Youth.
Languages are learnt at all levels: informal teaching, as a family, with friends, languages spoken at home…Language is also learnt from birth by parents at home where multiple languages are spoken.
This role is then undertaken by non-formal education, at the crèche and childcare centres, and subsequently by formal education, during the school years of children where emphasis is placed on French and Luxembourgish, which provides a significant springboard for literacy in German.
With these learning platforms, if educational well-being is respected, the children develop thanks to their absorbent spirit in a harmonious and natural multilingual environment.

What challenges will you face in the future in order to continue to develop and improve multilingualism at your crèches?

We are informed of progress in this field by the Minister responsible for Youth, as we are part of a group of experts that are striving to expose everyone to multilingualism. The discussions that we have both with other childcare institutions and with members of the SCRIPT (University of Luxembourg) allow us to ensure that we are on the right track.
In terms of our crèches, we are planning to establish specific language teaching materials. We have created French-Luxembourgish bilingual visual media, we have produced batches of sequential images which are also bilingual, and we are working on a project to produce children’s books.
Besides the willingness of administrators, the pillar of multilingual education is the quality of the management staff at the crèches: we are involved in the recruitment of male and female teachers who have the necessary linguistic qualities to successfully carry out such a project.

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