Mandarin Language in Our Montessori Setting

Mandarin is the most spoken language in the world by far. The global significance of this cannot be overlooked. Knowing Mandarin will be a huge asset for communicating across cultures both today and in the future.

Beyond the social and communicative benefits of learning Mandarin, your child is also creating stronger neurological connections in the brain that can be used not only to decipher tones, but also to support general concentration and memory. Many brain studies have revealed that the act of learning and knowing more than one language supports executive functions skills, such as paying attention, organizing and planning, initiating tasks and staying focused on them, regulating emotions, and self-monitoring. Learning languages encourages children to rely on their working memory and mental flexibility. Memorizing songs, seeing patterns in language, understanding the relationships between words within one language and across others... this is all helpful in developing the brain’s executive function.

Also, research has shown that learning Mandarin, particularly distinguishing its four tones for the same basic sound, develops the brain’s temporal lobes, which has a positive effect on the way non-language content, such as math, is processed.

Our goal:

Our goal is not fluency. It is to expose children to the sounds of various languages at a time where their brains are completely receptive to this input. Our hope is to peak a child’s curiosityand interest just enough that he or she will want to continue pursuing either Mandarin or Spanish beyond Battery Park Montessori. Our hope also is to spread the importance and benefits of knowing more than one language.

Our language teachers:

All of our language teachers are native speakers that are also trained in the Montessori Method. Having language teachers completely trained in our philosophy is an important distinction to many other language programs for we believe that in order to maximize language learning at this age, children shouldn’t feel as though the languages are “added” classes. Instead, the languages should be incorporated seamlessly in everything we do.

Our Mandarin teacher avoids, where possible, speaking to the children in anything but her native language. Similar to the “one parent, one language” theory – a theory that states that each parent should only speak his or her native language to his or her child – we follow a one teacher, one language approach. Doing this has supported our children in code switching, an important skill of toggling through languages based off of the context and speaker.

Will English be given equal treatment? What about English literacy?

English remains the dominant language of the classroom. Most of our teachers and students are from English-speaking backgrounds. Also, when it comes to learning how to read and write, we begin all of our instruction in English. We will do a light introduction of Mandarin characters if a child is ready for it or to support a child’s fine motor skillsfor handwriting purposes.

What is the schedule?

Our language teachers rotate on a weekly basis. For one week, the Mandarin teacher will be with our Twos, while the Spanish teacher is with the 3-6 year olds. Then, they switch. We have noticed that leaving a language teacher with the children for an entire week versus changing daily gives children and teachers the time to work through concepts and projects without too many disruptions.

How is language taught? What does it look like in the various programs?

As Maria Montessori sagely wrote, “What the hand does, the mind remembers.” Her work and that of language acquisition researchers since, guides our belief that we want children to learn the languages through real-life experiences. Many studies now show that the likelihood to retain anything is much greater if the child has context to go with it.

In our twos program, we use a lot of repetition and songs. The words repeated are often those directly related to what those children need on a daily basis – for example, words for gross motor development (e.g., jump, walk, run), sensorial development (e.g., big, small, red, blue), and building community (e.g., “I will wait” or “thank you”). At this age, we also try to sing songs that match the melodies that many of our children already know in English. In this way, the children can associate the song to a greater theme (e.g., twinkle-twinkle little star sung in Mandarin will help a child recognize that “estrella” in Spanish means "star" in English).

In our full day 3-6 year old program, we use an immersive approach in the morning followed by explicit language instruction in the afternoon. The morning involves the language teacher going around to children and presenting them lessons, either individually or in small groups, with classical Montessori materials. Children are introduced to a concept in English first by their English-speaking teachers and the language teacher will repeat the lesson in Mandarin providing children with an introduction to the Mandarin vocabulary. Doing this not only teaches children the vocabulary for certain concepts, but also reinforces skills through additional practice. The language teacher is a part of the circle-time rotation throughout the week – it is during this time that the children sing songs, learn vocabulary words as a whole group, or receive a lesson on something that pertains to the care of the classroom environment.

In the afternoon, the language teacher gives explicit language instruction to the children. It is during this time that children receive instruction on specific vocabulary and phrases, on the conventions of the language and on tones. We have a theme per week ranging from greetings to modes of transportation. During this time, the language teachers also work to fold in real-life experiences so that children can learn vocabulary by doing: In the winter, we have weekly cooking classes where children learn vocabulary for cooking-ware and table manners. In the spring, our language teachers take our full day children to the urban farm plot at Battery Park. During their walk to and from and while there, they are learning the vocabulary for the natural environment that surrounds us.

How do you support children whose native language is Mandarin?

For children that come to us predominantly speaking Mandarin, we will work with the family and the child to both develop the child’s English speaking skills and continue to develop the child’s Mandarin speaking skills. Children learn from their peers and, where possible, we look for possible exchanges that will linguistically benefit both our native English and Mandarin speakers.

How do I support my child if I don’t speak those languages?

If you do not know how to speak Mandarin or do not have daily access to the language in your home, there are a number of things you could do to support your child:

  • Music is a wonderful way to engage your child in the learning of another language
  • Consider your community and the diversity of NYC – Set up play dates with Spanish or Mandarin speaking friends
  • Have fun! At this age, children’s natural curiosity is on our side. Be mindful not to push a child so much that he or she may inadvertently turn off to the possibility of learning another language for good.