Spanish in Elementary: Making Connections with a Child’s First Language

by Sean Goff

Children are experts at recognizing patterns. The human brain is especially calibrated to distinguish and categorize information, and this is never more evident than when children are exposed to a new language in a Montessori environment.

By the time a child has entered the Elementary classroom, they have acquired enough language to communicate their needs effectively, and many have begun to experiment with new, more nuanced ways of utilizing their first language (hyperbole, innuendo, sarcasm, etc.). At the same time, children are learning to articulate the rules governing that language, one they absorbed and started using effortlessly without even realizing they were doing so: What is a noun? What is a pronoun? What is an adjective? The importance of learning these rules becomes clear when children start to learn Spanish, a language that shares many grammar rules with English.

Making connections between English and Spanish is the key to unlocking this new language. The goal here is to enable the child to decipher patterns in the language and decode it themselves. If a child reads a short sentence and recognizes only one or two words, they may at first be unable to determine its meaning. But if, with guidance, they can recognize the patterns governing the language, they will have taken a very important step in gaining self-sufficiency in their own learning. Let me give you a brief example to illustrate this teaching philosophy:

Here is a short Spanish phrase: La niña bebe agua.

If I told you “La niña” means “the girl” and “agua” means “water,” could you guess the meaning of “bebe?” Taking it a step further, if we define the types of speech in the sentence (La: article, niña: noun, bebe: verb, agua: noun), we can see how Spanish sentence structure often mirrors our own, enabling us to create our own Spanish sentences with different vocabulary. Let’s replace agua with leche or niña with niño. We can start to learn new vocabulary through context and inference.

The benefits of learning any new language lie not only in the practical and cultural aspects of communicating with others. Being exposed to another language also reinforces and gives perspective on child’s first language. The skills gained in the foreign language serve as a wonderful “feedback loop” of information and illumination, and skill in one language fosters skill in another. Incorporated seamlessly into the environment, the Spanish materials are but one of the many tools in the environment that are meant to inspire and bring about a mastery of language as a whole.

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