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A Lack of Research

A personal story into the lack of research on second and additional language learning in Montessori and its implications.

Romali Rosales Chavarria

23 February 2023

In 2014, when I took on the challenge of developing the second language program in my children’s Montessori school, there was not much information available on how to go about it. The only thing I could find was Fafalios' lecture excerpt on Supporting Bilingual Children. I knew I was surely not the first one going down this road and had previous experience as L2 assistant in Infants Community and Children’s House, but I had not looked at it from a research perspective.

The first thing I did was to prepare a questionnaire I sent out to Montessori schools in my country that had Elementary (6-12) programs asking about their experience. I had no response; later I understood that not being a Montessori teacher myself or an experienced Montessorian could have been a barrier. I continued to look for people who could share their experiences with me and conducted interviews with heads of schools and language practitioners. This gave me a landscape of different models of implementation and the complexity of what we were facing, as well as some general understanding.

I then prepared an e-mail for AMI displaying some of the knowledge I had gathered. To my surprise, it was precisely Irene Fafalios who got back to me on request from the AMI secretariat confirming some of my findings and sharing what she herself had encountered in other regions. With this to guide us we went on to attempt to develop a second language program on the go. Sounds familiar?

I knew I had to do grounded research as the only reference I could find on an empirical study was Rosanova’s report, which was not yet available. I also came across Jendza’s first cycle of a participatory action research into foreign languages in Montessori. I had a team of two brilliant language practitioners implementing English as a second language in Children’s House and lower elementary and in upper elementary and the adolescent's program, respectively. We learnt a lot, but we also faced many of the challenges of trying to merge Montessori with second language acquisition not knowing enough about how to create a coherent framework. We also lacked the opportunity to see it unfold and consolidate over time.

When that initial attempt came to an end, starting the three-year action research to develop the second language program for Children’s House was just a natural step. I had a research and a TESOL background together with my 3-6 assistants certificate and the experience of having raised bilingual children who had attended Montessori from a young age, so I had a clear vision that it could surely be done as I had seen it happen in my own context. I “just” needed to unravel the how, and the child could show me that. That was a simple yet naïve thought.

To that end, I knew I had to get immersed in walking the way in this uncharted territory myself, pulling from the research skills I had and the knowledge and experience I had acquired. Even with these on my side, it took a tremendous effort to keep moving forward. Having the support of the principal, the classroom teachers and the parents played an important role. I was also fortunate enough to have time to reflect on my own practice and put it in writing and I had resources at hand to develop what became necessary along the way.

I knew where my shortcomings laid, so I relied on the assistance of Montessori teachers to better understand the elements of the Montessori pedagogy that were still new to me. I kept reading and becoming informed of the aspects of second language learning that seem to be present, but mostly I went back to my data trying to make sense of it, trialing what seemed to work, adjusting what didn’t and leaving aside what I was not ready to discover.

In my experience, this is not a one man’s show and we still know very little to be in a position to turn the instances of effective practices we may know about into sound knowledge that can provide a clear guidance to support the work of teachers and we can also learn from the failures. We need each other and our situated experiences, but we also need proper research that can turn this wealth of information and knowledge into clear elements that reflect a profound understanding of how this aspect of the environment can be better prepared and

assisted by the adults and how it develop naturally in the context of Montessori education.

We also need to reach out to specialists outside Montessori and continue to create the bridges between what this pedagogy has to offer and the discoveries that have been made in other areas and that inform our practice. All this takes time, collaboration, resources and a common vision. However, the acknowledgment that Dr. Montessori stated in relation to the discovery of the child and its true nature also applies to this little parcel: “It is impossible to observe something that is not known. […] Anything new must emerge, so to speak, by its own energies; it must spring forth and strike the mind evoked by what we call chance. Often there is no one more incredulous than the person to whom this happens; he rejects the new fact just like everyone else. The novelty must present itself again and again before it is finally seen, recognised and eagerly received” (The Secret of Childhood:100). I must say this happened to me on the third year of my action research, although it was a few years later, when I wrote my paper, that I realised that the little experiment I had conducted had actually gone beyond my initial expectation by the effect of the environment I could then still not understand (see), but putting it together made it clear and visible to me. That is what we need to achieve and make available, the understanding of how a Montessori environment can become bilingual and what it requires of the prepared adult and the prepared environment to be a natural, ongoing and enjoyable process.

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