Montessori: The Sensitive Period for Language

This is the final post in the Sensitive Periods series. You can find the other posts via this one. ;)

Language is a huge topic and a huge body of knowledge and a very complex human thing, so this sensitive period lasts a full year and a half longer than the others, until six years of age. Perhaps Montessori's most famous quote on the combined powers of the Absorbent Mind and Sensitive Periods is, "The only language men speak perfectly is the one they learn in babyhood when no one can teach them anything at all!"

This is significant. When you stop and think about the fact that children learn a complex language with grammar, syntax, tons of words and verb conjugations all simply by being around it, that is a big deal. It is absolute proof of everything Montessori professed in her theories and it supports all that she designed in terms of giving children the richest, most developmentally appropriate environment within which to learn. I deliberately did not say "teaching children" in that sentence because Montessori never set out to teach children. She observed the peculiarities and natural tendencies of children and noticed their preferences. Then she provided them with a curated space to give them the best chance at flourishing. The learning came from within rather than being deposited from without. It's much different!

So, back to language. The greatest piece of this sensitive period is input. Children need tons and tons of linguistic input. This usually happens naturally. We provide children with exposure to language through speaking to them and speaking to each other in front of them. Children who face their mothers in their strollers rather than facing out tend to speak sooner and better than those who don't. Another important input for language is books. We read at least three books per day to our children, but that is the minimum and usually it's more. It's important that we not overlook children or only give them instruction throughout the day. Children need conversation and to hear descriptions and explanations. You don't need to talk until you're blue in the face every minute, but providing a lot of interaction and dialogue, even one-sided dialogue in the beginning, is good.

In the Montessori classroom, there are so many ways that spoken language is fostered and encouraged. There is even a lesson for having a conversation at an object or picture on the wall. The teacher models-through-doing with the child how to have a conversation about something and then invites the child to do so with another child. Child-to-child communication is something that is almost being lost in our modern lives. It's important that children have time with other children that isn't completely facilitated by an adult.

Symbolic language in the forms of writing and reading are also made possible in the Montessori classroom, following the child's interest and ability as a guide. Three-period lessons are given on the sounds and once a child knows enough sounds, they can progress to building words with the Moveable Alphabet (pictured above) by sounding out and making the words phonetically. This is done with the Moveable Alphabet because the mind is ready before the hand. Reading comes last in Montessori. It is a natural extension of building words to read them back. Then phonetic reading progresses, puzzle words are introduced through three-period lessons and the explosion into reading occurs. The key to this explosion is strong input and use and command of language, orally and communicatively, ahead of time.

The sensitive period for language, like all the other sensitive periods, is the time when a foundation is laid. If a child only learns one language during those years, but gains a commanding grasp and understanding of the intricacies of language and develops a real talent for it, then they would likely have an easy time learning other languages throughout life. Of course, the closer to the sensitive period, the easier, but that love of and strong foundation in language will remain.

How do you see language manifesting in your child? What do you do to foster language development at home?


  1. I waited for signs of interest before introducing letters. I suppose this ties into the sensory period as well, but when he was an infant and younger toddler I deliberately sought out building blocks that did not all have a different color plus a different letter plus a different object on them, versus the classic "alphabet blocks." I was perhaps a bit aggressive in my determination to stave off the ever-earlier "reading readiness/kindergarten prep" type mindset, haha! I just feel like reading is a joy particularly likely to be extinguished by our hyper-competitive academic focus in young children, and so protecting the seedlings of that joy was one of the most "defined" parenting philosophies I had going into this whole thing, I guess.

    We have a game for my older stepsons called Bananagrams that has tons of Scrabble-esque letter tiles in it. Around the time he turned 2, my toddler became briefly obsessed by these tiles and began to ask and talk about each letter, and soon to ask about letters in books we read together, so I took that as a cue to move ahead. I got some alphabet puzzles (I started with lower case and then went to upper case) so that he could feel each letter, turn them around, etc, and he got obsessed with them for a while. Eventually I got a magnetic alphabet and now he enjoys moving the letters around on the fridge. Let me be clear that he is not "making words" by any stretch - just assembling the letters so far, though I can often see him bridging information from books to the letters. There is a book we have where each page features a different character answering "No" to a question, so there's lots of repetition to observe the two letters together matched with the sound of them, and my son will try to "make a no" on the fridge. Usually he does "nu" instead but it still surprises me.

    On the "not so Montessori" side of things, there is an app I love called Endless Alphabet. I like it because it does not call the letters by their names when the child is dragging them into place, but instead uses their phonetic sound. We don't do much iPad time but it's always nice to have apps that help you feel like you can walk a "middle ground" when you just need a few minutes to yourself!

    The linguistic thing that is most precious to me is when I hear my son saying things that sound "like my mother." My mother watches him while I'm at work, and sometimes he will phrase something a certain way, or exclaim "That's a bummer" with just her inflection. It always makes me pause and smile, to hear my mother's "voice" (which I have rarely noticed enough to think of it as anything unique when it comes from her) coming from my little toddler.

  2. this is most interesting to me right now since my son is 2Y3M and not yet speaking. he will say bye and hi (they both sound similar though...) and "baaaa" for "bus" and random words here and there but only when he feels like it. i'm most curious to await the "AHA" moment when the lightbulb goes off ;)

    what compounds the "not speaking" part is that we speak chinese to him at home and he gets english at the montessori daycare/school. but he understands pretty much most of what we say so we are not (too) worried...

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