The spoken word is the most primal and the most important form of communication. Maria Montessori has repeatedly mentioned in all her literature that a child “absorbs” a language under the age of six. The child learns all the grammar and every nuance of a language purely by listening to it as people speak or if the child is spoken to in that language.
To support the above, one should read the cover story of The Week magazine (Nov 15th edition – www.theweek.in). It talks about children who have grown up up in the wild. Such children are known as feral children; and more such children have been found in India than any other part of the world.
The article talks about many feral children and adults. I will elaborate on two cases.
Victor of Aveyron was first sighted in 1797. He was about 9 years then. He escaped back into the forest and emerged to live with people in 1800. His body was conditioned to survive in the cold without clothes. He could hear but did not speak. Itard a young medical student spent a lot of time with Victor teaching him to speak but he learnt to say only lait (milk) and Oh Dieu (Oh God), in his lifetime and he died at the age of 40.
Ramu was found in the company of wolves in a jungle in Sultanpur district of U.P. In 1976. He was ten years old and crawled on all fours and preferred raw meat. He was taken to Prem Nivas run by Mother Teresa’s charity. He didn’t take too well to society and he never picked up human speech. He died in 1985 of severe abdominal cramps.
All of the children mentioned in the article have returned home post the age of six years and none of them were able to learn a human language.
Such is the power of the human mind until the age of six years. Maria Montessori called the 1st six years as the sensitive period for language. Once this window is lost, the ability to acquire a language is lost forever.
It has been a norm in India for Children to be multi-lingual or at least bi-lingual. Children learn their mother tongue and English or Hindi, or both. In South India children grow up being exposed to the different south Indian languages and English and Hindi.
Sad to say, but of late it is become a trend to only speak to the child in English, and many children are growing up only knowing English. The child learns an additional language at school, with much difficulty, purely because it is part of the curriculum.
Let us go back to our roots and let each of us make sure that a child who is six years or younger is repeatedly exposed to multiple languages. Children will learn to be multi-lingual which is an advantage to them for life. Let us keep our age old multi-lingual culture alive!