Why World Languages are Integral to Waldorf Education


With three languages balancing each other, a person can stand freely in the center, choosing the language and mindset that best fits any given task. They are not inextricably tethered to one way of thinking about and interacting with the world. This flexibility of thinking can lead to the expert problem-solving skills needed in today's changing job market.

Consonants and vowels, emphasis and intonation.

These are the building blocks of language. Each language expresses the folksoul of a people through sound and structure, the way in which consonants and vowels come together, and how they are pronounced and emphasized. This folksoul can include not only the social conventions and cultural history of a people, but also the very way in which the world at large is perceived.

Students at Cedarwood Waldorf School interact in Spanish and Japanese almost daily, moving smoothly between these and the English language. As the Spanish teacher at Cedarwood, I have been privileged for the past 20 years to be part of the growth of our students' capacities for flexibility of thinking and compassion through their experience of our world language program.

In human development, movement precedes language. The gestures and movements of a baby's limbs are transformed into the movements of their larynx, bringing about the sounds of speech. When a baby hears speech, their tiny larynx also begins to move in sympathy and imitation.

We all begin life as citizens of the world, ready to adapt to the place, culture, language, and family we have arrived in.

Later, in toddlerhood, we begin to internalize this language in order to use it in our thinking processes. This is where a culture, through its language, begins to form how we view, think, and feel about the world.

The place where a language is born -- the very geography, climate, flora, and fauna -- gives form and feeling to the sounds of speech. The conundrum of the western hemisphere is that the languages that are most widely spoken did not originate here. The feeling of the land and the original indigenous languages seems to have seeped into the sound of these European languages over time, softening consonants and opening vowel sounds.

In all speech, consonants bring the essence of form while vowels bring feeling into play. The consonant-to-vowel sound ratio in a language can give us a sense of the nuances of the worldview of a culture.

English has many consonants and words ending in closed sounds, expressing some its Germanic roots. In Spanish, the vowels are more predominant, with most words ending in an open sound. In Latin America, even the consonants are pronounced in a softer way than in Spain, while in some Caribbean areas the vowels sound even more open and some ending consonants fall away entirely. In Japanese, the consonants and vowels are carefully balanced and attention is given to the quiet spaces between: the words not said.

When students have the opportunity to experience and learn these languages from a young age, as they do in a Waldorf school, they can develop the flexibility of thinking that is at the heart of Waldorf education. Indeed, this should be central to all education in the future.

This flexibility of thinking goes beyond the ability to think creatively about diverse subjects to actually develop the capacity to think from different mindsets and perspectives.

With three languages balancing each other, a person can stand freely in the center, choosing the language and mindset that best fits any given task. They are not inextricably tethered to one way of thinking about and interacting with the world. This flexibility of thinking can lead to the expert problem-solving skills needed in today's changing job market.

Most importantly, the capacity to think in different modes and worldviews can offer human beings the freedom to let go of fixed ideas about one another, develop interest and empathy for one another, and engage with the world with compassion.


Michelle Jarvis has been the Spanish teacher at Cedarwood Waldorf School for the past twenty years.