Paula J Blum, World Language Department Chair Shining Mountain Waldorf School and Association of American Teachers of German (AATG) Professional Consultant
“Kopf, Schulter, Knie und Zehe” sings the first grade German class as they touch their heads, shoulders, knees and toes. Frau Geck, Lower School German teacher at Shining Mountain Waldorf School in Boulder, Colorado, then launches into a game of “Frau Geck sagt” (Simon says). The children balance on one leg, jump up in the air, stand on their chairs and touch their nose, laughing if they do it at the wrong time. Later in the day, third graders join in the retelling of “Die Drei Kleinen Schweinchen” (The Three Little Pigs), giggling when Frau Geck sucks in her cheeks and makes herself look as thin as possible to emphasize how small the wolf has to make himself to fit down the chimney. In these lower school language classes, the students are completely engaged not really noticing that Frau Geck is speaking only German. Across the road in a classroom at the high school, seniors discuss in German the effects of Alzheimer’s on family members and relate stories about people they know with dementia. How did these seniors get from being participatory imitators in the first few grades to being able to converse about a wide range of topics with fluency in the 12th grade. Why do we consider languages so important in a Waldorf school and what kind of fluency can parents expect for their child while in the lower school/middle school language program and at the end of their twelfth grade year?
At Shining Mountain Waldorf School, we teach two languages (German and Spanish) from first grade through eighth and then students choose one of those two languages to continue with through 12th grade. When Rudolf Steiner advised on the curriculum for the first Waldorf school in Stuttgart nearly 100 years ago, he recommended teaching the children two foreign languages in addition to their mother tongue. Stockmeyer1 quotes a passage from a magazine article written by Steiner in 1898 where Steiner stated what the task of a teacher is:
“Primary schools have the enviable task of making the young people into real
people in the truest sense of the word. There the teachers must ask themselves
what natural talents are hidden in every person and what they must bring out in
each child so that the pupil may finally realize his own humanity in balanced
Teaching students is not just about teaching them content, or in our case, a new language. It is “to make the child into a full human being.”3 In a lecture in 1923, Steiner said,
“In Waldorf schools, we follow our feeling that we can indeed help our students develop fully as human beings and find their place in the ranks of humankind. This must be our primary consideration when teaching languages… An outstanding feature of language instruction, however, is that at a Waldorf school we begin teaching two foreign languages… as soon as children begin school at six or seven. Thus we try to give them something that will become increasingly necessary in the future.”4
Steiner went on to explain that a language is deeply rooted in a person’s being. Each language expresses the human element in a different way. Steiner advocated for the teaching of more than one language so that the languages could balance each other in the way they affect human nature. For instance, one language might work on the will whereas another might work on the imagination.5 Learning another language also helps with the schooling of empathy because the students learn to relate to how others feel and think.6 During lectures given in Dornach, Switzerland in 1923, Steiner talked about the goals of language teaching:
“To briefly summarize the aims of language teaching, children should first develop, step by step, a feeling for the correct use of language, then a sense of the beauty of language, and finally the power inherent in linguistic command.”7
How do these goals relate to how much fluency a parent can expect when their children are in the World Language program at a Waldorf school? First of all, we need to discuss what actually is fluency. The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) defines fluency as “the flow in spoken or written language as perceived by the listener or reader. Flow is made possible by clarity of expression, the acceptable ordering of ideas, use of vocabulary and syntax appropriate to the context.”8 Therefore, the fluency is dependent on who is listening to you talk or reading what you have written. Kerstin Hammes, editor of the Fluency Blog, argues that it is difficult to define what fluency is and “as a goal it is so much bigger than it deserves to be. Language learning never stops because it’s culture learning, personal growth and endless improvement.”9 According to the ACTFL Oral Proficiency Interview (OPI) Ratings, the number of contact hours necessary for a student to become an “intermediate” language learner (ability to ask and answer simple questions) is: 480 hours for German and 240 hours for Spanish.10 Please note: These rating are for adult language learners who complete full-time intensive and/or immersion, proficiency-based language training under the supervision of an instructor and with 1-4 students per class. To put our 1-5 lower school World Language program at SMWS in perspective, our students receive 42 hours of instruction per year in German, and 42 hours in Spanish. For students who have been here since 1st grade, that’s a total of 210 hours, for each language. Of course, these are mostly non-consecutive, spread-out hours of elementary school children, as opposed to adults trying to learn a language for their career. As you can see, our numbers fall far short of the intermediate levels. This is one of the reasons why fluency is not a primary goal of our World Language program in the lower school. Rather, we are building a foundation for students to continue to deepen their studies as they progress into middle and high school. Johannes Kiersch points out that “the first stage of learning and speaking a language is bound up with quite specific situations. It is therefore advisable to enlighten parents on this matter, just in case they wonder why Waldorf pupils almost invariably behave outside the classroom as if they had never had any access to the school’s progressive language teaching. It can take years before children are able to free what they have learned from the classroom situation and use it outside school.”11 For example, in order for Frau Geck’s third graders to join in the retelling of “Die Drei Kleinen Schweinchen”, they needed to look at the felt board figures and have Frau Geck there saying it with them. Indeed, they needed to imitate Frau Geck. Steiner talked about this developmental stage of imitation:
“… until nine or ten, children bring with them enough imaginative imitation to enable us to teach a language so that it will be absorbed by their whole being, not just by their forces of soul and spirit.”12
It is during this imitation phase that the children get a feeling for the correct use of language.
By the start of the middle school years, the students will have developed a feeling for the beauty of the language through the learning of poetry, hearing stories and singing songs. Again, we are not aiming for fluency, but instead we are enlivening the students via their feelings. From middle school on, the emphasis is on individualized language as the language teacher creates situations where the students can use their critical judgment and their own imagination. In high school when the students focus on the one language, they can start to build their fluency. At first, this is centered around familiar topics, but by junior year, the students are making jokes in the target language and are already able to discuss a wide variety of topics. When our SMWS seniors graduate in world languages, they can do the following:
- Engage in conversations, provide and obtain information, express feelings and emotions, and exchange opinions.
- Understand and interpret written and spoken language on a variety of topics.
- Present information, concepts, and ideas to an audience of listeners or readers on a variety of topics.
- Reinforce and further their knowledge of other disciplines through the world language.
- Acquire information and recognize the distinctive viewpoints that are only available through the world language and its cultures.
- Demonstrate understanding of the nature of language through comparisons of the language studied and their own.
- Demonstrate understanding of the concept of culture through comparisons of the cultures studied and their own.
It is no wonder that our world language graduates skip levels when they go into language classes in college.
Parents should therefore not be concerned when their lower school child cannot tell them what they learned in the world language class. They can be assured that our 12th graders leave our school as global citizens, ready to communicate in the target language and interact with the world.
- E.A. Karl Stockmeyer, Rudolf Steiner’s Curriculum for Waldorf Schools, trans. Roland Everett-Zade. (East Sussex: Steiner Waldorf Schools Fellowship, 2001), 4.
- Rudolf Steiner, Essay “Secondary Education and Public Life” in “Magazine for Literature”, 1898 referenced in E.A. Karl Stockmeyer, Rudolf Steiner’s Curriculum for Waldorf Schools, trans. Roland Everett-Zade. (East Sussex: Steiner Waldorf Schools Fellowship, 2001), 4.
- Rudolf Steiner, A Modern Art of Education, (Great Barrington, MA: Anthroposophic Press, 2004), 151.
- Ibid, 152.
- Johannes Kiersch, Language Teaching in Steiner Waldorf Schools, (Sussex: Steiner Schools Fellowship Publications, 1997), 22.
- Rudolf Steiner, Soul Economy. Body, Soul and Spirit in Waldorf Education, (Great Barrington, MA: Anthroposophic Press, 2003), 222.
- American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL). “The ACTFL proficiency guidelines 2012 – Glossary.” 2013. Accessed June 18 2018. https://www.actfl.org/publications/guidelines-and-manuals/actfl-proficiency-guidelines-2012/glossary
- The Guardian, “Learning a Language. 10 things you need to know.” The Guardian. Accessed May 8 2018. https://www.theguardian.com/education/2014/oct/30/learning-another-language-ten-tips/
- Language Testing International, “How long does it take to become proficient?” Language Testing International. Accessed June 19 2018. https://www.languagetesting.com/how-long-does-it-take
- Johannes Kiersch, Language Teaching in Steiner Waldorf Schools, (Sussex: Steiner Schools Fellowship Publications, 1997), 64.
- Rudolf Steiner, A Modern Art of Education, (Great Barrington, MA: Anthroposophic Press, 2004), 153.