By Robert Gardner
November 9, 2011

In the first of this two-part series, educational consultant Robert Gardner writes about the crisis Maria Montessori faced when her son, Mario, was born out of wedlock and how that crisis contributed to the development of her thinking about the capacities of children. In this article, Gardner explores how Montessori’s experiences as an “enemy alien” in India during World War II contributed to her understanding of language development in the very young.

Just before the outbreak of World War II, Maria Montessori and her son were invited to visit India. At the time of the invitation, Maria was a mature woman of 69.

It was the beginning of a trip of discovery which had profound implications for Maria and her philosophy. Like her earlier experiences surrounding the birth of her son, the journey to India created another time of crisis, which brought her to new realizations about the unique capacities of the very young.

The stay in India began in 1939 but, unexpectedly, it was to last until 1946, well after World War II had come to a conclusion.

Perhaps it was somewhat naïve of the Montessoris to make the trip to the subcontinent. As part of the British Empire, India was at odds with the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini and his Fascist state. In fact, when Italy declared war on Great Britain on June 10, 1940, Maria and her son were immediately identified as “enemy aliens.” Maria was stunned. Everything in her training and in her personal and religious philosophy placed her squarely against the Italian dictator. Fundamentally she was a pacifist and someone who believed that all people were substantially the same. There was nothing in her ideas that reflected the bombastic and racist notions of Mussolini and the extreme right in Italian political life.

Adding to the trauma of the situation was her son’s actual imprisonment. Maria, in deference to her advanced years (she was almost 70), was allowed to continue with her work in lecturing on the Montessori method to Indian audiences. The difficulty was that, Maria – for all her brilliance as a scholar and a teacher – had no facility with the English language. Without her son’s assistance as an interpreter, she was, quite literally, struck dumb. All around her were sympathetic people with whom she could not communicate beyond the most basic of ways. She was embarrassed and felt a sense of extreme humiliation.

Dark Days in India Lead to Enlightenment

Only an individual who has been in a similar situation could understand how a highly educated person would feel when it is impossible to speak even at the level of a very young child. Those were dark days for Maria and only the kindness of her Indian friends made the situation tolerable.

Out of the sense of isolation and embarrassment, Maria could not help but notice that infants seemed able to absorb a capacity for language innately. She watched in fascination as they learned, in a very short time, the beginnings of their own language (often an Indian dialect) and English. She realized that language acquisition has nothing to do with will or discipline; it was a propensity or drive, which is innate to every child. She also came face to face with the painful realization that after a certain time, the adult faces great difficulty in acquiring a second language.*

She said, famously, that at a point in our maturation our mind does not develop as a child’s does and we simply “grow older.” That point, she theorized, may be at the end of adolescence. It became clear to her that actual language acquisition with complete fluency is largely unconscious in the child. It does not matter how difficult the language – whether it is Latin, Sanskrit, Greek, or any of the thousands of dialects in the world – the child will learn to speak with fluency the language it hears on a daily basis in the home.

Discovering Where the ‘Arc of Development’ Begins

Maria, from her earlier studies of accounts of “wild children” raised in total isolation, knew full well that a child who does not grow hearing language around him or her will not develop the capacity to speak. Such children are mute, not because they have any intrinsic deficiency, but because they have not been exposed to words and sentence structure during their most important developmental period. Further, these children, even after they were returned to civilization, never developed the capacity to converse. Experts who have attempted to reverse this situation in totally isolated children have always been frustrated in their attempts. No amount of remedial effort will reverse the situation.

She agonized over the idea that some children, left in isolation in nurseries, or left with nannies who were either uneducated or not motivated to speak with the children under their care, could actually suffer intellectual damage. It became clear to her that the arc of development began at birth. She actually felt that so-called “poorer” children who were constantly with the parents might fare better linguistically than wealthy children who were deprived of social contact.

Always an avid reader, she commented on a study she had encountered in the 1940s where “some Belgian psychologist had found that the child of two and a half has only 200 or 300 words, but at six he knows thousands. And this all happens without a teacher (other than the family). It is a spontaneous acquisition. After the child has done all this by himself, we send him to school and offer, as a “great treat,” to teach him the alphabet. Her tone is ironic for she had no great admiration for standard educational techniques.

Montessori fully appreciated that the child will only learn to speak fluently a language which he or she hears in the daily environment. Moreover, the capacity to use words and then to create meaningful sentences with all the correct tonalities and correct grammatical structures is something that the child acquires, almost unconsciously, in the process of hearing the language correctly spoken. In an excerpt from her work, The Absorbent Mind, she may have been thinking of her own experience when she said: “In a foreign country, we adults cannot even detect all the sounds we hear, far less reproduce them vocally. We can only use the machinery of our own language; no one but a child can construct his own machinery and so learn to perfection as many languages as he hears spoken about him.”

It has been noted by many observers that even very cultured individuals who do acquire a second language in later life will always speak that language with an accent no matter how diligently they attempt to erase the traces of their mother tongue.

Finding Freedom for Mario

After this time of great trial in Maria’s life and the sense of isolation which she endured, in an unprecedented move for a country at war with Italy, the Indian authorities decided to give Maria Montessori a special gift for her 70th birthday. In a complete and utter surprise, they released Mario from detention and he was able to resume his task as his mother’s helper and official interpreter.

It was only at this point that Maria could begin work on what became her major work. Few individuals realize that The Absorbent Mind, the culmination of all of her thinking and decades of research and observation, had its genesis in India. It was based on her lectures to Indian audiences during her enforced exile. She always lectured in a precise and melodic Italian, which was translated painstakingly by Mario into English.

It is difficult to estimate how fluent Mario was since he was not a highly educated man. Apparently, his mother would gently correct some of his translations from time to time. Later Maria took all of Mario’s notes and wrote an Italian version of the material for a book intended for publication in Italy. It was this Italian version that was eventually translated into English by another Montessori disciple, a gentleman named Claude A. Claremont. The English version was published in Madras, India in 1949. In various editions, the book has sold thousands of copies in the ensuing half century.

Maria’s time of isolation and relative helplessness made her even more empathetic to the state of the child as it develops. The infant has huge capacities that are constantly underestimated by the adult mind. The babbling of a baby may strike the adult observer as mindless and little more than noise. In fact, it is a necessary precursor to the development of language and the entire linguistic variety of a particular tongue. Only the adult who, in a foreign environment, has experienced the helplessness and inadequacy of not being able to communicate with others will fully empathize with the journey of the child. Fundamentally, Maria came to the realization that in many ways the capacities of the developing child are actually greater than our own. This was, and still is, the keystone to her educational approach.

It is strange to see that sometimes periods of crisis can provide an individual with a great gift. Maria Montessori’s experiences, in the unfortunate circumstances surrounding the birth of her child, and her enforced isolation in India, provided her with the gift of insight into the incredible – and previously unimaginable – capacities of the infant.

As a footnote to this story, it is important to realize that the Indian people never forgot Maria Montessori’s contribution to education in their country. In 1970, they honoured her by placing her image on a stamp, which celebrated her presence for so long a duration in their country.

* A famous example of the inability of even a great mind to acquire language in later years is offered by the experience of Napoleon Bonaparte. During his six years of exile in St. Helena after his defeat at the Battle of Waterloo, he never learned to speak more than a few words in English. In part, he depended on a prepubescent English girl, Betsy Balcombe, to act as his interpreter in his interactions with his British captors.