From the Garden of Eden via Babylon to Whitsun

By Alain Denjean, May 2013

Holiday at the seaside. Six- to eight-year-olds are playing on the beach. Two are French, one is Dutch, two German; an Italian joins them. What language do they speak? Each one their own. What language do they hear and understand? All the others. They understand one another because they still experience something of the universal language of feelings, the will and the body in their common play. When in the evening one of the mothers asks: “Does Hans have any brothers and sisters? Where in Germany does he live? How long is he staying here?”, the child will not be able to answer. He does not know. The language of feelings does not deal in retrievable information. It is process, it lives in doing.

Every child is predisposed to learn every language in the world until he or she is eight months old. Thereafter the “mother tongue” or “native language” narrows the universal, feeling-related language ability down to one language and the other languages disappear. According to academic studies, the “other” languages only turn into proper foreign languages after the age of nine or ten. 

Language must be learnt differently at every age

We are dealing here with the development of consciousness and self-awareness. The less awareness people have of themselves, the more intuitively they immerse themselves (with their feeling and will) in the other person and his or her language.

Consciousness develops in various phases and steps which must be dealt with in different educational ways. A first development of consciousness occurs between the ages of two and three and is generally known as the terrible twos. A further step tales place between the ages of four and five. Kindergarten teachers sometimes call children in this phase royal children. They are children who are already more mature and can be given a certain supervisory function over the younger children. At age seven the new world of school begins, at age nine the separation from the parents and the first experience of being an own person. Finally, consciousness develops again at the ages of eleven and twelve. The growing child has increasingly to start using his or her reason in order to have a response to the “enticements” of his or her many different sensory experiences. Foreign language teaching in Waldorf schools takes account of these development steps.

Thus we have purely spoken teaching in lower school. Every little scene, every dance or song, is accompanied – and this is the key factor – by  strong feelings. In the first three classes, children in Waldorf schools learn foreign languages in the same way as the children on the beach play together. When his father asks Peter in the evening what he has learnt in English, Peter will not be able to report a great deal either.

In  middle school the finger games and counting rhymes recede. Awareness of self grows and develops so that now the feeling associated with the imagination instead of the feeling associated with the will becomes more prominent. In foreign language lessons that is the time of the exciting stories and reading matter. The choric games of the lower school grow into little pieces of theatre and sketches. Poems are recited and experienced in their sounds. As the gap between the native tongue and the foreign language continues to grow (a class 2 pupil will intuitively understand more than a class 7 pupil), vocabulary now has to be included in the equation. Before class 6, words which act on the feelings are the key thing. After that the focus shifts to words, vocabulary, which exercise the analytical reasoning, the head of the child. Thus the thinking slowly becomes predominant in the language and replaces the supremacy of feeling. A class 4 or 5 pupil will tell a story by simply listing the events: “First the prince did this, then he did that, and then, and then …” Class 7 and 8 pupils structure their contribution: “The boy did this because …”.

Then, in upper school, the thinking, the powers of imagination are strongly exercised. But the intuitive capacity continues to remain the basis for the artistic work, particularly when dealing with literature.

What does language, what do the languages mean to human beings?

Imagine a pillar in a Greek temple or a Gothic church. It consists of three parts. The middle part links the top with the bottom. Towards the top, the pillar opens out to the capital supporting the vaulted ceiling. Downwards the capital is transformed into a base which is determined by the nature of the ground and locates the whole building in the valley, on the hillside, the plain or the mountain top. Language is like a pillar: the spirit of language is connected with the capital and the heavenly vault, with the intellectual and spiritual life, while the way language is used is determined by the needs of everyday life.

Before the time which we call the “confusion of languages” or the “Tower of Babel”, the original language with its many dialect-like variations was like the capital structure of a temple: an extension of the celestial dome and witness to the universality of the divine order. Then the Tower of Babel was built. What is a tower other than a column with a base but without a capital? With the construction of the Tower of Babel and the attempt of human beings to make it extend to God, and with God’s punishment through the confusion of languages in which no one any longer understood anyone else, language lost its universal power; it splintered into individual bases and shafts. Now the languages were no longer “rooted” in the celestial dome as the original language still had been. The various languages separated from one another and developed their own relationship to the soil, the earth. Civilisations arose in which the quality of their particular terrestrial environment flourished. Just consider how differently the ancient Egyptian, Roman and megalithic cultures treated the earth. The particular characteristics of the different sound systems reflect the characteristics of the landscape. Think of the clicks of the Arabic languages and the desert, the consonants in the Russian language which all have a soft and a hard form, and compare them.

Individualisation through the mother tongue and universalisation through foreign languages

If the human soul turns “downwards” with language, that language becomes the mother tongue, the language of home. The Inuit have many words for snow, desert peoples for camels. Specialisation makes the mother tongue lose its reference to the capital structure, to the choir of the other languages. The other languages, the “foreign languages”, take care of the universal aspect in their choir-like unity. As it becomes more specialised through the mother tongue, the soul needs the addition of foreign languages to achieve its former scope and fullness. One and the same language is mother tongue for some and foreign language for others. Language itself carries the power of synthesis within itself. The human soul enters a relationship with the earth through the mother tongue  which makes it down-to-earth and gives it security and a love of the environment as it can be experienced through the senses. That is why neurologists recommend one main language in multilingual families, optimally that of the social environment, and maintaining the others as secondary mother tongues. The native language gives the human soul its local roots in the soil which it needs for its biography. The human I requires a sounding board in order to become aware of itself. The mother tongue serves as such. The foreign languages, in contrast, create a connection with the world, the human soul becomes “reglobalised”. Rather like the capital on top of the column, they extend our view to the universal side of the I, to the I of humanity. More so, if two foreign languages are learned, the choir of languages can be archetypally experienced in its polyphony.

The sphere of the word requires two things: every human being has the right to his or her mother tongue; thus every language must be allowed to live on earth through the community of its speakers. On the other hand, the choir of languages must be experienced through its polyphony so that the soul avoids restricting itself nationalistically to the narrow confines of its home soil.

Foreign language teaching in Waldorf schools obtains its particular profile out of this fact. Great value is placed on the cultivation of the mother tongue and, starting in class 1, two foreign languages supplement the programme to foster language. Foreign language teaching is not just about learning the language in such a way that we can “function” abroad; it is also about allowing pupils to connect through the special characteristics of the foreign language with the spirit of that language, its culture and way of life so that the soul can expand. For this reason the way that the foreign language is handled is guided by artistic, creative, playful and cultural (literary) aspects, whereby the way that the language is used is differentiated in accordance with the age of the child.

Avoiding old habits

The aspect of the universality of language threatens to be lost in the routine of language teaching: vocabulary lists and stressful translations predominate instead of artistic creativity in structuring the lesson. The special anthropological training of Waldorf teachers aims to overcome such a reversion to the old educational habits.

The aspiring Waldorf teacher learns to handle the polarity in his or her teaching practice. Waldorf teachers take account of the specialising power of language, which awakens the individual aspect, and its universal power which supports what is generally human. The individuality must not be equated with the personality. The personality reveals the individuality to a greater or lesser extent between birth and death. The individuality remains from one incarnation to the next. Here we have a concept in anthroposophy of which not everyone will be aware: when individualities incarnate more than once, the same people keep entering different cultures. Through the Babylonian confusion of languages they obtain the possibility of gradually learning to express the individual aspect in an ever better way.

Every human being is universal

The idea of reincarnation leads to an extended globalisation concept which includes time. The Waldorf foreign language teacher can see that every pupil in their current incarnation speaks German, for example, as their mother tongue, but that they spoke a different mother tongue in past incarnations. That is a sign of the universality which every individual possesses.

But that also means that the actual home of the individuality is the universal and that a personality which is tied to the mother tongue must awaken this universal aspect in himself of herself in order to get to their universal self at all. Thus learning foreign languages can lead to a strengthening of identity. Everyone connects with their own past or works to add to it through the future. The choir of individualised language communities offers the opportunity of recognising oneself in the other person and realising step by step the thought which underlies Whitsun of the all-embracing community of human beings. All people could then deal with one another in the same way that children play on the beach. Then Whitsun would come to pass.

About the author: Alain Denjean is a French and religion teacher at the Uhlandshöhe Waldorf School (Stuttgart) and a lecturer at the Freie Hochschule Stuttgart. He is a foreign language consultant for the German Waldorf schools.