The joyful teaching of world languages in Waldorf schools was initiated by Rudolf Steiner, the founder of Waldorf education. He proposed that world languages should be taught from an early age to make the best use of the powers of imitation that enabled the children to first learn their native language. He recommended that two world languages should be taught beginning in the first grade. Susquehanna Waldorf School follows this recommendation with Mandarin during grades 1-8, Spanish during grades 1-4, and Classical Latin during grades 5-8.

The Waldorf education approach to teaching modern world languages is based on the idea that the primary purpose of world language acquisition is to develop the ability to communicate. All world language teaching in Waldorf schools can also be said to deepen the inner life of the student as the following quotes elucidate.

“Language instruction in the Waldorf School trains the capacity for human sympathy; it is social pedagogy; it is a pedagogy of peace, not through discussion of becoming informed, but through the cultivation of the ability to perceive.” Johannes Kiersch, author of Language Teaching in Steiner-Waldorf Schools

“A person who sympathetically enters into another language opens doors in the soul, becomes sensitized to other peoples and other modes of experiencing reality, and not least of all, learns to understand his or her language better. The new language provides a subtle, contrasting counterbalance that helps offset the one-sidedness of the person’s native tongue and culture.” Michael Navascues, Waldorf Teacher and Professor of Spanish Language at the University of Rhode Island

Modern World Language Study at SWS

“Steiner envisaged (or explained) that modern foreign languages must be learned entirely from the human encounter, from the conversation between teacher and pupils, from dialogue: just as it happens with the mother tongue, through verbal interaction: comprehension and the ability to speak must arise out of the activity.” Cristof Weichert, author, retired Waldorf teacher, and former head of the Pedagogical Section at the Goetheanum.

Mandarin Chinese and Spanish are modern world languages taught at SWS. The following are highlights of each curriculum.

Mandarin Chinese: According to language expert Benjamin Davies, Mandarin Chinese is the hardest language for English speakers to learn. Interestingly, Mandarin Chinese is also the most widely spoken native language in the world. Here at the Susquehanna Waldorf School, children are blessed to have the opportunity to start learning Mandarin in the first grade. Their Mandarin Chinese journey will continue until they graduate in eighth grade. Students take Mandarin Chinese for two periods per week.

In the early grades, the experience of the Mandarin Chinese language is completely oral. Mandarin Chinese has four basic tones and one neutral tone. The tonal nature of the language makes speaking it very hard for English speakers. During the first three years of learning Mandarin Chinese, the main focus is on the auditory inputs. All learning occurs within an oral context through songs, poems, games, activities that involve rhythm, and situational dialogues. The children feel, act, and live the language, connecting with every aspect in an unconscious, playful, and lively way. Through these activities, they not only learn vocabulary and language concepts they also have the opportunity and advantage to lay a strong foundation for the correct tones from the very beginning. In the Waldorf classroom, repetition is imperative for the absorption of the language.

As students continue through to eighth grade, they learn to write Chinese characters and increase their understanding of grammar and syntax. The students memorize ballads, hear and read dramatic stories, recite ancient poems, sing songs from specific regions of China, and learn about traditions and customs. These feed their active interest in other cultures.

Spanish: Learning the Spanish language raises one’s social conscience and cultivates an interest in and respect for others. Susquehanna Waldorf School sees world language study as a window into the soul of another culture. The way we think is expressed through the language we speak. At SWS we nurture a cultural understanding of other people through acquiring their language.

In first grade, Spanish is taught through oral context with verse, song, and activities that involve rhythm, drama, and situational dialogues. In second grade, children learn extensive poems and verse by heart.
Songs, poems, games, and drama are central to all lessons in third grade as is the focus on rhythm. Children relate to emotional content long before they relate to intellectual content. Fourth grade marks the beginning of academic work through the writing of known verses. Continued acquisition of vocabulary is emphasized.

Classical Latin is not a modern language, or is it?

At the Susquehanna Waldorf School, Classical Latin is studied in Grades 5-8. Latin is the universal language of Western civilization. Some of the most sophisticated ideas in the Western world were first expressed in Latin. Latin is a highly organized and logical language. The study of Latin sharpens the mind, cultivates mental alertness, creates keener attention to detail, and develops critical thinking.

Latin is hiding in plain sight in the English language. Since nearly two-thirds of all English words are derived from Latin, the study of Latin gives invaluable insight into English vocabulary and the structure and meaning of complex words. Additionally, a knowledge of Latin provides a window into commonly taught Romance languages such as Spanish, French, and Italian. A grounding in Latin will, in later years, be beneficial to our students when preparing for pre-college testing, graduate testing, and for those who go on to study law, medicine, and other sciences.

Our classical Latin program at SWS brings the Latin language to our students with joy by celebrating ancient festivals, reading myths and legends, discussing archaeological finds, and enlivening elements of Roman culture through the performance of short plays, verse, and poetry. Latin vocabulary and grammar and Classical Latin pronunciation are emphasized in all of the grades.

The Susquehanna Waldorf School’s cohesive manner of presenting our World Language program puts us, along with other Waldorf schools, in the vanguard of language instruction in North America. Our creative approach to teaching world languages fills our students with the joy of learning.

“The heart of the Waldorf method is that education is an art.” Rudolf Steiner

Lisa Sweeney
Classical Latin Teacher
Susquehanna Waldorf School