The Hundred Languages -Loris Malaguzzi

The Hundred Languages



The hundred languages of children

By Kandra Kolehmainen

Although the size of the Earth hasn’t actually changed in the last 100 years, let’s face it — it sure has gotten smaller. Through necessity, desire, or both, our world has become connected in ways that many of us could have never imagined.

Photo by Kandra Kolehmainen

Whether it be business, culture or scientific discovery, the need to communicate with the rest of the world has grown, and continues to grow every day. Historically, one of the greatest barriers to meaningful communication has been language.

We understand the value in speaking a foreign language in today’s ever-shrinking world. But what we fail to realize is that right here at home (or in any home), there are languages spoken every day that we don’t even hear. The languages of smiles and secrets, wonder and excitement, sadness and joy. The truth is that all of our children, even at a very young age, already speak one hundred languages.

The inspiration for the idea of “One Hundred Languages of Children” stems from a poem written by Loris Malguzzi, the founder of the Reggio Emilia philosophy. This poem is filled will joy, exuberance, sadness and truth.In the first half of the poem Malguzzi explains that, to the child, there are a hundred ways of doing many things like thinking, speaking, loving and understanding. Children also have a hundred ways to create and explore their own worlds. Malguzzi stressed the importance of not only allowing children to learn in their own way, but also the freedom to express themselves in a “language” of their choosing.

The second half of the poem details the destruction of the child’s languages by adults. Malguzzi describes “school and culture” as “stealing ninety-nine” of the languages by teaching children to “think without hands,” to “listen and not speak” and to “discover a world that is already there.” The ideas in this poem are the precepts of the Reggio Emilia philosophy. As a Reggio teacher, I see the positive effects of free exploration and expression every day, and every day it becomes easier to see the importance of honoring the child’s language rather than giving them one of our own.

Take for example, the addition of a fish tank to a class of 3- to 5-year-olds in a Reggio school (which was done at our preschool a few years ago). The children are fascinated with the fish and their environment. The water itself, the sound and bubbles of the filter, the colors and shapes of the fish, as well as their habits and movements are noticed by the children. They all use spoken language to describe what they are seeing while watching the fish, but they interpret what they experience in many different ways. A group of children represent the fish through art: both realistic and imaginary fish and sea creatures are drawn and modeled out of clay, and a mural of the ocean is painted. One student wriggles on the floor swimming like a fish, while others act out the fishes’ interactions. A poem is written by two students while the teacher assists with writing and spelling. Another small group of students choose research through books: some to learn about different fish, and others to learn how to care for the fish. Observation continues for three students: two discuss what they are seeing, while one sings along to the swimming.

These children are not only engaged in their experience, but also in the expression of their experience. The truth is, not one of these interpretations are more valid or valuable than any other. Through movement, music, art, reading, drama, science, writing and conversation, these children are each using a language that fits their experience — one that shows who they are and how they see the world. They are showing confidence in themselves and the construction of their own knowledge. With their confidence established, they are more likely to consider the views of others as well as try new forms of expression in the future.

Now place the fish tank in a traditional classroom of children of the same age. Usually a project would be planned prior to the children’s arrival, most likely with an end-product in mind. The teacher first introduces the fish tank and leads a discussion about the fish. She then shows the project that they will be working on — perhaps the students would color and cut out fish that have been copied onto paper to make a mobile, or to glue onto blue construction paper. The children then learn to write the word “fish” as well as the names of the fish. The teacher then reads a fish related story to the children. If they are lucky, the children will have time to draw fish of their own, or work on their own project. (In many classrooms the fish tank would be introduced and discussed, but not even a pre-planned project would follow.) Although many of these activities have inherent value, that value is lessened when the child doesn’t either have a voice in creating or participating in the activity. Instead, students are given the language in which to interpret their own experiences, and much of the creativity and confidence that could have been gained by such a fascinating subject is lost. The children are asked to learn what their teacher wants them to learn, and in doing so, they realize what their teacher, and society value. If the child enjoys writing and coloring, then they might be happy with their experience. But if they do not they will be bored (and not learn anything), or worse yet, feel like what they enjoy, or excel at, is not valued. Instead of learning the planned lesson, they become reticent to participate and express themselves. This is not a lesson we want any child to learn.

Expression is a driving force in all human beings. When allowed to speak in their chosen language, children become confident in their point of view. They retain their wonder of the world as well as the belief that they really can do anything. They will not be limited to what society accepts and values, but rather feel what we want all children to feel: confidence, self-worth and the importance of following their heart.


(box) Here is Malguzzi’s poem:


The Hundred Languages

No way. The hundred is there.

The child
is made of one hundred.
The child has
a hundred languages
a hundred hands
a hundred thoughts
a hundred ways of thinking
of playing, of speaking.

A hundred always a hundred
ways of listening
of marveling, of loving
a hundred joys
for singing and understanding
a hundred worlds
to discover
a hundred worlds
to invent
a hundred worlds
to dream.

The child has
a hundred languages
(and a hundred hundred hundred more)
but they steal ninety-nine.
The school and the culture
separate the head from the body.
They tell the child:
to think without hands
to do without head
to listen and not to speak
to understand without joy
to love and to marvel
only at Easter and at Christmas.

They tell the child:
to discover the world already there
and of the hundred
they steal ninety-nine.

They tell the child:
that work and play
reality and fantasy
science and imagination
sky and earth
reason and dream
are things
that do not belong together.

And thus they tell the child
that the hundred is not there.
The child says:
No way. The hundred is there.


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