What’s the meaning of the 100 Languages?

The idea of “the hundred languages” was originally born of a poem written by Loris Malaguzzi, and later became a famous educational topic. The language of poetry is made of images, metaphors, rhythm: and in fact it is not a theory we can understand at a cognitive, conceptual level and then apply. Does it tickled some of your childhood memories? How does it resonate with all your body and mind? Moreover, a poem evokes specific images through which it tells some universal truth. And in fact, “The hundred languages” does not concern only our everyday work with children, but our idea of who a child is and – after all – our idea of a human being.

The hundred languages poem

After reading the first lines, let’s focus at the word “hundred” for a while. I think this number is a metaphor representing the great multiplicity and richness of the potential that belong to each child. “And a hundred hundred more…”: it’s probably much wider than what we can figure out as adults. That’s why children can always surprise us, for example using things in a way that we could never imagined.

In the meantime, all the hundred and more possibilities are connected in a special way to shape the child uniqueness. In other words, every child holds within himself a unique, personal treasure of hundred. This is why not all the children should necessarily do the same experiences and activities. For example, if a teacher proposes each day a different material to the classroom (watercolors on Monday, oil pastels on Tuesday, clay on Wednesday and so on), that’s not bad itself, children will probably enjoy… But the essence of the hundred languages is something else.

It is not a list of many different materials. It does not concern the quantity of things (“the more I have and I do, the more I will be creative”), but the variety, the molteplicity of the qualities of materials and experiences, so that every child will naturally find his own way, unique and hundred-faceted in the meantime.

However… Continuing to read the poem, something unexpected happens: they steal ninety-nine! How is it possible?

Here there seems to appear a clear division between the child and the adult. So we may wonder: do the Hundred Languages concern only childhood? And if so, until what age? What happen while growing up, where has the Hundred gone when we become adults?
Let’s try starting from the beginning. For a child, everything is a fresh, new encounter. Why should the kitchen be less interesting than the atelier?

A child is completely involved while exploring, with all the senses, body and mind. It is an holistic approach that holds together many dimensions – emotional, cognitive, social, the child’s needs, goals, stories and questions. A child plays and learns at the same time. “Playing with fun and seriously learning” is a division that adults and school make later, and I think this is what Malaguzzi was referring to.

In his book “Art, mind and brain”, Howard Gardner explains that in early years, children begin to use various symbolic skills and expressive languages in a very flowing way, easily moving from one field to another. This is because they do not know anything yet about the culture and conventional uses of things, tools and symbols. Then, after some years (according to Gardner at about 7 years old), children are becoming more interested in cultural patterns, social conventions and rules. They want to understand deeper how things really work, focusing on one thing at a time.

So we could say that growing up, there is a natural movement from an horizontal dimension of connections to a vertical dimension of deepening. In the meantime, the school tends to divide the knowledge in many disciplines. These two dimensions are both necessary, there is not an exclusive opposition: but every age, or better, every developmental stage, will have a different kind of balance between the two.

For what concern the 0/6 age-range, the horizontal direction of connection is fundamental, while becoming older and more interested in the cultural aspects, the number of connections and of the explored languages can become less and less… Of course, later in life this dimension can be hopefully recovered and nurtured by new awarness and knowledge. Anyway, I think this gap can explain why children have 100 while some adults (that remain firm in a phase of specialization) only 20, or maybe only one. We just have to be aware of it and not forget there are other 99!

So how can we (as adults and educators) set up an environment for children according to their hundred possibilities?
Here is a typical proposal that is generally associated to the Reggio approach: some flowers on the table, along with sheets of paper and materials for drawing in different chromatic shades. But how can we say it is consistent with the 100 languages theory, only by looking at one picture, knowing nothing about the context within the proposal was offered? Why did the teacher suggest children to draw a flower? And what was the relationship between the children and that flower?
If the teacher offers this same proposal every year, with every new group of children, it is just an activity, a technique, an experience. That’s not wrong itself, some children will probably enjoy it, but the essence of the hundred languages is something else. And what if children were not interested in the flower at all but focused on the movements of a ladybug that suddenly appeared? What would you do?
Do we actually observe children, listen to them, give them space or maybe are we too worried about expectations and curriculums, following the last trendy pedagogical slogan?

No template can ensure we are really following the path of 100 languages. Why? Because every child is unique, as every teacher or atelierista and each context as well, with its specific cultural and social background. Thus, we are always joining a flexible, dynamic dance, created by the encounter of our identity (along with our pedagogical-artistic knowledge) with children’s identity, within our specific context. What wonderful, neverending intersections… Why always choosing a table with a flower, paper sheets and some drawing materials among the hundred and hundred possibilities?

“The Hundred is there”: what is the unique hundred of your children? As educators, we have an active role in the process and if we take part of it with empathy, we will not fill the child with hundred things, but provide a rich and welcoming environment where a hundred per cent potential of children will flourish.

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