Teaching Children To Be Bilingual

by perry krassner / Dec 11, 2012 / 0 comments

In 1979, I went to teach in Honduras, and I learned a lot about being bilingual. I met a five year old who I came to call bilingual Burt. His American mother spoke Spanish and his Honduran father spoke English. Burt did not know he spoke 2 languages and he did not translate. If you spoke to him in English he responded to you in English, and if you spoke to him in Spanish he responded to you in Spanish. When I learned enough Spanish to talk to him, he still spoke to me in English.


My wife and I are bilingual; I speak Portuguese fluently but often make mistakes that my family loves to laugh at. We have three bilingual children who speak English as well as they do Portuguese. They all prefer to speak Portuguese which is their native language. Research has shown that children who are raised by parents who speak a second language become bilingual. Children who are raised in families where only one of the parents speaks a second language tend to understand both languages but only speak one. If only one parent speaks a language there is no real need or reason for the children to speak both languages.


I have been teaching English to Brazilians and foreigners for over twenty years. In 1990 my wife and I founded Tigrinhos, our multicultural bilingual preschool, in Campinas, Brazil. Our experience as educators and parents has taught us that constantly correcting children is not a good idea. It works better when the teacher/parent repeats what they said correctly and teaches their children through modeling. If someone corrects them too much, children will just stop talking altogether. It is also not a good idea to translate, because young kids do not understand the concept of two languages and translating slows down the learning process. It is better to use pictures, gestures, role playing, and memory games so that children learn by doing and experiencing. When children are taught this way they do not translate; they think in and speak English so they learn much faster.


Tigrinhos, our multicultural bilingual preschool


Teaching English to non English speaking children who can neither read nor write has taught us a lot. It is true what they say about little kids; they are like sponges and learn languages easily but just like sponges they do not retain what they learn so easily. When teaching preschoolers it is imperative to remember; if they do not use it they lose it. Speaking English must be part of their daily routine so that they can live, imitate, and memorize what they are saying on a regular basis.


Children learn when they are having fun. At Tigrinhos we make learning English fun and easy. Our students learn by doing so its great to have them play, sing, clap their hands, stomp their feet, stand up or sit down while they are learning. All our classes have their own fight song, cheer, and magic words that they use on a regular basis. Songs like Head Shoulders, Knees and Toes, Hokey Pokey, and games like Simon Says work very well. Class cheers like: Tigers Tigers are the best! Tigers Tigers never rest! Rhythms like: We are going to the sand box, a great place to be. We are going to the sandbox, so come along with me! They are fun to make up and even more fun for the kids to say. These jingles and rhythms are also a great way to introduce phonics.


Tigrinhos, our multicultural bilingual preschool


At Tigrinhos we begin teaching four month olds.  Newborn children do not understand what their parents are saying and singing about but their parents continue to do so just the same. Our teachers sing, do finger plays, and talk to our pre kindergartners in English just like their parents do at home in their native languages. Our teachers also use a variety of short sentences and commands which our students can quickly understand and learn.


At Tigrinhos our classes are in Portuguese. When we want to teach a specific skill or the kids are studying something specific the classes are in Portuguese. We use English throughout the day from the start of our classes in the big circle to lunch, snack, and packing up to go home. The kids learn English as they do their daily routines. The commands and sentences they hear and respond to are repeated throughout the day. In no time at all, our students are repeating the English phrases that they have been listening and responding to.  


Tigrinhos, our multicultural bilingual preschool


At Tigrinhos we have 4 year olds who have been at our school for 3 years and know a lot of English and new students who have never studied English before in the same class. We have discovered that we can not insist that all our students speak English. They must feel confident and comfortable before they start speaking. Most of our students who have more experience in English speak English to their teachers whereas the new students do not. The new students prefer to just follow or respond to commands until they have the confidence they need to speak. If the teacher says, “Everyone lets go to snack.” The students who do not know English follow what the other students are doing and they too get up and go to snack. New students catch on quickly. In no time at all, our new students are speaking English.


It is important to remember that children can not be taught to read or write in two languages at the same time! All children have a dominant language. They learn how to decode and read in their native language first. Once children can read well in one language the skills they learned are automatically transferred over to their second or third languages they are learning. Writing is a little more complicated because each language has its own set of grammar rules. Children who speak a language correctly also learn to write correctly. That is why it is important to develop a student’s oral communication skills first before teaching them how to write.


Tigrinhos, our multicultural bilingual preschool


If you are not a teacher you can use these same ideas at home. Do daily routines like: brushing teeth, washing hands, cleaning up, setting the table, and memory games in English. Doing these activities becomes a game and your kids will begin to speak English naturally.


Young children learn English by doing concrete activities that are related to what they do on a daily basis. Singing and playing in English are great ways to help children become bilingual. The more English is connected to children’s needs and interests the faster and easier they will learn. 





About me

I have been teaching English as a foreign language for more than 30 years. I have an MAT in Elementary Education from Beloit College in Wisconsin. I have taught English to children and adults in 5 different countries. I have six workbooks designed to teach English to non English speaking children and adults. My wife and I have a bilingual multicultural preschool in Campinas, Brazil. www.tigrinhos.com


All photos courtesy and copyright Perry Krassner