I have an older child now who is learning Spanish in middle-school, after French immersion in elementary, but am emailing to you as a Spanish teacher for young children.

I have spent my professional career teaching Spanish to high school-aged students and older. However, now I am working with a few friends’ children; their parents want them to be exposed to Spanish and to become possibly bilingual. I know the latter is nearly impossible since none of the parents speak Spanish and the girls have little exposure to it outside of their time with me. There is a chance for a babysitter to attend to their needs but the majority of the parents are looking for a more academic approach to their learning.

My concern and question is:  what do you think the best approach is for me during my one-hour a week with them? They enjoy games but become frustrated when they are losing because of language and they refuse to use Spanish during the competition (they are 5, 6, 7, 8 years old). Their competiveness spirit is not helping them use the language. Songs are not their thing. We have used art to describe and speak but I believe they are getting tired of that as well.

Second, do you think one hour is enough since they are not hearing Spanish outside of my time with them; should I recommend time with bilingual families?

Again, I am at loss and a bit frustrated. Any guidance?

Thank you.
Andrea Romano Vespoint


Hi Andrea

“Language acquisition” is “developmental” in nature. The children and adults go through a “process” in order to eventually speak a language. The “learning” or the “speaking/production” is the eventual outcome of a long process.

It is not clear how long you have had your students for but it seems that they might have just started this summer and if that is so it is important that you allow them go through the “comprehension” stage of language acquisition, which is the first step in this developmental process, first and without any rush. Remember when your children just listened to you and everyone around them for about 15 months or more before they said anything at all? Expecting your students to be speaking and describing pictures is rather pre-mature at the moment and obviously a frustrating experience for all of you.

Your main goal at the moment should be to make the language comprehensible and fun for your students and be sure that as long as they understand you, changes are happening in their brain and that eventually all will make sense and “results” will be seen. Your belief in the developmental nature of language acquisition, your patience and loving guidance are keys for this to be a successful experience.

It is true that this long and sometimes painful process could be shortened if the children could be immersed in many hours of language at a time; please note that language acquisition would still happen however slowly when the amount of language immersion is not intense but relevant.

I do agree that you have a particular challenge trying to keep everyone interested and engaged. The five year old and the eight year old do not “experience” life in the same way and they have different skills and abilities also. It is also challenging to have a five year old and an eight year old together in one group because the five year old is an “unconscious” learner and the eight year old might already be a “conscious” learner. The way each student learns is different and also each student’s expectation of the “learning experience” is different.

My approach would still be more about giving the children the opportunity to “experience” the culture and the language rather than trying to “teach” the language in spite of all your challenges. Somehow “teaching” and “learning” are tied to the expectation of immediate results and they negate “the process” the children have to go through before they actually achieve “knowledge”.

It is very important that the students have fun while they are with you and “experience” the language. It is also important that you have fun interacting with them.

The students should also be engaged at all times; however, their engagement should be about showing their comprehension of whatever it is that you are presenting to them.

As far as appropriate activities for them, I would cook with them , do crafts with them; please note that when it comes to art and crafts you should make sure to keep in mind the needs and the abilities of both age groups present in your class. I would also do cultural games with them. I would be very expressive and use gestures to make my communication comprehensible. I would also do activities with them where they would have to jump, run, dance, clap etc. Lots of TPR; I am sure you do that with your high schoolers also.

I would stay away from games where the students have to express themselves at this beginning stage of their learning…knowing very well that this would only frustrate all of you. Also no “competition” please since your five and even 6 year olds are just not into “competition” and hate the idea of losing even though the seven and the eight year olds can accept both winning and losing. Frustration should never be part of a language experience program. It is important that everyone be very relaxed and stress free.

You could suggest to the parents to have the children watch a DVD or video in Spanish every day for 10-15 minutes; even if they don’t understand anything in the beginning; this would do an absolute miracle over a long term. Another suggestion would be to allow them to hear Spanish songs around the house and in the car; especially more youthful and contemporary ones. May be you can direct them to some You Tube songs or record a CD for them. The third suggestion would be to look for friendship with other hispanic children and spend time at their house where they would experience further the language and the way of life.

I would like to invite you to one of our “Fundamentals For Teaching Children Foreign Languages” workshops for further understanding of how children learn foreign languages .

Lingua Natal LenaLena Sisson.–Director and Curriculum Developer at Lingua Natal is a mother, wife and life long educator. She speaks five languages, has taught for thirty years and her love of cultures, diversity and people have led her to travel extensively and be of service to many communities around the world.

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