When Learn Safari first started, the Team was comprised of just a few Team members scrambling around in the dark. Honestly though, we had NO CLUE what we were doing, but we knew we wanted to create something that would encourage kids to learn and use their Spanish. We knew we wanted to create a program that would be high-quality, fun for children, and helpful for children, families, and teachers. As a former high school Spanish teacher, bilingual parent, and now preschool teacher in a bilingual classroom, I brought a lot of my experience from the field, but I had no idea how to make it into a tangible “something.”
We had to educate ourselves and the best way to do so is to read. We read absolutely everything that had anything to do with learning languages, educational technology, making games, gamification, making apps, managing time, creating a virtual team, marketing, etc. Sometimes, I felt like I read so much, that it would just all jumble together. Over time, however, I realized I have learned a lot and really carried some of the information to heart.
There’s no better example, however, than some of the information I learned while reading some of Tim Ferriss’ books, blogs and articles. If you don't know who Tim Ferriss is, check out his best seller The 4 Hour Work Week. Mr. Ferriss has a lot of ideas (about all kinds of subjects!) and some I agree with, some I don't, some I have completely forgotten, but some I have really absorbed. One of these ideas in particular has really completely changed my teaching method at school, home, and on the app, and I am here to share it with you. It’s the idea that when you are teaching new concepts and vocabulary, you can use translation and you should say the word in the native language first and follow it up by using the target language.
Why does it work?
The idea of complete immersion, just jump in and “sink or swim” has long been popular in language education. The idea is that if you are forced to communicate in a language, you will have no choice but to learn. The reality is that, unless we have the ability to go to a country where ONLY the target language is spoken, we won’t have that kind of motivation. And even then, we usually find ways around and end up using our native language a lot to help us learn.
Complete language immersion is an ideal, but as bilingual education becomes more common in the U.S. (who still needs to catch up with much of the rest of the world), classroom teachers and parents are realizing that using what a child already knows and scaffolding that into new knowledge is a very effective way of helping kids learn the target language.
As a parent, do you have a hard time getting your child to understand and use the target language? It is probably because kids will just go with what is most comfortable and the majority language always is. We often have this idea that we need to pick one method of second language acquisition, OPOL, MLAH etc. but, what if that’s not effective? What if your child isn’t getting the appropriate amount of language exposure to learn the target language or if they have fallen behind in the target language and simply do not understand what you are trying to say to them? Then, using this concept of making a statement in the target language and following it up by translating in the target language will be very beneficial to your child.
Why does it work? Because when kids (or even adults) hear something they do not understand, they simply tune it out. However, if you speak the native language first you already have that child’s attention, they already have an image and an understanding in their mind, and then you pair it up with this new piece of information, the way to say it in the target language. It is a way to create a connection and you then go on to strengthen it by using the phrase several times.
You do not have to use this technique with everything you say, only with what your child doesn’t understand, and then you will use it less and less as your child understands more and more.
Ways in which I have implemented the technique
As I mentioned earlier, I teach preschool. Specifically, I teach VPK (voluntary pre-kindergarten) and 85 to 90% of my students are English Language Learners with their native language being Spanish. It's my job to teach them English and prepare them with the literacy, social and communication skills that they will need in kindergarten and beyond. However, I know the importance of keeping and learning in their heritage language and I work within the classroom and with the parents to make sure that Spanish is still and important part of their lives and education. For this reason, I run a bilingual classroom.
Having a bilingual classroom is a constant experiment in language and organization. All of my signage is in English and Spanish, we have books in both languages, we do music in both languages, circle time, smalls groups and centers are conducted in both languages and I am constantly switching between languages, depending on the needs of the children with whom I am interacting.
This past year, however, I decided to put this strategy of majority language first, target language second into practice in a very intentional and consistent way. This was especially the case with my students who had zero English knowledge at the beginning of the year. I would pre-read stories with them in Spanish, before reading the story in English to the whole group. Whenever I introduced new vocabulary I would say it in Spanish first and then in English and even our regular conversations would double in time, because I would say it in Spanish and then in English. The language explosion that occurred this year was astounding! I was amazed at how much these brilliant little minds learned in 1 year! And for the first time I am confident that 100% of my students, even those who started the school year with zero English knowledge, are absolutely ready for kindergarten!
At home, I have reversed the strategy. Although we use Spanish and English at home, I have to admit that English is the stronger language for my girls. Their environment is mostly in English and as their main source of Spanish, I have to be extremely intentional and consistent with Spanish. So, whenever I introduce things the girls are unfamiliar with, I first say it in English and then I say it in Spanish. I have the girls repeat after me in Spanish and soon, these new words become part of their vocabulary! Like I have said before, it's not necessary all the time, but if we are ever falling behind, or if we are speaking of completely new things, the strategy is absolute gold.
I've said it before, and I will say it again (and again and again): raising and educating multilingual children is hard work! It takes consistency, intentionality, creativity, and a lot of trial and error to make it work. It won't always look pretty, but the results and the journey itself are worth all of the effort! With this tip, I have found an effective tool for my teaching arsenal and I hope you will find it effective too.
How about you? Do you have any tips or tricks to share for language learning? We would love to hear from you! Share in the comments below.
Keli Garcia-Allen is a certified Spanish teacher and currently works as a preschool teacher in a bilingual classroom. She is the Head of Content for Learn Safari and is currently working on Spanish Safari, a Spanish Learning game for children 5-9 years old. You can follow her and the rest of the team on Facebook, Instagram, and