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by Wendy V. Ash

I encounter this scenario often. I will be in conversation with a parent at a social gathering or at my child’s school. They will learn that I teach Spanish, after which they proclaim “Johnny took Spanish and he can count to 20. Count to 20 Johnny!”. I will in turn listen to the child stumble through the numbers while their parent is beaming proudly. Then, they will go on to have him recite the colors. Of course, when I say to Johnny “¿Cómo estás?” or “¿Cómo te llamas?”, it is met with a blank stare and a look to their parent who proceeds to stammer or change the subject. Do not misunderstand me. I think it is admirable that some programs (and Dora) are at least attempting to incorporate what they believe to be the basics. Drilling children with numbers and colors will give parents bragging rights, but are not going to get a child far when it comes to communicating in the real world with any Spanish speaker.

Consider “the basics” per our early and elementary educational system when teaching a foreign language. They simply take what they teach in class and translate it into Spanish. Ergo, the process of children learning numbers, colors, seasons, days, months, etc. The problem is when teaching these concepts in English, the child, either already speaks or understands conversation and direction in English. These concepts and phrases being taught to them are secondary and tertiary in terms of basic communication, not primary. When we teach a foreign language as a second language, we need to teach how we converse and interact with others first.

I remember an instance when my daughter, at the age of 3, was sent home a coloring sheet during the Fall from her Spanish program and the word spelled above the image was “espantapajaros” (scarecrow). Try it. It simply rolls smoothly off the tongue, no? Imagine a 3 year old being taught this word, being expected to pronounce it AND retain it. Unfortunately, there are not many times in my daily life when I point to and reference “un espantapajaro”. In fact, being a native speaker, I can’t even recall the last time I’ve heard or used it until this instance. Yet, these are the words that are chosen to be taught. Words that are in line with English curriculum are being taught in class. These kinds of words are emphasized in a mere 1/2 hour of Spanish class per week. Is this how we are spending a majority of our time teaching a second language?

So I ask you: Have your child count from 1-20 and say “espantapajaros”? Or learn relevant vocabulary that will launch them towards their bilingual journey?

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