by Wendy V. Ash


I am extremely fortunate to not only teach Spanish to children, but learn more about how they acquire Spanish as a second language every day. I have an ocean of subjects that I observe and orally assess. Time and time again, I return to the simple premise that we shouldn’t teach words, we should teach ideas and concepts.

I have stated in the past that I am against direct translation. That would mean pointing to an object, saying what it is in English and then repeating it in Spanish. My belief is, that at an early age, this does nothing more than promote language discrimination. To children, words are simply WORDS. It makes no difference whether you say “blue” in English, Spanish, French, or Chinese… because for them they are registering the IDEA of “blue”.

There was an interesting incident that happened in one of my classes that exemplified this concept. A three year old boy in my class, who we shall call Alex, is fully bilingual (English/Spanish). I was teaching a lesson about the doctor and parts of the body. The doctor asks his patient “¿Qué te duele?'” (what hurts you). I asked students what that phrase might mean. To avoid direct translation, I will often act out or gesture while I am saying the phrase. Eventually someone guesses what it is correctly. In this case I paused, and asked the bilingual boy “What does ‘¿Qué te duele?” mean Alex?”. He looked puzzled, thought a bit, and pointed to his head.

There it was. To Alex, I was asking him the entire sentence in one language, because words are just words to him. He does not discriminate between the two languages. He saw the idea of what I was asking him in his head, and instead of stating the translation and saying “It means ‘What hurts you?’, he demonstrated the response to the question. This is a very common occurrence for him and you will actually see confusion on his face when anyone literally translates something to him. It is like you are saying “blue” to him twice, even though the words might sound differently.

I became more curious about the matter, so that evening as my 8 year old daughter was walking towards me I said “¿Qué te duele?”. She looked very puzzled, looked at her body, shrugged and replied “Nada.” My daughter speaks Spanish, but is not what I would consider “bilingual”. What I learned is that she too sees the “idea” first in her head and replies in the target language. In other wards, she did not say in English “Huh? What do you mean what hurts?” or any other step of translation. She did not think at all, just responded. The problem is that we put an additional step in our student’s brains when we try to translate to them.

While this might seem like common sense, this discovery allows me to integrate lessons to have your children see the idea primarily and the literal words secondarily. I encourage them being comfortable with Spanish phrases as they would be in their native language. To strengthen this ability, I have an exercise where we pass a ball to one another. When the child passes the ball, they must ask the child to whom they are passing the ball “¿Cómo te llamas?”. When the child receives the ball, they then must say “Soy (their name)” then pass the ball and ask the next child. If time allows, we do it also with “¿Cómo estás?” and the child may respond with a variety of feelings that we have learned. My purpose in this exercise is to not only see which children are getting the idea of the phrase and why, but it also allows those who are not fully at this stage to learn it through the repetition of the exercise. It also promotes Spanish dialogue amongst their peers to make them more comfortable speaking the language.

Thus, the crusade continues to fight language discrimination and make Spanish as fluid as possible. This generation will be faced with the open seas of a future global market and their success to rise to the top will depend largely on their foreign language skills. • • like us • follow us