Trilingual chaos in pre-school
Thread poster: Tsu Dho Nimh

Tsu Dho Nimh
Local time: 13:58
May 5, 2005

Ages ago, as a summer job, I was a teacher's aide for a pre-school project (Project Head Start) that was intended to give children who had social or economic disadvantages some school experiences, 5 hours a day for 10 weeks. In the American Southwest, it was mostly Hispanic children who didn't speak English.

However, one year they admitted a child who spoke only German: his father was German-speaking USAF, his mum was German, they lived off-base in a German-speaking village ... and they forgot to teach the kid any English! Another child was from an isolated ranch, spoke only English, and needed to learn to get along in groups. We also had a dozen or so Spanish-only kids. The teaching staff was an English-only teacher and me, the Bilingual (Spanish-English) aide.

The main teacher would, of course, only speak English to them, I would habitually speak in English, but would answer in the language the question was in, or interpret for the teacher. The kid from Germany was on his own, but he was playing with English-speaking kids on the base.

It was strange for a few weeks, because the kids didn't quite grasp the concept that there are different languages.

At about the 4-week mark, they suddenly grasped that the same object could have several names, depending on who was talking. Then it became even stranger, because they couldn't reliably use non-native words. The Hispanic kids were trying out Germ-lish on me, the air force kid was speaking Spanglish more often than not, and the ranch kid was mangling Spanish with some German.

By week 8, they were speaking a simple argot of Spanish/English/German among themselves ... "que es das?", "Guten dia", "Du bist ein tonto!", etc. They even gave each other lessons in pronouncing the words correctly.

But they had also sorted out which adult spoke what - they always spoke English to the teacher, Spanish or English to me, and English to any other adult who was clearly not Hispanic. The AF kid refused to speak English to his parents, but was quite fluent when speaking to me or the teacher.

We advised the AF family to continue in German at home, because he was learning English very quickly at school. We advised all Hispanic families to have their children formally study Spanish so they would be literate in both languages.


Claudia Alvis  Identity Verified
Local time: 14:58
+ ...
Great story May 5, 2005

Thank you for sharing that story; it made me laugh really hard.


Rafa Lombardino
United States
Local time: 12:58
Member (2005)
English to Portuguese
+ ...
Fascinating May 6, 2005

I had some similar experiences, although not as intense as yours. For three years in the turn of the century I was an English teacher at a language school. Of course it would all be much simpler, since these were Brazilian kids that spoke Portuguese 99% of their time and came to school to learn English from the tender age of 4 1/2. My experience is as fascinating as yours when we take a look at how young kids "get it" in such an easy way when compared to older kids who already learned the concepts or failing, mocking, and pleasing.

My 4 1/2 year olds could be brats sometimes, specially because they were the little kings and queens at home - if you know what I mean - but after some tug-o-war we could get along just fine. It was really rewarding when I could turn to one of these young kids and say things like "COULD YOU GET ME THE SCISSORS? THEY'RE ON THAT TABLE" and get the appropriate reaction from them. If I said the same full sentence to a 10-year-old student, he/she would freak out even though they could understand SCISSORS and TABLE.

Now that I'm living in San Diego and have the "start a family" instinct growing stronger in me, I'm getting a little afraid of how the personal experience will be. As a language professional, I was teaching those kids English for about 2:30 hours a week; when we have kids, they will be English speakers out in the world, Portuguese speakers in the house, and will have a very strong influence from the Spanish (or Spanglish...) since we're right above the Mexican border.

A cousin of mine that lives in Boston is going through the same thing with her 4-year-old, but there's an advantage from living in Boston, since the Brazilian community is huge up there. My little cousin is having some Spanish influence, but her mother says that she's taking it instinctively due to her age and imagination and is making up sentences such as "the camión is vermelho", even though she knows who she has to speak what language to.

I'm looking forward to living this experience on the personal level... But I think I have to get my husband a little proficient in Portuguese first, so that I'll not be seen as the "witch" in the family who's gonna be speaking Portuguese around the house all the time! LOLicon_razz.gif

[Edited at 2005-05-06 17:01]

[Edited at 2005-05-06 17:04]


Beth M F Garcia  Identity Verified
Local time: 21:58
Member (2004)
Spanish to English
+ ...
It brings back memories.............. May 6, 2005

I grew up as and Air Force brat moving every couple of years. My father is from the States and my mother from Spain. Even though I was born in Spain we moved to the states when I was 3 months old. I started talking at 9 months and by the time we got back to Spain when I was 3 I was speaking English and did not know a word of Spanish.

Once we arrived in Spain I spent all my time with my Spanish cousins and living off base within the Spanish community. By the time I started kindergarden on base at 5 and half I only spoke Spanish and had to re-learn English.

In my house we always spoke Spanish to my mother as she would ignore us if we spoke English and always English to my father. To this day whenever we talk at home we have certain things we say in Spanish and others in English. For example whatever we eat is "with ketchup" not "con catsup".

My son grew up in Spain until 4 years ago when we moved to the UK and has learned to speak English here. He is now 13 and even though he still has a little bit of an accent he speaks it very well.

I remember one day when he came home from school not long ago and told me that he needed a "capa" for swimming class. I asked him are you sure it is a "capa". "Yes, mom they want a capa". I told him obviously that they would not ask him for a cape for swimming class and thats when I realized they wanted him to wear a swimming cap not "capa".

He has had a few of these, and we find them extremly funny and even though in the begining it was confusing he really enjoys being able to speak two languages.


English to Italian
+ ...
Even being bilingual can be confusing! May 10, 2005

The great thing about it all is that kids can work it all out. I'm a trained linguist and my interest is in first language acquisition, but the interesting parts keep getting more so when you throw in the second language acquisition contemporaneously. My first experience was when I was a travelling/working in Italy. I got a job as an english teacher/nanny with a family. they had 3 children, the two eldest already fluent in English, Italian and Portugese (they had lived three years in Brazil, and whilst there attended an English school) whilst the youngest was only 8 months when I arrived. Now, I'm fluent in Italian, andof course it was a bit hard to hide it from the children, especially when for example I would speak to my Italian friends on the phone, so we just worked out the rule that the kids had to speak English to me, and if they didn't, well I'd look at them funny and they'd have to say it all agian in English, which would really upset them because then they'd have to waste their time saying it all over again. The good thing was that for them it was a prestige thing, and they were happy to have so many languages. Unfortunately their competence in Portugese has deteriorated drstically, but they still understand everything that they hear and read. The interesting case was with the youngest child. growing up hearing people speak this mix of languages, the poor child didn't start speaking for a while. Gotta understand that her head had to sort out some kinds of rules first, I suppose. The other interesting thing was that her Mum would often mix her four languages together when speaking (she speaks French also) to the children.
Anyway, it ended up that this little girl, after three years of being with me most of the time, spoke English very well. The came the dreadful day that she had to go to kindergarten! Apart from all the other emotional upheaval that the child faced, she was also in the dilemma of not being able to communicate with the teachers, or with the other children. The other kids would say they wanted something, teacher could calm them by giving it to them. But not my poor little tyke! Even such a simple thing as a pencil was a challenge for her. And she couldn't even say "i want" in Italian. And her jumper would always be forgeotten because she wouldn't understand what the teacher was saying. Then when I would collect her, she wouldn't know how to tell me about her day, because it had all happened in Italian! Slowly slowly though she was getting the right stuff out.
surprisingly, there were alot of kids in the park we went to that, although they didn't know English, knew that that was the language we were talking in, and would often ask me to teach them to count to ten.


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