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Becoming Bilingual

The fascinating thing about teaching English is watching constant improvement as students grow. I’m fortunate to be able to start teaching children at a young age. Seeing them grow up and becoming bilingual is remarkable and unmeasurably rewarding. Most students come to me without even knowing more than a hundred words or so. From that to becoming bilingual, earning a CEFR C2 English certificate, is a long road to endure. Having patience and unswerving objectives is necessary for both my students and me. If there is one thing I find irresistible, though, it is unquestionably a challenge. So, bring on that English challenge and any kid. I'm ready!

Now, I could prepare a series of sentences and questions to teach to young children. Memorizing dozens to hundreds of prepared sentences would be easy, and children would be able to remember and recite numerous sentences in a short amount of time. However, that would be just like learning and singing a song. Yes, kids learn songs quickly, and they certainly love singing. But children don’t become bilingual by learning just songs or memorizing sentences and questions. Unfortunately, some parents wrongly believe that a seven-year-old student should be speaking English fluently after three months of weekly English lessons. And sometimes I am approached by such parents bewildered that their children aren’t talking to them in fluent English after a few months, roughly twenty hours of English lessons. Becoming bilingual doesn’t work that way.

One of the most frequent questions I receive from potential parents is, “Do you speak to the students only in English?” When I hear that question, I almost always want to switch on my English and begin spurting out a long and complicated series of answers, delving into the captivating and challenging subject of teaching English to children as a second language. Most Italian adults I know would not be able to comprehend, much less discuss such complicated issues in English. They would not be able to handle the stress of English in that context. It should not be expected of students either, no matter how young they are.

Anyhow, my answer to that question is no. First of all, many children from three to six or seven years old could very easily break into tears if they don’t understand what I’m saying. And I could sing and dance and use all the body language I can imagine attempting to help them understand the words coming out of my mouth, but that doesn’t always console their confused minds. And I have this unbending belief that children shouldn’t have to cry to learn English. In my experience, they don’t need to. If English makes them cry, they won't like it. If they don't like it, they will not want to learn it.

I teach a lot of grammar in elementary school. The Italian language is incredibly complicated in regards to grammar rules, while English is not. So, I teach most English grammar while my students are still in elementary school, while they are learning either the same or even more complicated grammar in Italian. So, I need to speak to them in Italian sometimes. An Italian second-grader is not going to understand how to use prepositions, articles and adjectives in English unless I explain it to them in Italian. An Italian third-grader is not going to learn how to conjugate a verb in Past Continuous unless I explain it to them in Italian. And an Italian fifth-grader is not going to understand why some English verbs are irregular unless I explain it to them in Italian.

So, no. My students are not able to go home after four months of English lessons and discuss Shakespeare or Dahl in English with their non-English speaking parents, especially first and second graders. I have yet to find a magical English fairy who flicks pixie dust on students, and, magically, they become bilingual. I do not talk to my students only in English until they are in fourth or fifth grade. They do not understand everything I say until then. And, because it is so essential for them to grasp the basics of English grammar at an early age, I need them to understand.

However, yes! My students are capable of writing somewhat complicated sentences and stories by the time they are in fourth and fifth-grade in elementary school. And they not only know which words in their sentences are the articles, adjectives, prepositions and verbs, but they know the verb tenses as well. My middle-school students are capable of expressing detailed ideas and questions. They are capable of developing opinions and thoughts in English, and they are capable of discussing those things at length. That is so much more important for their future with English than being able to recite memorized sentences, which have no meaning to them whatsoever.

Becoming bilingual is challenging and strenuous. It takes a lot of hard work on the part of the teacher and the student, and it takes time. It is a long process, and Italian students should not feel pressured into believing they should be holding conversations in English when they are seven years old and have never taken English lessons before. That is an unrealistic expectation.

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