Say What? It’s Never Too Early to Become Bilingual

Tomorrow’s Youth Organization (TYO) is unique in that its beneficiaries are both women and children residing in Nablus’ surrounding refugee camps and neighborhoods. After teaching mothers in The Women’s Group and entrepreneurs in WISE II, I was presented with a challenge I was thrilled to meet: teach English to the children of TYO’s Core Child Program. Vanessa

TYO’s Core Child Program sets children ages four-to-eight on a path to self-discovery through play and non-formal education. I had already taught many of the children’s mothers and was excited to have the opportunity to engage with and educate another generation of TYO beneficiaries. Embedded in TYO’s teaching philosophy is a belief that children must have continuous exposure to English at an early age. What’s more, TYO also believes bilingualism will help our beneficiaries in various stages of their life cycle. Being in the classroom has proven that children are thirsty for knowledge, yearn to tackle new words in English and, because of their young age, quickly and confidently pick up the language adults have a hard time mastering.

In a January 22, 2015 New Yorker article, “Is Bilingualism Really an Advantage?” Maria Konnikova substantiates TYO’s approach to early childhood education by stating: “Not only does speaking multiple languages help us to communicate but bilingualism (or multilingualism) may actually confer distinct advantages to the developing brain. Because a bilingual child switches between languages, the theory goes, she develops enhanced executive control, or the ability to effectively manage what are called higher cognitive processes, such as problem-solving, memory, and thought. She becomes better able to inhibit some responses, promote others, and generally emerges with a more flexible and agile mind. It’s a phenomenon that researchers call the bilingual advantage.”

I am only in my second week of teaching English to TYO’s six and seven year olds and the proof is in the pudding: expose children to English as early as possible! Until coming to TYO, children have had minimal exposure to English yet come to class excited, eager, and ready to meet the linguistic challenges that await them. Rather than require the children to quietly sit and recite the alphabet, we use non-formal educational techniques to teach new letters, phrases, concepts, and words. Every day the children gain command over the English language by playing games, exercising, making art and crafting, and speaking to one another using basic phrases. Moreover, it is beautiful to witness the children act as one another’s teachers. At times, if one student in the class understands a concept before his or her peers, he/she is able to calmly explain it.

The children are not the only ones learning critical lessons in the classroom. Teaching English at TYO reminds me that not only can learning be fun it must be fun. Children in the Core program leave English class proud of the new knowledge they have acquired, beaming with smiles from ear to ear, and ready to practice their new words. As I say good-bye to each student, I know their budding mastery of English will benefit them long after they leave TYO’s halls. Because of this, I leave class every day feeling L for lucky.

- Vanessa, Zahi Khouri Fellow