4 Tips To Teach Bilingual Kids The Past Tense

Wondering how you can teach your bilingual children to use the past tense correctly? Check out these 4 easy tips for some inspiration!

4 tips to teach (1)

Transcript #106

Hey there and welcome to a Question and Answer edition of the Bilingual Avenue podcast!  We have a great question for this week and we will be talking about grammar for this week! I know some of you cringe when you hear that but trust me you can have a lot of fun with it.

Let’s me read you the question for this week, it came in from Maria.

Hi Marianna,

Love the show!  I’ve been listening since the beginning and learning something new every single episode!! I finally worked up the courage to contact you about an issue I have been having as I work with my twins on our home language, Greek.  Both my husband and I are Greek so we speak to both kids in it all day but they do attend full day nursery so when they are not with us, their instruction is all in English.  I venture to say that they are actually better in English than they are in Greek. I’ve been noticing that they will NOT use the past tense when engaging with us in Greek.  They are four so I feel like they should be using it by then. They seem to have no problem doing so in English so I know they get the concept.  Any ideas on how to address this?

Thanks in advance Maria

Thank you Maria for your words about the podcast and thanks so much for listening, it’s so amazing to hear from parents and teachers and listeners that you are finding the information helpful.  It’s really what keeps me going with the podcast. I also want to thank you for letting me share the question with others.

Let’s start by talking a bit about grammar and children’s development.  Usually around the time children are three years old, they are going to really take off on their grammar skills.  It’s a really exciting time. You’ve kind gone over the vocabulary explosion now there’s sort of this explosion with grammar skills.

They are going to build on what they learned from ages two to three and are going to really expand to more sophisticated with their structures.  Aspects of grammar like the past tense are going to really evolve after your children turn three.  It requires more sophisticated vocabulary and structures so do not be surprised if your children are struggling with it.

Your twins are four years old and you mentioned that they are able to speak in the past tense in English so they are clearly getting the concept.  That is a great sign!  Let’s then think of some ways that you can be intentional about exposing them to the vocabulary they will need to use to make those sentences in the past tense.

Let me give you four ideas and I hope that one or maybe all of these work for you!

  • Model the answer Identify something in your daily routine with your children that is pretty standard. For example, it can be something simple like brushing teeth.  Immediately after and I really recommend you do this immediately after it happens, ask your children to tell you what happened.

    Chances are, based on what you described in your question, that they will tell you what happened but in the present tense. You do not want to tell them “Oh you said that wrong!”  Just model what they should have said. “You brushed your teeth!”    When modeling, you are going to want to repeat and model many times.  Over time your children will likely pick up your grammar patterns.

  • Put your pictures to good use– Dig up some pictures from a previous activity. Try to find something that your twins enjoyed doing so there is a positive association with the picture.  Ask them “What happened?”  Consider answering your own question so you can, like we stated above, model the correct words and then give them a chance to give it a shot.

    Children love looking at pictures of themselves so they will likely be engaged in this type of activity.  For a while, you may even consider it adding it to your daily routine, maybe before you start reading a story.

  • Use everyday actions Sometimes we think we have to add all these extra activities and projects to teach our children vocabulary and grammar and really, it can be so simple. You can ask your child throughout the day what they are up to.  Let’s say your child puts a toy away after playing with it.  Ask them to tell you what they did.  Just like in the other examples, if they do not use the past tense, simply model how to say it.

    You don’t want to overwhelm your child and ask them what they are doing the entire day.  We parents sometimes fall into the trap of asking our kids too many questions especially when we are working on language.  Just do it from time to time and try to pick instances that they can describe well in Greek.

    You want to avoid situations where your children are struggling to find the words in Greek.  You want to make it easy for them so they have the space to internalize the past tense you are trying to convey to them.

  • Family Chalkboard This is an activity from the blog Twodaloo.com which is filled with lots of early childhood activities. It is written by speech language pathologist, Stephanie, so she knows what she is doing.  (She has since moved on to another blog called wonderseekers.com) She has a really cool activity that she did when her children were young and coincidently she has twins as well.  I’ll put a link to the post where she explains the family chalkboard on the show notes page but let me describe the gist of it for you.

To help her children start using the past tense, she used a magnetic chalkboard as their “cheat sheet” so they could reference it when recounting their day.  On the board, she would draw pictures of things that would help them string together words to talk about their day.  The chalkboard was part of their kitchen which allowed them to talk about their day while eating lunch.  They practiced talking about their day before taking a nap but she reinforces that she kept it simple.

For those of you with older children, you could ask them to do the drawing themselves or even write down some of the key words.  Get creative and if your children enjoy this process, the family chalkboard could have endless possibilities for language learning!

I hope one of these strategies work for you.  I will end by just pointing out that like MANY other aspects of language learning, your children are more likely to enjoy it and better recall meaningful experiences they have had.  Asking them about how their day went at school may be less fruitful than if you ask them maybe on the day they went on a field trip or how they liked the museum or a particular after school activity that they really enjoyed.

Keep that in mind as you set out to work on the past tense that this is something that is going to come with time and continue to model the right structures for them.

Alright Maria I hope you found this answer helpful and that you get your twins using the past tense in Greek!  Keep at it and it will come!

For anyone else if you have a question you would like featured on the show just send me a note on the contact page at bilingualavenue.com

May you have fun travels on your language journey. Hope to see you again on the Avenue.


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