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School Outreach Profiles

Rafa Lombardino

Raising Awareness of Culture and Languages Among Kindergarteners

When my five-year-old told me about Career Month at her kindergarten class, I felt a mix of excitement and fear. "What kind of work do you think I do?" I asked her. "You work on the computer," she replied, without giving it a second thought. "But, what do I do on the computer?" I pressed. "Projects!" she shot back quickly.

I am originally from Brazil and have been raising my two children to be bilingual. Even though language is second nature to both of them, as far as understanding commands in both English and Portuguese from each parent, it takes some time for little ones to realize what is what. My daughter still corrects herself when she blurts out, "How do you say this in Brazil? I mean... in Portuguese!" However, somewhere around five, kids start to get a better notion of culture and language and are naturally inclined to be curious and intuitive about the subject.

Going back to Career Month ... How could I get the attention of kindergarteners who would be fascinated by parents talking about their pet care business, their fire-fighting career, and their adventures as a helicopter pilot? The most important thing to me was to get down to their level and talk about translation in a way they could understand how language is part of their daily lives.

Living in California, it's a little easier to bring the subject to the table, even with kids at such an early age and who are learning their ABCs. Because I disclosed the fact that we also speak a language other than English when I first enrolled my daughter, her school put her in an English program they run once a week to strengthen her skills—even though her thought process is predominantly developed in English rather than Portuguese.

I noticed that she wasn't the only one in her classroom taking part in this extracurricular activity; there were at least four other kids joining her every Friday because they speak French, Arabic, Chinese, and Polish/Spanish at home. That would definitely work to my advantage in getting them excited about languages and culture.

I decided to bring a very visual presentation to grab their attention, starting out with the world map. I pointed out where I come from―Brazil―and said that my daughter's grandparents still live there. Then I asked my daughter to tell her friends what she calls her Brazilian grandma and grandpa in Portuguese. When her classmates heard her saying vovó and vovô, these two catchy words spread out quickly through the classroom. Yes, they were curious and excited about it, so it would be a little easier to explain the kind of work translators and interpreters do.

Then, I asked volunteers to tell me about the languages they speak at home, and at least two students were very excited to share their stories. The little one who is French-American was even able to point out Europe and France on the map to let everybody know where his mommy comes from, which was a delightful surprise to his teacher and me.

I told them that I work as a translator, which means that I receive a document in one language and need to rewrite it in another language for other people to understand. "For example, how could kids in Brazil learn about your friend 'Pete, the Cat' if they don't speak English," I asked, mentioning their favorite children's book character. "Well, someone needs to translate that book into Portuguese, so they can learn how to read it in their own language," I explained.

In order to broaden their view about language professionals, I said that I have colleagues who don't work with books or documents; they work with the words someone speaks, so they listen very carefully and repeat what was said in another language, so other people can understand it as well. "That's called an interpreter!" I told them, and moved on to a fun exercise to show what an interpreter does in action.

I spoke simple sentences in Portuguese, such as "I like apples" and "Green is my favorite color" and asked my daughter to interpret for her classmates. It was gratifying to see their eyes sparkle with fascination, as they watched their friend relay the messages she heard, so they could understand it in perfect English.

To further emphasize a language they may come in contact with on a regular basis, since we live in Southern California, I put a friendly character on the map: Dora, the Explorer. The image appeared next to Mexico and I showed them how close we are to the border and how much of the Mexican heritage we get to enjoy in our communities throughout San Diego. Then I asked them if they knew what language Dora speaks, and heard them confidently recall that is was Spanish. We practiced some keywords, such as gracias and de nada, and I explained to them that in Spanish we add an upside-down question mark or exclamation point in the beginning of a sentence. Some students also volunteered counting from one through ten in that foreign language.

The second character I selected to bring yet another cultural element to the mix was Kai-Lan. I placed her picture over China and explained that, unlike the ABCs they are studying in class, Chinese uses drawings to represent words. We then looked at some beautiful Chinese characters that are a close rendition of the words they mean, such as "love" and "horse." The kids marveled at the fact that they could read those words in Chinese by paying close attention to what the drawings were showing them.

"You see, this is what a translator does: we read words and sentences, then rewrite them in another language so other people can understand it, too!" I stressed it one more time. "And what do interpreters do again," I asked? Some of them recalled the difference by mentioning that they listen, then repeat words in another language.

As a segue to their arts & crafts activity scheduled after my presentation, I gave each student a copy of the world map and asked them to color it for me, mentioning that I would be very happy if they could color the ocean azul―blue―and Brazil verde―green―because they are my favorite colors. And they gladly did so!

It was a fun twenty-minute presentation that raised their awareness of other languages that exist in the world. Now, when they hear me talking to my daughter when I'm dropping her off at school, they no longer give me a funny look because they can't understand what I'm saying. They simply ask, "Are you speaking Portuguese, Mrs. Lombardino?" They always have a smile on their faces and that little sparkle in their eyes.