5 Tips for Leading a Bilingual Sunday School Class

I was volunteering in my 3 year-old’s Sunday School class. I was sitting next to my daughter and her church BFF, both Spanish-dominant. As the teacher up front was sharing the lesson, the girls chitter-chattered about all things from the frills on each others dresses to making plans to have a tea party after church…I tried to redirect their attention, but to no avail. That’s when the thought occurred: I wondered if they would pay better attention if threw in some Spanish? I then began to think of my class at the time, noting there we at least 5 every Sunday who spoke Spanish and/or were from multicultural homes where Spanish was spoken. We have a large Latino community and Spanish-language service at our church (as well as another minority language service, and other languages spoken)  What if we had our lessons reflect that?

So I gave it a go. And let me tell you, the first few lessons were clunky at best. But after a few weeks, we found a good rhythm that incorporated the Spanish language in a way that engaged our tiny Spanish-speakers, without alienating our monolinguals. I’ll admit, it was a lot of trial and error, but when my child got to sing her favorite worship songs in her heart language at church… that was beautiful. And when a mom of one of a monolingual student said her daughter is always excited to share her ‘Spanish word of the week’…and while eating animal crackers these littles sparked conversations about welcoming those who don’t speak the majority language…well, it couldn’t help but feel like this was important.

And if you’ve find yourself in this little corner of the internet, I assume that means you see a need in your church too! Welcome. Let’s have a conversation. Let’s explore how we can better disciple our multicultural littles, and give all our littles a better theology of the Kingdom of God. But first let’s start with why?

Why A Bilingual Sunday School

There are a few reasons you may want to incorportae Bilingualism into your Sunday School.

  1. Your Church Has Minority Language Services: A big one is if you have minority language services for adults. Especially if these services meet at the same time as the English service, it is possible not all of your littles speak English at home. Even if they speak English fluently, providing opportunities for them to engage in their heart language sends a powerful message. It says that Jesus sees them, ALL of them. It also communicates that our church family values their multicultural identity, and believes God has created them with purpose. Finally, it communicated that they are welcome. Many (most) majority-language settings require a certain amount of assimilation. Littles pick up  on this! I’ll never forget when my oldest child confided in me that she had to ‘hide her Spanish.’ Let’s create spaces where our multicultural littles don’t have to hide to belong.
  2. Your Community Has A Large Minority Population: Whether people from this minority group attend your church at the moment or not, you may decide to incorporate bilingualism into your lessons to normalize bilingualism. Normalizing bilingualism can help so that if a child comes into the class speaking very little of the majority language, it’s not weird. Your Monolingual students have already been exposed to the language and are more likely to practice welcome, because it’s not weird. It also sets the tone that it is safe to speak the minority language in your class. They won’t be shamed, or told to ‘speak English’ to play here. And this precedence is something our your monolingual students will carry with them out of church. Y’all , as a mama to some Spanish-dominant littles, I can generally tell on the playground when a monolingual child has been exposed to a minority language vs.  when they haven’t been exposed at all. When they’ve been around even a little of a minority language they know language barriers can’t stop play. They figure it out! However, if they’ve never really been around a minority language…well let’s just say there’s been more than one occasion when my littles have been told ‘you have to speak English to play with us.’ Let’s make sure our kids are the ones who choose welcome.
  3. We want to pass on a better theology of the Kingdom of God: Revelations 7:9 shows us that the Kingdom of God is made of ‘All nations, tribes, and tongues.’ Let’s show our children that truth, that there are believers across the globe, and sometimes next door that don’t look or speak the same day we do, but we are all in God’s family.

Tips for Leading a Bilingual Sunday School Class:

After some trial and error, these have been some simple ways we’ve integrated bilingualism into our Sunday School class. If this is something new your starting, don’t forget to start small. This is a transition, and transition can be rocky. But I’m here cheering you one.

-Say the ‘main idea’ in both languages.

Do you have a ‘main idea’ or ‘key point’ for your classes? Maybe you have a ‘word of the day.’ You know, the one thing you want the kids to take away? At our church we call it the ‘Big Idea.’ If you have a mixed language class, say it in both languages! This can be helpful for children whos dominant language is not the majority language. It can also be helpful for their parents in guiding conversation in their home language.

-Sing Bilingual Songs

This one can be so simple, yet fun. Anyone can sing and dance, it doesn’t matter what the language. And introducing songs in other languages can be a powerful way to unify a mixed language class. If you are minority language speaker, try introducing some songs you grew up with to your students. If you’re a majority language speaker who learned some songs while on a missions trip, maybe introduce those. If nothing else, you can work with your class to learn ‘Jesus Loves Me’ in the minority language. This song is so popular and has been sung in so many languages, it is easy to find a translation of YouTube. Also, it’s a simple way to communicate to all of our students what we really want them to take away: Jesus loves us.

-Don’t Point out Your Bilingual Students

You might be tempted to do this. You want to show-off the diversity in your classroom. But I beg you, please do NOT do this. Your bilingual students are doing their best to fit-in. It is possible that they have learned to ‘hide’ their bilingualism out of fear. And sadly, many majority-language places require a certain amount of assimilation. So don’t spotlight your bilingual students. The goal of incorporating bilingualism is NOT to embarrass them. The goal is to create a safe place where bilingualism is normalized. Where if a student doesn’t know a word in the majority language, they won’t be shamed for slipping into Spanglish. Where if a child comes in not knowing the majority language, our monolingual students will be welcoming. To create a class where everyone has the opportunity to experience Jesus in their heart language.

-Don’t make your students teach you

Again, don’t do this. Our goal is to make a place where everyone is welcome. Work on your minority language skills outside of class so if a child wants/needs to use that language they can. But don’t force them to show their skills. They’re not there to preform. They’re there to learn how much Jesus loves them. So let’s show up for that.

-Accept Push Back with Love and Grace

When a majority-language student gives push back, accept it with love and grace (push back coming from grown ups is for a whole other post…) but let’s face it, this is new. And there is a possibility your majority language students have not been exposed to bilingualism. Handle it gently, but be firm. I usually respond something like this:

We’re learning a little bit of Spanish today, because there are lots of different languages spoken in our church, and we want to be able to say hello and be friends with everyone. There are Christians all over the world who speak different languages, isn’t that so cool! Jesus loves all of us, and we all get to be apart of God’s family.

When we are responding to push-back, we must remember that not only are we addressing the vocalized concerns, but concerns that have not been voiced, including those of minority-language speakers. When they hear that push-back they’re watching to see how we respond. We need to not only address the concern of this newness, but offer affirmation to all of our students that God has made us a diverse, multi-cultural, multilingual church for his glory. And that is very good. This approach helps reassure our mono lingual students, as well as affirms the identities of our multicultural students.

-Prepare for some Amazing Conversations

I think the conversation sparked in our class has been the most rewarding thing about incorporating bilingualism. After the newness wears-off and littles become more comfortable with the routine, they become more at ease asking questions and processing their reflections vocally. We have had discussions about what it might be like to move to a new country and not know the language. We have had conversations about the amazing way God has created such diversity in his church. We have chatted about the different ways to say cookies around the world. And we have learned that everyone giggles in the same language.

In the end, I have had such joy watching our preschoolers grow in empathy, understanding, and respectful curiosity as we have sought to normalize bilingualism in our class. It gives me hope that multilingual students would not only feel welcomed and affirmed in our class, but our students will be welcomers outside of our class. That they will sit with the new kid at the lunch table. They will play with the child they don’t understand at the park. And above all they will love like Jesus.

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