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Verb structures and bilingual children.

Avoiding the temptation to oversimplify verb forms.

Date of writing: 31st August 2012.
Age of subject: 3 years and 2 months.


"Teacher, what's that word you said then?"

"Which word?"


"I said that?"

"Yes, just now!" Other students in the classroom nod in agreement and look at me bemused. I pause to think. I've got an audio cassette in my hand which I'm about to put into the cassette player. It's an English class and we're going to begin a listening task.

"And 'puton'? You said that too." another student said smiling. The others giggled.

"Cassette on! I'm going to put a cassette... on... I'm going to put... on... a cassette... to listen to. That's what I said." It now dawned on me that as Spanish students, the "puton" smacked of some Spanish swear word. But these were 16-year-olds. In those days, new to my academy and also to the speech of a native English speaker but nonetheless with a good intermediate level of English from school. Or on paper, anyway. Verb plus prepositional structures such as "to put on" with or without the complement in between shouldn't by any means be new and unknown language for them.

This sort of incident is very frequent in my English classes in Spain. Students raise their hands and ask me to explain my utterances, which turn out to be relatively simple verb phrases. They just hadn't understood them. "Pootitwai?" "No, I explain: put it away. Your mobile phone."; "Buksowt! What's that?" "Books... out... . Get your books out." Etc. etc.

Confusion in understanding spoken verbs.

It's not that I speak too quickly in front of my students; the reason for their difficulties in comprehending spoken language, I believe, lies in the way they have learnt English in the early years at school. Without going into a lengthy criticism of English language learning textbooks or teaching strategies, if you just take a standard modern version textbook and open it to the back pages, you'll see a page or two dedicated to the English irregular verb. It comprises a list; usually in three vertical columns each with a heading:

infinitive - past - past participle.

The table then lists in alphabetical order all the irregular verbs that the author believed were relevant for that level of English. It almost invariably starts:

awake - awoke - awoken;
be - was/were - been;
beat - beat - beaten
...and so on.

The problems with learning verb tables in English.

This reference table is only too often deemed worthy of study by English teachers and dished out for homework: "Learn the first twenty verbs by Monday. I'll give a test!." The problem with such an approach is that most common English verbs are more frequent together with a preposition or adverb particle than in the stand-alone form represented in the irregular verb tables of English text books. When we are talking to our potentially bilingual children in that L1b language (their second first language) we should not make the mistake of simplifying utterances of one word verb structures in the belief that this will facilitate acquisition - like some sort of Red-Indian talk.

Verb-learning and bilingual children.

The above advice may be of greater usefulness to those parents who are not native speakers of the L1b language and who strive to teach their children at home. Native speakers have the advantage that this usage of the language sounds much more natural - even so, it is often tempting to simplify for the sake of allowing easier understanding. Let's look at some examples: I say to my daughter, Carmen, when we are going out for a walk:

"Have you got your shoes on? You've got to put your shoes on? Go and get your shoes and I'll put them on for you."

At first hearing, an apparently straightforward instruction sounds terribly complex. The complement can go either after the preposition or between the verb preposition structure: "put your shoes on" or "put on your shoes". Note, however, the verb "put" here (listed in verb tables as "put - put - put") is impossible as a stand-alone verb. There is only sense if we say "put on". When communicating with our children, we should then stress this verb-preposition relationship as much as possible rather than trying to disguise it because it seems complicated. We should also place emphasis on the phonetic liaisons: put_on, shoes_on etc. We often find (as with the "books out" example above) that the verb itself even becomes redundant. So if the parent feels he/she needs to simplify, structures such as the following sound natural in spoken English:

"Come on, shoes on!" (put your shoes on)

"Coat on?" (Have you got your coat on?)

"jacket off!" (Take your jacket off)

"toys away!" (Put your toys away)

"tele off!" (Turn the television off)

"in you go!" (get in [the car], you)

"out you come!" (get out [the car], you)

"down you come" (taking child off a wall etc.)

Carmen now comes up to me and says when she's ready to go out for a walk:

"Boots on, Daddy!"

"Good. Come on, trousers up and shirt in, it's cold out!" (pull your trousers up and tuck your shirt in).


As so many of our utterances to our children comprise instructional type language, we should take care to present the verb structures in true colloquial English and avoid the mono-verb language reserved for training dogs and, unfortunately, Spanish school children: "come, sit, stay, lie, fetch the stick!"

So long!


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