Learning About Different Cultures Through A Second Language

Episode 206 – Teaching young children to celebrate cultural differences is key to raising a racially conscious society. In this episode, we interview Sarah Farzam, CEO and Founder of Bilingual Birdies, a program that uses music, movement and puppetry to teach children a second language. We talk about how learning a new language can be a great first step to engaging with a culture and why it is important to have age-appropriate conversations with young children about race. 

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Episode Transcript

Sarah FARZAM:

So, those have been really powerful and beautiful professional development opportunities for schools who are looking to have that conversation in a meaningful way with the kids and make them feel excited about learning. Because at the end of the day, if you feel seen and heard you will be more excited about coming to school.

Ron SPREEUWENBERG: 

Sarah, welcome to the Preschool Podcast!

FARZAM:

¡Hola! Thank you for having me! I’m excited to share with you all today.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

We’re excited to hear about it! We’ve got Sarah Farzam on the show today. She’s [the] founder and CEO of Bilingual Birdies. So, Sarah, welcome to the show. As we always do, let’s start off learning a little bit about you and your background and why you decided to start this thing called Bilingual Birdies.

FARZAM:

So I’m Sarah and I am half Mexican and half Iranian. And I grew up in California speaking many different languages, as you can imagine due to my family. And basically, I started Bilingual Birdies because I really wanted to give children an opportunity to increase their cross-cultural awareness and sort of celebrate diversity, embrace diversity, and have that all done through a very joyful process of play-based learning where they get to learn new vocabulary and short phrases through music, movement, dance, puppetry, theater-based play.

And so it’s an opportunity for children to learn Spanish, French, Mandarin, Chinese or English. And again, it’s all done with this very joyful method that we’ve put together through 13 years of experience now. I launched in New York City in 2006.

And we are a team of bilingual educators, bilingual musicians, bilingual music therapists, bilingual actors and actresses, bilingual early-childhood educators. And everyone, I would say, who is a part of the team has a genuine love for children and really understands that importance of sharing their language and culture with kids.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

And when you first started Bilingual Birdies, what was your mission? And what were you really hoping to get out of it?

FARZAM:

Yes, it was really… I mean, I started when I was only 24. So, I really still have a genuine love and respect for young children. And so the real intention of why I started it was, again, to create a space where children can feel very proud of who they are and where they come from. And if it’s a student who’s coming to take, for example, a Spanish class, and they might have one Puerto Rican grandmother or half this and half that.

And also, if it’s just a family that has zero connection to Spanish speaking language, I think that’s also a real opportunity because kids get to be introduced to this thing that’s different from them – the quote-unquote “other” – in a way that’s super positive.

And so I wanted it to be so that when kids hear Chinese and they’re in kindergarten and there’s someone who’s sitting next to them who might be Chinese, “They’re not like me. What’s that? Weird.” No, it’s like, “Awesome, cool! I know how to count to ten! All the colors! I know the farm animals! I learned this in preschool!”

So, it’s really about empowerment for those who have any connection, a cultural heritage and also an opportunity for cross-cultural awareness.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Yeah, that’s interesting. So, I guess part of it is just so that children don’t see and hear things that make them feel like, “Oh, it’s different or it’s unusual.” It’s like they’re familiar with it and it’s like something that would be normal and expected.

FARZAM:

Yeah, I mean, it’s like, “That’s different but it’s cool.” It’s not like, “That’s different and eww, gross, I don’t understand that.” No, it’s all about embracing the diversity instead of rejecting the diversity. So, I think language is one of those first two ways – of course your appearance, the color of your skin is the first way that people will notice that you’re different. And then second would definitely be, in my opinion, language or an accent, if you have an accent – which, by the way, I love accents.

So, as soon someone sees you, there’s an understanding that you’re different. And then as soon as someone hears you, there’s an understanding that you’re different. And so our goal is to use language and culture to really have that positive first introduction to this different thing. It’s not about trying to make everyone like, “Oh, it’s not different, we’re all the same,” because we’re definitely not all the same. I think it’s really important to sort of make mention of that. It’s about recognizing that there’s a difference here and celebrating that.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Cool. And two-part question: How has your own upbringing that you told us a little bit about informed your work at Bilingual Birdies? And secondly, on the other side of that, how has Bilingual Birdies helped you to develop and learn? Has there been something that you’ve really taken away that’s maybe surprised you? Or something that you’ve learned over the years from doing Bilingual Birdies?

FARZAM:

Yeah, for sure. So, my upbringing was very multicultural. As I mentioned, my mom is from Mexico and my dad is from Iran. So, I grew up speaking Farsi and Spanish and English in the home. And it was a very exciting upbringing. We always had lots of parties, the family parties. And someone would be reading poetry and somebody else would be singing songs and somebody else would be telling jokes. And it was like a variety show every week in my home.

And really through this enjoyment of the arts and music, it really inspired me to have that always be a part of my life. That to me feels normal, growing up with that type of exciting entertainment. And I would really say education through this type of entertainment, right?

So, when I first got started with Bilingual Birdies, I knew right away that I wanted the methodology to be rooted in a music [and] play-based type of learning. So, as we got started, I was like, “Okay, we’re going to do this thing. We’ll teach ten to fifteen new words in every class. Like, wouldn’t that be so cool if you go to a music class and it’s not just happy, fun times in English, but it’s a language there and then it becomes educational entertainment? And we can use all these fun mediums.”

So, I never really wanted to overwhelm the children or have too much information. But as the weeks and months started to go on, and years, I realized that preschool children are so curious. And so we often might set out to teach 10 to 15 new words and by the end of the class, it’s maybe double or triple that because they want to know, “How you say these colors?” And we’re doing a class on pedestrian safety or transportation. And they’re like, “Well, what about a rocket ship? That’s a mode of transportation, too!”

And so we end up teaching them a lot of the things that they’re learning in the developmental world of young children in their home language, but in our classes and in a second language, right? Or for some of them, maybe a third language. So, I always thought that was really cool that we were like, “Okay, let’s attempt this.” And then, actually, the outcome ends up being even more beneficial for children’s development and literacy. So, it’s pretty cool.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Very cool. And I imagine a lot of your programing is done face-to-face with children in childcare programs. How has COVID-19 impacted you in that regard?

FARZAM:

So, Bilingual Birdies, what we do is we make partnerships with preschools and early-childhood centers. And we teach our classes – the [age] 2’s class and the 3’s class and the 4’s class – we make the rounds for infants, toddlers and preschoolers. As I mentioned, we got started in New York City.

And we also have created a licensing program. So Birdkit is basically my 13 years of experience transferred in a box over to any person who is bilingual, can get trained and certified online to start their own Bilingual Birdies business and share their language and culture to teach children online and earn money from home.

So, of course, with COVID-19 all the schools are shut down. Some have opted to do online learning, which is great. And then we also offer caregiver and child to that to the public. So, I know that a lot of early educators have been laid off due to these difficult, unprecedented times that we’re living.

And for me, entrepreneurship has really been a path to having my purpose in my life, financial freedom. And it’s my greatest honor to be able to offer that to other bilingual entrepreneurs and bilingual budding entrepreneurs. So, if there are people out there who are looking for a way to have a side hustle, or for a way to bring an extra income into their home, or for this to be a primary income, we have created an opportunity where it’s zero [dollars] upfront and you can pay monthly, $75US a month.

And we basically give you a training of our methodology online, a business boot camp, your own website, all your marketing materials, a classroom kit of instruments of the maracas and puppets and all the stuff that you need to teach. And then monthly new themed curriculum. So, we offer Spanish, French, Mandarin, Chinese and English.

And if you are bilingual in any of those classes and would like to share the language and culture, we have created this opportunity for early educators who are bilingual to earn money from home. And I think that has probably been the most impactful part about COVID-19, is to really give that opportunity to bilingual early educators.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Very cool. Yeah, and I know through the Podcast interviews we’ve been doing through COVID-19, innovative and entrepreneurial approaches are really important during this time to make ends meet as businesses and as individuals. So, this is an interesting idea.

And so it does sound very affordable to get going. And how does it work? So, you said you would provide a website, materials. And then if I am an early-childhood educator who’s taking this on, is it my responsibility to then go find customers and families who want to participate and then deliver the programing, sort of thing?

FARZAM:

Exactly. So, basically, it’s either for individuals who have been laid off and are looking for a new way to bring an income or for a school who would like to have an additional enrichment program.

So, that’s another thing that’s been interesting: a lot of schools have been contacting us now because of this online learning situation, they want to add more content for their offerings to the families, right? And so that that’s also a good thing for schools.

So, if you’re an individual who is a bilingual educator and/or a school who has bilingual educators at the school, you can go to www.BilingualBirdies.com/License and there you can apply. And basically, there is an application process in which you fill out some information, submit an audition video. We guide you through exactly how to do that, which is basically singing “Wheels On The Bus” in Spanish or French or whatever language you’re going to be teaching. And then you submit that and we go through that. And there is an application fee so we can run your background check. And then basically you get approved.

And then we set you up with the training, 45 different, beautiful videos of how to teach children a second language through music and movement and puppetry and really a lot of fun, fun, fun times there. And then we give you access to the Birdkit boot camp. And then we mail you a classroom kit of instruments. And then you go into a peer-to-peer network of other Bilingual Birdies educators who are supporting one another across the U.S., Canada, Australia and beyond.

And it’s a super positive, a way to do something that can be sharing your own skillset and your own true, authentic self with children. And then, exactly, you need to have a bit of a network of friends and family where you can promote the classes and enroll students, which we also give you online booking software to do that.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Awesome. Sounds like a pretty comprehensive and well-thought-out program. You mentioned the word “enrichment” and I understand you have a professional development program for early-childhood. And can you tell us a little bit about that?

FARZAM:

Yes. So, we offer potential developments, which used to be in-person and now we’re also doing them online. So, basically right when COVID-19 hit we immediately started offering online classes via Zoom. And I would say in the last three months, we have definitely mastered how to engage children online. I know it’s a big challenge for a lot of early educators with the kids being so young and keeping their attention through a screen.

So, we use puppetry by and largely to do that. Of course, music and movement [as well]. I would say that it’s certainly become like a bilingual Sesame Street situation where we’re teaching children different languages through the computer.

And so our PD [professional development program] shows… we have a few of them but I would say the most popular one right now is about how to show early educators the most effective ways to engage children online using puppetry and how to enhance social-emotional development using the puppetry and really get them interested in what you’re teaching in any subject, right? So, that can be primarily in story time or whatever the activities are that you’re doing.

Other PD’s that we offer, one is called Global Passport. And that’s all about embracing diversity, using music and movement. And that’s an opportunity where educators can figure out how to infuse language and culture into all areas of their learning instead of just maybe having “culture day” once a year and bring in students from all over the world and play music from all over the world.

This is really an opportunity, how can you have create a space where all children in your room and your class are feeling represented and like they’re empowered about who they are, where they come from and their cultural heritage in a very beautiful, respectful way that can educate the entire classroom about that with any subject that you’re teaching?

So, these have been really, really powerful and beautiful professional development opportunities for schools who are looking to have that conversation in a meaningful way with the kids and make them feel excited about learning. Because at the end of the day, if you feel seen and heard, you will be more excited about coming to school. And that’s what we’re all after in the end, right?

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Absolutely. And speaking to empowerment around your cultural heritage, with widespread protests against police brutality, against people of color and for anti-racism, do you feel there is a heightened importance for programs like Bilingual Birdies?

FARZAM:

Absolutely. I feel that there has been a heightened importance for programs that teach anti-racism for a very, very long time now. And I think that it’s been… we’re actually late to the game, right?

So, I think that what is happening right now to our black brothers and sisters and the Black Lives movement, it deeply, deeply saddens me to see the pain in the community. And I can only hope that this is the loudest wake up call for white and non-black Latino allies to step it up and figure out, do the work, do the homework that is urgently needed to ensure anti-racism in your classrooms and your homes and beyond.

And I think that we don’t need to reinvent the wheel. There are so many resources out there that already show how to do this. I think that children can handle these conversations, even at such a young age. And I think that Bilingual Birdies is an opportunity to celebrate diversity, right? And as I mentioned, I think that learning a second language is an opportunity to build a bridge. And I think that can be your own personal peace protest, learning how to communicate with other people.

I also think that I want to make sure it’s clear that just signing your child up for a Bilingual Birdies online class… or these things are good, but it’s also not enough. The conversation really needs to go beyond celebrating diversity and multiculturalism and really review what aspects of our lives and our child rearing and bringing up the children that we can really identify where we can do better and ask ourselves the difficult questions: What is white privilege about? How can we combat this daily in our lives to ensure that we grow up to be more open-minded adults?

And it’s not enough to just sort of be like, “Well, I’m not racist, so I’m good.” That doesn’t count. Everybody needs to review how they can do better and have these conversations. We have books and movies and conversations with their children, of course in an age-appropriate way.

Like I said, there are so many resources. One that I really like that I follow is www.instagram.com/TheConsciousKid. And so you can check them out on Instagram. They’ve been putting out a lot of information of how families can have more and more resources to have these conversations with their children. Because now is the time, right?

And yes, Bilingual Birdies is in full support of the Black Lives Matter movement. And while we also on our Instagram are putting out as much information as we can, researching obsessively about quality resources for families to have anti-racism conversations with their children.

So, yes, celebrating diversity, taking language classes is a good start. There is so much more that you can also do. So, I encourage everyone who is listening to involve themselves in a meaningful way and to take action and make it as uplifting and positive as you can so that we will have a new day. I am hopeful for that and I’m looking forward to it.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Yeah, it’s a great message. And certainly early-childhood educators are in a position where they can and must take responsibility to be part of and lead conversations on anti-racism with our youngest children. That education component is so important. And as early-childhood educators, we have such a large influence on that. So, thank you for sharing that.

Sarah, if I’m listening to the Preschool Podcast and I want to check out Bilingual Birdies or I want to get in touch with you, where can I go to get more information?

FARZAM:

Sure. So, our website is www.BilingualBirdies.com. If you’re interested in online classes for your own children, you can visit www.BilingualBirdies.com/Zoom. And if you are a bilingual early educator out there in the U.S., in Canada – of course French is very popular for Canada and the US. – any of the languages anywhere, I know that you have a following in the Middle East, which English could be great for them there, if they’re interested.

If you are bilingual and you are an early educator and you speak Spanish, French, Mandarin, Chinese or English, and you’d like to share your language and culture with children and earn money from home, I invite you to visit www.BilingualBirdies.com/License and ignite a bilingual education movement in your community so that we can, like I said, have a brighter future for children and see how we can transform our world ourselves.

I think that’s really at the root of what we’re trying to do, is transform communities to understand that languages, cultures, different people, they’re awesome. They really should be embraced and celebrated every single day. So, invite all of you to check out the opportunities that we have put together with a lot of love and diligence and care so that people can succeed in this field.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Awesome. Thanks for sharing that message, Sarah. Thank you for sharing this opportunity with our listeners, which sounds pretty interesting. If you’re looking to get involved, definitely get in touch with Sarah at www.BilingualBirdies.com. Sarah, thank you for joining us on the Preschool Podcast today. It’s been great having his guest!

FARZAM:

Thank you!

Carmen Choi

Carmen is the Marketing Coordinator and Preschool Podcast Manager on the HiMama team. She's been working with childcare business owners and consultants for 3 years. She is passionate making connections that empower the ECE Community through knowledge-sharing to support better outcomes for children, their families, and society!

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