How My Kids Learned Spanish and Changed the World

>>5-31-12 RHSPANISH01Last night was Open House at my kids’ school and I couldn’t understand a word the principal said. Although everything past “bienvenidos” was, to me, an unintelligible jumble of syllables, I wasn’t a bit bothered. I was happy knowing that at least to half of the parents in the room, the principal’s introductory speech was a breath of fresh air: it was in a language that made them feel comfortable and welcome.

My children attend a public school that practices >>language immersion. For us, this means that for 90% of my kindergartner’s day, his teachers speak Spanish. My second grader receives 70% of his instruction in his non-native language. Teachers at the school are almost all native speakers of Spanish, many of whom have recently moved from Central or South America. Signs, instructions, labels, and assemblies are all delivered en Español.

Considering that my foreign language skills are limited to broken requests for the baño or la biblioteca, enrolling my kids in an immersion school felt like a risky decision. Would I be able to help them with their homework? Would my sons hold entire secret conversations in a language I couldn’t understand?

Ultimately I was swayed by statistics that show >>significantly higher academic achievement for kids who learn in two languages. Across the world, students learn multiple languages from an early age, a skill which sets them up for global opportunities, the likes of which monolingual learners might never experience. At seven years old, my son Elliott already is functionally bilingual, and often eavesdrops on Spanish-language conversations in the grocery line. My 5-year-old isn’t quite there yet, but he does delight in showing off his rudimentary skills.

By the time my children hit middle school, teachers promise they will be >>reading and talking like a native speaker—a thrilling prospect. But believe it or not, it’s not the academics that have turned me into an evangelist for our immersion school. It’s the fact that our tiny school of 500 students bridges cultural and socio-economic divides in a way that’s downright revolutionary.

Half of the students at >>our school are native Spanish speakers who get to learn science, math, and social studies in their home language. All PTA meetings and school functions are conducted in Spanish as well as English, and parents who might not be comfortable with English don’t have to feel like outsiders in their children’s school. The administration offers numerous opportunities for parents to learn their non-native language, and matches speakers of Spanish and English together to test their abilities.

I grew up in a largely homogenous environment. My peers were white, my teachers were white, and I never met someone who didn’t speak English. I had no inkling of the fact that cultures existed beyond my Southern American Christian background. In contrast, my children now interact daily with people who come from a wide variety of backgrounds, a skill that I hope will help them develop an empathy for and understanding of diverse cultures that I still struggle with daily.

Today kicks off >>Hispanic Heritage Month, an event which runs through October 15th. Our school celebrates in a number of ways—from inviting parents in to talk about their home countries to hosting a school-wide assembly where teachers show off dances from their cultures. I’ve also been giving some thought to how we can celebrate in our home and in our community. Every day I feel like I learn a bit more about my fellow parents’ cultures, but I still have so far to go. Luckily I’ve found a community that can help me.

Do you know of any great North Carolina events celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month? Tweet us at #WomenAdvaNCe to let us know.

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