It’s Tuesday afternoon, the day after Halloween. Today is the day of the week when my kiddos and some of their friends are met at the bus stop by Morgan Fraser, their Spanish teacher. Each week Morgan takes time out of her busy life to walk this crew down to our house where they will spend the next hour learning the basics of the Spanish alphabet, reviewing their numbers and learning playground-ready words like ‘costume’, ‘candy’ and ‘black cat’. Some weeks the topics include naming family members or learning their colors. Each lesson is different but there is always a little play-time and frequently the game of choice is red light, green light but it is always lead in Spanish (Español) by Morgan. It’s this simple weekly routine that has really started to reinforce to my children the value of learning a second language.
Certainly, when I was growing up, the opportunity to learn a foreign language didn’t even present itself until sometime in high school. By that point in my life my brain was already occupied with boys, athletics and the rapidly approaching deadline of applying to college. Learning another language fell pretty low on my priority list and in all honesty, was never mentioned by any adults I knew as something of value that should be taken seriously. But that was in northern Wisconsin in the 90’s, where a majority of the population was Caucasian (99% or more) and exposure to anything other than the English language came from family vacations or maybe watching a foreign film now and again.
My children are growing up in a different sort of reality from the one that I knew. With over 40% of their school district coming from Latino roots, a bilingual education is all but guaranteed, required and expected for that portion of the population. There is the expectation that non-English speaking students will learn a second language and most school districts provide ESL resources to help make this happen. But this path is not a two-way street. For native English speaking children there are no resources offered that help them to learn to communicate with Latino friends in their native tongue. So as time moves on, one population will graduate with dual fluency and the other will not. And without the ability to communicate via a shared language at a young age, oftentimes playgrounds become segregated based off of these disparities, a trend that has a way of continuing itself well into adulthood. So in order to buck this trend I decided two years ago, before my daughter was even enrolled in school, that I would start having my children tutored in Spanish.
The schedule has never been very rigorous…only about an hour a week and no classes during summer vacation. In the years leading up to the tutoring my kids had already spent a decent amount of time being exposed to other languages via material available on-line. I researched nearly every free app I could find for our tablets and downloaded games, YouTube videos (mostly Perro y Gato) and new lessons regularly to keep things interesting and help them progress on rainy days when they would whine to me that there was ‘nothing to do!’. Not only were they exposed to Spanish but also Japanese, Chinese, Danish, German and sometimes Arabic depending on their desires and interest level. Even with this very loose plan of attack my kids have started to accumulate a second language, one word at a time.
And last year, I felt affirmed for my effort by a ‘proud parent’ moment that happened when my daughter received a Citizen of the Month award from her school. As a kindergartener she used her limited Spanish skills to work with her Latino classmates on group assignments like science projects and mathematics. She wasn’t old enough yet to feel self-conscious about that fact that she isn’t a fluent speaker. She just used the words she had learned to help bridge the language gap in the classroom and it was a great ice-breaker for meeting, making and keeping new friends that were not native English speakers. Now, in first grade she still has those same kindergarten friends. They are helping each other to learn both English and Spanish by exchanging playground words and slang.
In the end, that really was my only goal. I want my children to understand that language is only a small, surmountable barrier that separates you from getting to know the rest of the world. Maybe the most important words to learn in any language are ‘hello’, ‘please’, and ‘thank you’. Those are the basic words of friendship and respect; something we need a little more of in this crazy world.