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“I learned to speak a second language when I was 16. I learned to speak English in my country,” she said. “But I really learned it when I came here.”
Being surrounded by a language all the time and having to speak it by necessity, not just by taking classes, made Leon fluent in English.
Leon now is a teacher at World Language Academy, where students are immersed full time in language and cultural studies, and without paying tuition.
“From the country where I’m from, just very, very wealthy people can attend schools like this,” she said. “To have it in a public school is just amazing. You see students here whose families have a lot of money, and you see students who go without necessities, and they sit next to each other. ... In countries like mine, in Colombia, you could not even dream of this.”
Leon teaches advanced Spanish at the academy’s intermediate school, where fifth- through sixth-graders learn all the usual subjects — math, science, social studies. But those subjects are taught in Spanish 50 percent of the time, and students are also able to study Mandarin Chinese, Portuguese and French.
There is also a primary school where children in pre-kindergarten through fourth grade learn in Spanish for up to 95 percent of the school day, with the amount of Spanish used decreasing as they get older.
“Standardized tests are in English,” noted Anita Vera, guidance counselor at the intermediate school.
The only class taught exclusively in English is English/language arts, while Spanish/language arts is taught only in Spanish. Other classes are taught in both Spanish and English, or in Spanish one year and English the next.
Broadening cultural horizons
Seventh-grader Edgar Bonilla, 12, says his parents sent him to World Language Academy in first grade because they wanted to preserve his ability to speak Spanish, his native language.
“In kindergarten and pre-K, I liked to speak English more, so they thought I was losing my Spanish,” he said.
Now, Edgar remains fluent in both languages, but he has a slight preference for Spanish.
“It helps me understand social studies more because in English I have a hard time pronouncing the names of the countries ... and in math because I grew up learning math in Spanish,” he said.
Leon said there are three main types of students at World Language Academy: Students whose families only speak English at home; students from families where Spanish is spoken at home, like Edgar’s; and students whose parents have a Spanish-speaking heritage but usually speak English.
Third-grader Marijane See, 8, started at World Language Academy in kindergarten. She said English is the primary language spoken in her home, but with her sisters, Willow, 10, and Arora, 6, also attending the school, Spanish is becoming used more commonly.
“It’s usually English, but me and my sister speak Spanish to my baby brother, and since we’ve been teaching him so much English and Spanish, he’s saying lots of words,” Marijane said. “I like this school because we learn more languages.”
Along with the dual immersion in English and Spanish, Marijane takes classes in Portuguese and Mandarin Chinese.
Leon said all of the language teachers at the school are native speakers.
“The point is to immerse the students in Spanish, and not just in the language, but in the culture, too,” she said. “Our goal is to help in the construction of global citizens.”
Language study, she said, ties in naturally with cultural studies.
“We have teachers from Spain, South America, China, Central America,” she said. “(Students) are able to interact with people around the world, people who see life in a different way.”
The environment at the school, she said, is the next best thing to visiting another country.
“We have traditions and culture and stories. We have a lot of this we share with them,” Leon said. “It’s not just about language.”
Vera said this cultural exposure is especially helpful to students who want to pursue global careers like diplomacy.
“I definitely think it will help them in the future, even just being sensitive to other people’s needs and culture,” she said.
Popular career goals for students at the intermediate school also include teaching, working in the medical field and immigration law. Fluency in Spanish, Vera said, can help them advance in any of those careers.
“I mean, that’s how I got my job,” she said.
Claudia Goss, guidance counselor at the primary school, said learning can be more challenging at a bilingual school, but the challenge pays off later academically.
“Bilingual students, once they reach fifth grade, they start outscoring their peers who go to single-language schools,” she said.
“It demands more attention,” said Sonia Alvarez, a first-grade teacher. “They have to be focused because it’s really important to understand the vocabulary. I speak Spanish all of the time (in class).”
In a dual immersion program, first-grade teacher Nohemi Guzman said,“everything in your whole being is involved in the process of learning.”
“(Studies) say the benefit of learning a second language is not just having the language,” Leon said. “It also facilitates acquisition of knowledge in other subjects like music, like science, like math.”
It’s not just the language students are learning, she said, but the process of learning itself.
A second language also facilitates understanding of the native language, she said.
“Your brain starts making comparisons between the second language and your own language,” she said. “You learn more about your language as your brain notices the differences.”
While teachers and administrators look to the academic and cultural benefits of language education, many students just enjoy the knowledge they have.
Marijane writes the numbers one through six in Mandarin on a notepad, and excitedly says she can count all the way to 99. She is happy to let everyone know she has knowledge of four languages.
“We speak Chinese, we sing, we even do the weather in Chinese,” she said. “In Portuguese, I like to draw. (The teacher) gives us Portuguese words and we do drawings of them.”
Being a global citizen or a more efficient learner doesn’t cross her 8-year-old mind, but her love of learning is clear.