Clubs Ground Students in Language of Their Roots

Arlington Traditional School teacher Candace Frank watches Isabel Delaney, 6, left, Karla Valentin, 9, and Natalie Valentin, 8, play patty-cake in Spanish on the last day of the school's heritage program for the year. (By Lois Raimondo -- The Washington Post)
By Maria Glod
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 14, 2007

The fourth-graders at Bailey's Elementary School in Falls Church reached for pink paper, markers and glue one day last week to make Mother's Day cards. Their teacher, seizing an opportunity for a lesson in adjectives, asked them to think of words that describe their mothers.

"Bella," one student yelled.

"Buena," another added.

Dora Hernandez Manuel paused. "How do you write mucho?" she asked. With a little encouragement, she sounded out the word and finished her card: "¡Te amo mamita mucho porque tu eres bonita!" I love you, Mommy, because you are pretty!

Dora and the other children in the Bailey's Heritage Language Literacy Club speak Spanish as their first language. But although they talk with ease in their native tongue, they struggle to read it and write it because most, or even all, of their formal schooling has been in English. In the after-school club, they're reading and writing in Spanish, learning basic grammar and expanding their vocabularies.

As immigrants from around the world enter the United States, schools have long focused on teaching them English. But bilingualism is gaining favor among employers, educators and parents, fueling a movement to help children who are native speakers of Spanish, Mandarin, Arabic and other tongues master those first languages.

Educators say many first-, second- or even third-generation immigrant children speak socially in what is often called a heritage language but would be lost if they had to write an essay or a formal letter in that language. Research has shown that proficiency in a native language can help students become better English speakers. In an increasingly global economy, it also makes business sense.

"The thrust has always been focused on English because that's the priority. You have to get people to learn English or they can't get ahead," said Maria Carreira, a Spanish professor at California State University at Long Beach. "But I feel like there's been this realization that these kids have these enormous skills, and we need to give them special training."

In the Washington area, many school-run programs are geared to Spanish speakers. Several school systems have long had Spanish classes designed for fluent speakers, but those offerings are expanding. Schools in Anne Arundel, Loudoun and Prince William counties are adding new language classes in September for Spanish speakers.

Heritage language programs nationwide reflect local communities. Portland, Ore., schools are adding a Russian for Russian speakers class. Wisconsin educators are planning a pilot program that will allow Arabic- and Mandarin-speaking high school students to complete some assignments in their first language. When an increasing number of children from northern Africa and Senegal began settling in Prince George's County a few years ago, educators created a class for fluent French speakers.

The traditional foreign language approach doesn't work for many of these students. In early levels, they'd be bored as the class recited the days of the week or practiced introducing themselves. But they'd struggle to read literature or write cohesive essays in an advanced class.

"You sound like a kid," Carreira said. "You're fluent, but you sound like someone who is not educated."

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