Bilingualism is for kids

Parents give kids a leg up in global economy through Spanish immersion school

To parents, it may sometimes seem their kids are speaking a different language. For parents of students of La Escuela, they probably are.

La Escuela is a Spanish immersion school. Spanish is the vehicle through which classes are taught.

Melissa and Nathan Wilson founded the school two years ago as a summer program. The couple wanted to enroll their daughters, now ages 4 and 7, in summer Spanish classes without having to travel to Portland every day. The Wilsons were surprised with the progress in their daughters’ Spanish skills over the summer, compared to what their oldest daughter had learned at a Portland private school, and decided to make La Escuela a full-time school.

"We felt we were onto something and didn’t want to walk away from it," said Melissa Wilson.

At the end of its second year, La Escuela has grown to 36 students in preschool through first grade. The school will add a grade each year up to the eighth grade, when students are expected to be fluent.

Though Wilson was not bilingual when she started to expose her children to a second language, she knew there were benefits. It is easier for children to acquire a second language than it is for an adult, she said. If taught at a young age, children are essentially learning two languages at once, reducing translation time. An adult brain is hardwired to understand its environment in its native language. Learning a second language as an adult requires more connections and translations to understand it, said Wilson.

And becoming bilingual early on makes it easier to pick up a third or more languages later in life, she said.

La Escuela utilizes "Core Knowledge" curriculum that covers a broad base of subjects, including history, science, math, geography and literature. English grammar is taught in English, and homework is done in English to reinforce the subjects taught in Spanish. "The curriculum," said Wilson, "is challenging."

It’s the language the curriculum is taught in that interests parents, however.

"The majority seek out our school for the bilingual aspect," said Owens. "They want their children to acquire a second language early on."

Wilson said parents of the school’s students tend to be well traveled or originally from another culture and embrace diversity and the understanding of other cultures.

Bilingualism provides more than just opportunities to travel and an openness to other cultures. Today’s international flavor to business is creating a greater need for communication across cultures and languages.

Growing market
Spanish is the second most spoken language in the world and largest minority population in the U.S. Hispanics are a growing force as consumers and workers in this country, and business that can provide services to them have greater access to a large market.

While Schwabe, Williamson and Wyatt do not have specific initiatives to recruit bilingual employees or market the services of its attorneys that speak second languages, managing partner Mark Long said the firm takes advantage of the skills it has.

Schwabe has canvassed the "linguistic talent" within the firm, which includes Spanish, German and Chinese, among others, he said.

Dealing with a witness in court or drafting legal documentation in another language would require outside services, but through the bilingual talents of its attorneys, "There have been times we have been able to draw in and help our clients, where otherwise we would have struggled."

Shop talk
Like legal jargon, medical terminology seems like a language all its own. And in matters of health, clear communication can mean a matter of life or death. Southwest Washington Medical Center is well aware of the need to provide services to the non-English speaking population. According to Public Affairs Coordinator Ken Cole, the hospital recorded more than 37,000 interpretation encounters over the phone and onsite in 2005. The hospital provides round-the-clock interpretation services and employs three full-time-equivalent interpreters. Spanish, Russian and American sign language, in that order, are the most commonly used languages by non-English speaking patients. The hospital’s Family Medicine of Southwest Washington clinic, Healthy Steps Women’s and Children’s center and the emergency room and birthing center make up most of the interpretation encounters.

The hospital cannot rely on family members to interpret, as they can be inaccurate or may "filter" the translation to keep from upsetting the patient.

An interpreter isn’t always necessary, as many staff members are bilingual. The Healthy Steps clinic has 10 bilingual staff members, said Cole. Twenty-nine percent of the clinic’s patients are Spanish-speaking, he added.

When the hospital advertises positions, it lists second-language skill as preferred.

"We prefer to have folks with bilingual skills in any clinical setting," said Cole.

Finding employees that are fluent and comfortable playing that role is not always easy to do, but is becoming more common.

The number of bilingual employees at the hospital has grown, said Cole.

"It reflects the changing population," he said.

The non-English speaking population has grown and the job pool includes more who learned English as a second language, noted Cole.

Schawbe has never hired specifically for the need of bilingual skills, but "All things being equal, it doesn’t hurt," said Long. "It offers an additional dimension.

Long said there are times when language skills give an advantage in business.

"Like it or not we are operating in a globalized economy," he said.

Spanish is frequently spoken locally, and, being on the West Coast, Pacific rim languages, particularly Chinese, are becoming increasingly important, said Long.

"(Bilingualism) is going to grow by necessity," he said.

In non-English-speaking countries, most good schools introduce a second language, typically English, early on, said Wilson. English speaking countries are low on bilingualism, she added.

Cultural divide
Having an understanding of cultural differences can go just as far as speaking the same language in establishing relationships. La Escuela’s teachers are all native Spanish speakers and the academics are as culturally accurate as possible, said Wilson. The school’s students graduate kindergarten writing cursive, just as they would in a Spanish-speaking country. And it is expressed to the students that this is a cultural difference, said Wilson.

Through a grant, The WSU Vancouver education department created the TEAMS program to provide graduate-level courses to certified teachers in Southwest Washington to allow them to earn English as a second language endorsements. The program includes gaining an understanding of the school system kids come out of in their native countries. Sue Ballard, co-coordinator of the program, said Russian schools are particularly rigorous and regimented.

"It is quite an adjustment when they come to the U.S.," said Ballard, who notes Clark County’s school districts have a large number of Russian immigrants.

The demand for bilingual teachers is increasing as the population grows, said Ballard. And an ESL endorsement is one of a few specializations that make a teacher more desirable.

Preparing for the future
While the U.S. may be behind in encouraging bilingualism, Wilson is beginning to see a greater push for it. La Escuela will add second-grade curriculum next year and introduce a French language arts class to students. Mandarin Chinese has been a language requested by parents who have connections with China through their work.

The school will employee five teachers by next year and is looking to expand to larger space to accommodate up to 16 new students each year.

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