Love for languages finding its way into local schools

May 13, 2014

By Neil Pierson

Every Wednesday morning since October, seven children have gathered inside a portable classroom at Blackwell Elementary School to play games.
The games, however, aren’t simply about having fun. They’re part of Foreign Language for Youth, a nonprofit organization that is teaching foreign language skills to elementary-aged students in the Puget Sound region, from Mukilteo to Olympia and dozens of places in between.
Blackwell is the only school in the Lake Washington School District to offer the program, which has been around since 1995. It’s also at six schools in the Issaquah district – Cascade Ridge, Creekside, Discovery, Endeavour, Grand Ridge and Sunny Hills.
Families pay up to $299 to enroll a student in FLY – $50 scholarships are available to families who qualify for free and reduced-price lunch programs – which runs from October through May. Students attend a 60-minute class once a week, either before or after the regular school day.
FLY likes to keep its class sizes cozy – no more than 10 students – but Blackwell has generated enough interest in foreign languages to fill four classes: two for Spanish, one for French and one for Mandarin.
Karli Barich, FLY’s regional director, has been speaking Spanish since she was in elementary school in Mukilteo. Her mother, Konni, founded the program 19 years ago and serves as its executive director.
FLY offers younger students an experience they might not get if their elementary school doesn’t have its own foreign language option. While studies have generally debunked the idea that adults don’t learn second languages as quickly as children, it doesn’t hurt to start earlier.
“We’re definitely pushing for early language (skills) before the age of 12,” Karli Barich said. “They soak it up; they’re like sponges.”
Marta Ramos, a native of Madrid, teaches the Spanish classes at Blackwell. Throughout the year, she’s used various games, videos and activities to pass along knowledge.
Her students have learned more than 1,000 vocabulary words and are able to speak and understand Spanish in a few social situations, such as ordering food at a restaurant or traveling on a plane.
“That’s only meeting once a week,” Barich said. “I can only imagine what it would be like to have even just 30 minutes a day.”
Ramos, who also speaks French, is in her third year as a FLY instructor. She also teaches at Cascade Ridge in the Issaquah district.
After her Blackwell students conducted final presentations April 30, Ramos said she saw definite progressions in their skills over the past seven months.
“Some of them, they came here with no Spanish at all,” she said. “And now they’re able to have a very basic conversation.”
At a final presentation,, Ramos’ students acted out scenes in costume in front of their families. They shopped for a home with a realtor, gave and received instructions as flight attendants and airline passengers, and served food as waiters, waitresses and chefs – all in Spanish.
“We are having fun and they are learning,” Ramos said, “and they don’t realize the things they are learning because they are playing.”
FLY’s youngest students are typically first-graders, Barich said, although some kindergarteners are accepted into the program. They’re taught to read and write before learning the spoken language.
Spanish, French and Mandarin are FLY’s main language programs. Arabic, German, Japanese and Korean curriculums are taught at a few select schools with specific needs.
None of it would have happened without Konni Barich’s determination, her daughter said.
“She started coordinating the program and it went from our elementary school to the next one down the street,” Karli Barich said. “And now we have a lot of school districts and schools that are teaching it.”

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