¿Hablas español? Language program for kids takes flight in Issaquah
January 31, 2012
By Celina Kareiva
Students riffle through articles of clothing in “La Tienda de Ropa,” a make-believe clothing store in a first-level Spanish class.
“La bufanda!” and “El vestido!” they shout as their teacher instructs them to repeat after her.
These 10 boys and girls, all between the ages of 6 and 11, are a part of a growing program in Issaquah. Foreign Language for Youth, or FLY as it is also known, is an after-school series that equips elementary school students with foundational language skills in Arabic, French, Spanish, Chinese and Mandarin. Featured in 15 of the state’s school districts, the program uses games, conversation and activities to engage young pupils who are otherwise not exposed to foreign languages until later in their school careers.
“Students are like sponges at this early age,” Konni Barich, founder and director of FLY, said. “Their brains are so malleable that they just take in information.”
FLY is unaffiliated with any formal curriculum, although lessons are often held in a district’s schools to make for a more conducive learning environment. The students in one first-level Spanish course, for example, practiced their clothing vocabulary in an empty classroom after hours at Cascade Ridge Elementary School.
The teacher asked them to pretend they were shopping at a clothing boutique in Barcelona. To place something in their shopping basket, they would first have to order in Spanish. The student with the biggest pile of loot at the end of the game was named the winner.
“When you have these fun activities, kids don’t even realize they’re absorbing the information,” parent Anne Freeman said.
Freeman enrolled her son in the course at Cascade Ridge because she remembers struggling with languages as a young girl. Learning early on, she hoped, would better equip her son for the future.
“You have to be able to understand other cultures, it’s not just about language alone,” Freeman said.
Barich first got the idea for FLY when her three children, now in their late 20s, were enrolled in elementary school. While volunteering in the classroom, she realized the students lacked any substantial foreign language curriculum.
“I was frustrated,” she recalled. “I thought, well that’s great, they make tortillas or whatever dish. But what I wanted is for them to actually learn the language.”
Talking to fellow parents revealed that she was not alone in her frustration. And so Barich, a former nurse, took the initiative. In 1995, she opened FLY. In the coming years, she researched, grew and fine-tuned her curriculum, until she felt she’d developed a set of courses that was both engaging and effective.
Barich admits that it can be difficult to retain students because the program isn’t formally recognized as a part of their school curriculum. Even one year of language, though, she said, is beneficial. Since the inception of FLY, she has witnessed a range of success stories. She has seen students graduate from the program, master several languages at once, even return to teach. Her own daughter, Karli Barich, is one such success story.
Karli is now assistant director of the program after majoring in Spanish and honing her skills abroad for a year.
“It encourages cultural empathy,” Karli said of FLY. “We have native speakers teaching these classes and they get to learn all about their culture and their country.”
Karli can remember stepping into a taxi in Spain, after spending years studying the language and realizing how little of it she actually understood. It’s this understanding, that conversation and dialogue are the crux of any foreign language program, that has inspired FLY’s curriculum.
Karli added that peer pressure and the shame of making a mistake often discourages students from fully practicing a language. Starting children at an earlier age, when they’re still too young to be unsettled by peer pressure, gives them the building blocks to confidently study another language in the future.
In a region as diverse as the Pacific Northwest, Konni Barich said, linguistic aptitude is becoming recognized as a critical skill-set.
“I think it is one of the most important things we teach our children today,” she said of foreign language.
Learn more about FLY, including tuition information, at www.foreignlanguageforyouth.org/wp/category/walanguage.
Celina Kareiva is a student in the University of Washington Department of Communication News Laboratory. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.