Karen Childress plays UNO with her two youngest children at the kitchen table, while her eldest son reads a book. The little ones shout out the colors and numbers, drowning out the sound of their brother slowly but correctly pronouncing each syllable on the page.
It is Spanish time for this English-speaking family. Exercises like card games and books sharpen their knowledge of the Spanish language.
Two of Childress’ children attend Northside Elementary School in Johnson City. Susana is in kindergarten and Elliott is in the fourth grade. The youngest, Foster, goes to day care. Childress doesn’t want them to have a late start developing the cognitive skills gained from learning a second language. That desire drives her to teach them Spanish at home since they aren’t learning it at school.
“Children learning a foreign language use their brain in a different way,” Childress said. “I don’t teach them Spanish so they will have an economic edge. It’s about brain development, intellectual abilities and being well-rounded.”
In January 2010, the Childress family left their home in Jonesborough for Bolivia, staying for three months to immerse themselves in the culture and language.
All three children attended school, where Elliott and Susana learned not only to read and write, but also to speak Spanish correctly. Childress said she has seen a new confidence in them because they have had to take the risk of going to an all Spanish-speaking school.
“My kids aren’t afraid of people who are different,” Childress said. “They have a language and a skill [so] that they can reach out to others, and that’s so important in this growing world.”
Her goal for them, as a family, is to retain not only the language skill, but also the sense of wonder.
“Hopefully, when they are older they won’t be afraid of learning new languages … or meeting new people,” Childress said.
Dr. Jodi Polaha and her children are in a playgroup with five other families with children under 6 years old. Each mother teaches a lesson. When lesson time comes around to Polaha, she first has to learn it, because she has taught herself Spanish.
“I never learned a second language fluently and it is an uphill battle now that I am an adult,” Polaha said. “I want to give my kids the advantage of having that skill.”
Polaha believes there are cognitive benefits for children who know foreign languages. During the lessons, they play games in Spanish, like “I SPY,” and she finds joy in watching the children use a foreign language creatively.
“I have taken online programs and had Spanish tutors, but by far learning it with my child has had the most outtake,” said Polaha, an assistant professor of psychology at East Tennessee State University.
She believes that since the Spanish-speaking community is rapidly growing, the language should be in the curriculum of elementary schools.
Despite this growth, a program that taught young children Spanish was removed from Washington County schools in the 2007-2008 school year. The same thing happened in city schools in Kingsport a year later. Johnson City schools do not offer foreign languages for elementary or middle school students, although a cultural awareness class in French is offered once a week at Lake Ridge School, said schools spokeswoman Debra Bentley.
“The School Board put this cutting-edge program in the area schools,” said Washington County Director of Schools Ron Dykes. “The purpose was to teach conversational Spanish to kindergartners and first graders, then annually add a grade level.”
A teacher and an assistant went to each elementary school to teach Spanish to English-speaking students. Rose Thomas, currently a teacher at Ridgeview Elementary School, took part in that program. It lasted for four years.
Although Dykes said he was proud of the program, he and the School Board decided to cut it.
“It cost $350,000 a year, and we needed to cut $1.2 million from the budget,” Dykes said. “The board chose to cut Spanish because it’s not mandated.”
Dykes said that the students’ education won’t be affected by the program cut because it will be the same as before the program was offered.
“It was a pilot, but beneficial,” Dykes said. “Kids were picking up Spanish and even the root elements of English.”
Dykes said if the County Commission provided enough funding, he would bring the program back.
“Hopefully,” he said, “that funding will increase.”
Kaira Parrish is a third-grader at Boones Creek Elementary School. She was a part of that Spanish program in kindergarten, but it hasn’t been offered to her since. She learned words for the colors and how to count to 20.
“My teacher told stories about Mexico, because she’s from Mexico,” said 9-year-old Kaira. “We played a game where she said a Spanish word and we told her what it meant.”
Cassie Parrish, Kaira’s mother, believes that a Spanish class would benefit her daughter’s education.
“When they had Spanish class, they weren’t tested on it,” said Parrish. “They had it once or twice a week and they would bring sheets to fill out at home. It wasn’t something they had to do – I mean, they had to participate, but it wasn’t a mandatory class like science or history.
“She learned a lot, especially since the way she was taught, the teachers didn’t focus on test scores.”
Lisa Himmel, a resource assistant at Jonesborough Middle School, said that she believes learning Spanish at a young age is valuable for not only English-speaking students, but for Spanish-speaking students who can be welcomed in their native tongue. Himmel said learning a language other than what they are accustomed to builds self-esteem and confidence in the children.
“Some kids in my class can still recall the Spanish they learned when the program was implemented, whereas the other students don’t know any,” Himmel said.
“The students who know it will teach it to the others and they pick up on the meaning.”
The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages supports teaching and learning languages in grade school. Martha G. Abbott, director of education for the council, said that because students should be preparing to live and work in a global society, they should be taught foreign languages throughout their academic experience.
“Beginning foreign language instruction early sets the stage for students to develop advanced levels of proficiencies in one or more languages,” she said on the council’s website.
“In addition, younger learners still possess the capacity to develop near native-like pronunciation and intonation in a new language. They also are open and accepting of people who speak other languages and come from other cultures.”
Parents like Childress and Pohala agree.
“It would be great if Spanish helped them get a better job,” Polaha said. “But if it’s just a simple matter of being able to appreciate another culture, being able to converse with people that are different than them that they haven’t met before, and it expands their sense of the world, that would be great.”