During the first week of this school year—among the dozens of informational printouts that came home with my first grader—I received a schedule of “specials” that my son would be taking. Along with art and music and gym twice a week, I was surprised and absolutely thrilled to when I learned that he would be studying Spanish once a week.
I knew that in our district Spanish instruction starts during the elementary years, but I thought it was a subject reserved for the older kids. Just a few days before, my son and I had actually had a conversation about how he was determined to learn to speak Spanish and discussed what we could do at home to help him achieve his goal.
Though both of my own parents were native Spanish speakers from Puerto Rico, English was my first language and I’ve never spoken Spanish fluently, so teaching my kids the language is a big challenge for me. When I learned that he would be starting instruction at school that very first week, it was such a relief! I was honestly surprised that my children would have this educational opportunity from such a young age, especially at a public school.
I initially thought that even though it’s not indicative of the rest of our district, perhaps it was because my son’s school is over 40 percent Latino. But after talking with a few other parents and doing a bit of research on the district’s curriculum, I learned that it’s actually a district-wide standard.
On back-to-school night, I made a point to meet the school’s Spanish teacher and learn about the program so that we could get as many tips from her as possible to further support my boy’s learning at home. She explained that our district actually has one of the top public school elementary Spanish programs in the country and that while many elementary schools teach Spanish language education, often times they aren’t very formal or in depth.
In our district children receive actual hands-on Spanish instruction with a goal of becoming fluent in conversational Spanish. When my son gets home from school we always talk about what he learned in Spanish class, and he often comes home other days curious about how to say certain things in Spanish.
Things like letters, numbers, colors and the vocabulary for every day items come up all the time, and while we’ve been slowly teaching both of our children some Spanish words since they were tiny, it happens more organically now.
According to the Center for Applied Linguistics about 25 percent of public and private schools in the U.S. offered foreign language instruction in the year 2010, but that number includes middle and high schools, where most of the programs are offered. Most children in America get a much later start than children in Europe for example, where in many countries it is mandatory for children to learn a foreign language before the age of 9.
Though Latinos are no longer the fastest growing minority group in the U.S., we still represent nearly one fifth of the population and Spanish is the second most spoken language in the country. Along with Chinese, it is one of the most useful languages in the entire world. Regardless of the fact that we identify as Latinx, it’s something I would have wanted my kids to learn. In fact, a lot of my non-Latinx friends are prioritizing teaching their children Spanish as well.
Now that I know we are luckily enough to have the support of our local school system, the task of making our bilingual goals a reality seems a lot less daunting. We’ve actually enjoyed the added benefit of my toddler learning alongside her older brother, and because both kids are interested, me and my husband are using the language a lot more at home. In this case, the public school system has benefited our entire family and given me another reason to believe foreign language education should be a national standard for elementary schoolers.