This is an article from the fall 2017 issue of LSA Magazine. Read more stories from the magazine.
Since 2010, the En Nuestra Lengua program has offered Saturday classes for bilingual children in Ann Arbor. En Nuestra Lengua, which means “in our language,” runs all of the classes in Spanish to help children raised in Spanish-speaking homes remain bilingual and become biliterate. The program was founded by Department of Romance Languages and Literatures Associate Professor Teresa Satterfield.
Bilingualism and biliteracy have all kinds of positive effects, Satterfield’s research finds. One consequence is an increased efficiency in how the brain processes language. And retaining a language spoken at home prior to school-age years means that, as students get older, they have better outcomes in learning a second language than they would have had if they had simply abandoned the first. But there is a more personal outcome for many students, Satterfield says, and that’s the ability to connect daily with one’s family, to discuss the details of one’s day, one’s classes, one’s friends and anxieties.
LSA: Can you describe the En Nuestra Lengua program in your own words?
TS: It’s my passion. En Nuestra Lengua is both a community program for outreach and also a program that we’re gaining a lot of data from. There is not a lot of research that’s being done on kids in the United States who are perfectly bilingual and biliterate. In the United States, what typically happens is kids who come from a home where they’re speaking a language other than English are cut off from that language at kindergarten when they start school. They don’t have an easy way to continue developing in their home language in terms of literacy, which means that they lose some crucial parts of development and typically don’t recover.
We now know that for kids who don’t get to continue with literacy in their first language, that cutoff actually stunts their growth in the second language as well. So if we want these kids to be functional in English, then we are actually doing them a disservice. Because they haven’t continued their home language, then they really don’t have the building blocks, or hooks, to latch onto concepts from English. So they have to start from scratch. And so we see, by fourth grade, these terrible literacy statistics for Latinos, and by high school the highest dropout rate of any other group in our country.
LSA: What were some of the challenges of starting a program like this?
TS: When we decided to start a program like this, we investigated lots of other U.S. “Saturday” schools: Hebrew schools and Chinese schools and German schools and Arabic schools. There are all these different ethnic communities that have schools precisely to carry on language and culture and literacy, and those kids seem to do well academically. They do well in English. They’re grounded. They have more of an identity. And we know from research that if you have a strong cultural identity, then you seem to have greater academic success. So we were thinking, well, what happens in the Latino community? Why aren’t we seeing these kinds of Saturday schools there?
So we decided to do this American flavor, hands-on educational program where the kids are the central focus. We go in parallel with the Ann Arbor Public Schools curriculum, and so the kids are getting the same content that they are getting during the week in English, but on Saturdays we do it in Spanish. And because we do it that way, now the parents know what the kids are doing in the regular school, and the kids are getting this reinforcement from what they’re doing in the daily school, and then they can talk to their parents about it in Spanish. So it’s win-win.
LSA: It sounds like the program requires pretty close collaboration with parents and community partners.
TS: We definitely touch base with the teachers that the children in our program are involved with. We also do workshops in the Ann Arbor schools so that teachers and administrators who are experiencing the demographic shift firsthand can better support Latino families in the school.
It’s a new situation for everyone. Many Latino parents, more and more of whom are immigrants and refugees, are intimidated by the American educational system. Parent-teacher conferences don’t happen in Latin America. There, the teacher is the authority. You don’t question it.
In En Nuestra Lengua, parents are present in the classroom. They do presentations and participate in parent-teacher conferences. And we see that once the parents do all of this in Spanish, then they are a lot more apt to go into their child’s other classrooms and become more proactive. They participate more. And it’s so huge for a child to see their parent in their school, being active in their child’s education — these little things are so important for a child’s self-esteem and their identity.
LSA: Do you have a favorite activity or lesson?
TS: So the main thing we try to do is make Saturdays fun. It’s Saturday, right? It’s school, but it’s Saturday.
So we usually start with a kind of hot potato game where there’s music playing with Spanish lyrics and there’s some kind of ball going around and the music stops. And the child with the ball is not out. As a matter of fact, they want to get the ball because then they get to ask a question or say something about their week or rave about their favorite color in Spanish. Younger kids, they love all of that, but we do the same thing with the older kids. We usually put stickers on the ball, and each sticker has an interesting question in Spanish or it has the name of a classmate and they have to think of something good to say about that person.
The kids love the game, and I love seeing the kids laughing to start school. I know they don’t necessarily get to start their regular school day like that. I love walking through each of our ten classrooms and seeing the sense of belonging these kids feel and hearing all the kids laughing, starting well, speaking Spanish. It’s great.