The earlier the better on foreign languages

CHAMPAIGN – As an international flight attendant, Elizabeth Dickerson knows how useful speaking a second language can be. Many of her co-workers speak multiple languages.

Unfortunately, she doesn't. She's learned a few words and sometimes resorts to pantomime to communicate with passengers.

But she wants her children to be fluent in a second language, and the Champaign school district only offers foreign languages for grades 8-12. Foreign language teachers in the district have been studying how to improve and expand the program – even to the elementary level – and the school board will hear their proposal Monday night.

In the meantime, Dickerson took matters into her own hands. Several years ago, she recruited teachers, contacted other parents and opened up her home for classes.

Middy McCarthy of Champaign teaches Spanish to a class of third-graders and a class of fifth-graders, and two University of Illinois students teach two groups of kindergarteners. Most are students at South Side Elementary School, where Dickerson's children attend.

On a recent afternoon, a group of fifth-graders were sitting around the dining room table, asking and answering questions about their ages, their birthdays, the days of the week and the weather.

In the basement, kindergarten students were working on naming body parts, using a poster with the parts labeled with their Spanish names.

"What is la cabeza?" asked Julianne Atchison, a UI student and one of the teachers.

"Ear, ear, ear," one student said.

"Mouth, mouth, mouth," answered another.

"Eye?" guessed a third.

"It's the head, good job," she said, once she finally got the right answer.

Even though the students have been in class all day, they are still enthusiastic about learning after school, McCarthy said.

"It's really fun because they're never afraid to try a word," she said.

And the learning isn't only about Spanish. McCarthy has students do math problems in Spanish to learn their numbers. She teaches them geography. And she believes learning Spanish is helping improve their English.

"They seem to learn more about the English language when they are learning a foreign language," she said. "I think in their minds they're seeing how important language is, the position of words, and the nouns and the verbs and the adjectives."

Dickerson said the small classes give the children a lot of opportunities to participate. She's limited the size to the number of children who can sit around her dining room table.

"I just want it to be a real happy time for the kids, even though they are learning and it's right after school. I want it to be a real positive thing, and create good memories," Dickerson said.

Her 9-year-old daughter Claire is having fun, but she can't yet keep up with native speakers.

"I've been to Mexico and the Spanish didn't really work because they talk too fast," she said.

Isabella Ritz, also 9, has an older brother taking Spanish in high school.

"Sometimes we can have a little conversation but he knows more than me," she said. "We can talk in front of my mom, and she doesn't understand anything."

Parent Stephanie Jaeger grew up speaking both English and German.

"I think one of the greatest gifts my parents gave me was learning another language," she said.

She wants to give her children the same benefit. Her daughter, Hannah, 9, is in one of the classes in Dickerson's home. Jaeger said she and her 4-year-old are both learning a bit of Spanish from Hannah.

"We practice at the breakfast table, and it becomes a family affair," she said.

Jaeger would like to see foreign language offered in Champaign's elementary schools, "not only for the sake of learning another language and culture, but it improves linguistic abilities," she said. "It breaks down biases, barriers, prejudices."

Sections (2):News, Local
Topics (1):Education
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