April 23, 2024
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Bienvenidos: Students lead local after-school language program

Students in an after-school program on Zoom through African Road Elementary School in Vestal learn Spanish from Binghamton University students. Students in an after-school program on Zoom through African Road Elementary School in Vestal learn Spanish from Binghamton University students.
Students in an after-school program on Zoom through African Road Elementary School in Vestal learn Spanish from Binghamton University students. Image Credit: Provided photo.

In many school districts, students don’t begin learning a second language until middle school, missing a valuable developmental window for language acquisition.

Assistant Professor of Psychology Anushree Karkhanis knows the benefits of early language exposure well: She’s both a multilingual neuroscientist and a mom. A member of the African Road Elementary School PTA, she worked with Romance Languages Department Chair Ana Ros Matturro to start an after-school Spanish program at the Vestal school.

Ros Matturro took the proposal to students in her class on Social Conflict Through Children’s Eyes: Latin American Film and Literature. The Binghamton University students were eager to participate; In the class, they learned the importance of childhood experiences in shaping perspectives, and saw this as an opportunity to showcase the benefits of bilingualism and cultural competency for the next generation.

“As a bilingual student, I believe that promoting bilingual education is not only a benefit to students but to society as a whole,” said class member Jennifer Brito, who worked with students in kindergarten and first grade. “The U.S. is an incredibly diverse country and ever-changing. It’s unfathomable that the education system hasn’t incorporated learning a second language in early childhood, rather than waiting until years later when it becomes more difficult to learn.”

The 30-minute after-school workshops were conducted weekly on Zoom, and split according to the age level of the elementary school students. The children asked the University students to teach them a wide range of Spanish vocabulary, from words to describe themselves to different types of trees.

First-grader Sophia Cirillo said she liked to learn new things, while fourth-grader, Leyla Kamil enjoyed playing games in Spanish.

“We have been learning words. Now it is time to use them in sentences,” Leyla said.

“It’s fun while you learn! My son thoroughly enjoyed it,” added Sonal Shrivastava, whose son Shaurya is in the fifth grade.

Learning wasn’t limited to the younger set. The University students strengthened their knowledge of the language, but also learned about motivation, language acquisition and the perspective that comes with early exposure to other cultures and communities.

University student Tyrone Gonzaga doesn’t come from a teaching background, and enjoyed the experience of creating lesson plans, interacting with students and helping them develop new language skills, he said. In her section, classmate Eve Losey created a book based on the students’ interests and incorporated the value of friendship throughout the story.

“Each page had a target word in Spanish that they could learn and say with me. They were very engaged,” she said.

Many of the elementary school students come from countries such as India, Romania and China and have multilingual backgrounds, observed Binghamton student Sofia Estevez. In an ideal world, students would begin learning languages in kindergarten, perhaps more than one, she said.

Classmate Crystal Hernandez first began learning Spanish in kindergarten herself.

“I wanted to make the sessions as enjoyable as my learning was back then,” she said.

Ros Matturro and Karkhanis plan to continue the program in spring and beyond. Other Vestal schools have also expressed an interest, they said.

“I have heard many positive thoughts about the sessions from parents; they are excited that the kids are getting exposed to a second language,” Karkhanis said. “In the future, we hope to grow the program to include multiple languages.”

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