Los Angeles Times

Goodbye English, hola Espa¿¿ol

It's Friday afternoon and instructor Vanessa Vega is leading her students through a wedding favorite — the Macarena.

She is having the children, ages 6 to 10, sing a modified version of the catchy tune meant to teach them body parts in Spanish.

"Manos, manos, dedos, dedos, pelo, pelo" — hands, hands, fingers, fingers, hair, hair — she sings, followed by a resounding "heeeey Macarena!"

The after-school program, Gift of Language, is designed to set students on a bilingual path by introducing them to a second language through games, music and dance, said Jacqueline Amaya, regional director with the program.

It was founded three years ago by Farah Hussein, then a La Cañada Flintridge resident looking to teach her children multiple languages starting at a young age out of the local community center.

Classes are now offered at several Glendale Unified schools, including Mountain Avenue and Dunsmore elementary schools, as well as Burbank Unified and others. In addition to Spanish, languages offered include Farsi, French, Mandarin and Russian.

Learning a second language opens children up to a new world of travel, friends and culture, Amaya said, while giving them an academic boost. Classes comprise a mix of students who are completely new to the language, and heritage learners who may have grown up in a household where the second language was spoken, but they never fully mastered it.

"We add the cultural aspect — music, games that are typical of that country or that language," Jacqueline Amaya said. "It is very lively."

Gift of Language classes focused on fun; many times the children don't even realize that they are learning because they are so focused on the competition, Vega said.

"They learn right away how to speak it in sentences," Vega said.

Friday's class took place in the library at Bret Harte Elementary School in Burbank. During the hour-long lesson, Vega kept her students in constant motion, moving them from a round table to a spot on the rug and back, playing, singing and dancing.

Some of the children said they have already put their language skills to use.

"There is a kid in the class next to me; he only speaks Spanish," said 10-year-old Addison Hellum. "So I sometimes can hear some of the words he is saying."

Kelli Frankman, whose two daughters, Abbie, 7, and Katie, 6, are enrolled in Gift of Language, looked on. Speaking Spanish could be an advantage for them if her girls remain in Los Angeles where there is a large Spanish-speaking population, Frankman said.

"They love it because they are playing games and don't realize that they are learning at the same time," she said. "It is very interactive and fun for them."

Abbie and Katie keep their Spanish book in the car and flip through it reciting the vocabulary words during drives, Frankman said.

"Last semester when I asked them about it, Katie said, 'Is this just on Fridays or is it every day, because I want to go every day,'" Frankman said.

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