Language students take to Colombian cultural dance

Two weeks ago Paula Jaramillo had only a vague idea what mapalé looked like. But on Thursday, the 10-year-old put on an energetic performance of the traditional Colombian dance for a dozen camp mates and a handful of parents.

“I put it on my TV and I looked at the people [dancing] and I said, ‘I am going to do that,’” said Paula as she flounced around the room in a ruffled skirt and dangly earrings.

The act was the sort of culturally-inspired, self-motivated learning that characterizes the Spanish-language summer camp, which is taking place at Incarnation Community Center in Glendale. It is an extension of the Gift of Language after-school program offered at several Glendale and Burbank schools.

Founded in 2007 by then-La Cañada Flintridge resident Farah Hussein, Gift of Language is designed to introduce students to a second language via games, music and dance.

Students range in age from three to 11 and come from throughout Southern California, said Director Jackie Amaya-Garcia. Some speak Spanish at home, while others are enrolled in Spanish-language dual immersion programs during the traditional school year.

But many come with little to no Spanish at all, she said.

The goal is total immersion — students are forbidden to speak English, Amaya-Garcia said.

Participants start camp with 10 “pesos” which are then deducted or added based on a student’s utilization of the language. If a child is caught speaking English, for example, they lose a peso. If they use a new vocabulary word in a sentence, they gain a peso.

At the end of each week, students can use the currency to purchase some at the program store, such as a Spanish-language DVD, CD or game.

“Yo tengo doscientos” — “I have 200,” one child called out when asked how many pesos she had racked up during the first two weeks of camp.

The benefits of being bilingual are tenfold, parents said.

“If he decides to travel, it will be useful, or if he is interacting with people that don’t speak English he can speak their language,” said Cindy Carter, whose son Conor is studying Spanish for the first time.

Summer camp highlights have included learning about the indigenous communities of Latin American, and watching his teacher dance Flamenco, 10-year-old Conor said. But the no English rule is strictly enforced, he added.

“Since we are not allowed to talk in English, it is really hard to communicate,” Conor said.

Students learn tongue twisters in Spanish, practice holding conversations on the phone, perfect the art of eating a taco and learn the tradition on the quinceñera, Amaya-Garcia said. On the final day of camp, parents will join the students in staging a booth representative of a specific country that they have studied.

“One of the girls is already dreaming in Spanish,” she said.

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