Learning to speak in new tongues

LA Canada

La Cañada-based Gift of Language founder and program director Farah Hussein speaks three languages. She hopes her daughters, Alysa, 6, and Iman, 4, follow in her footsteps and become more than bilingual.

Hussein began looking for enrichment classes three years ago. Unfortunately, most of the places she found that offered foreign language classes for kids were either too far away or held classes at inconvenient times. So Hussein decided to found her own program.

"At that point, the clock was ticking because it's very important to expose children to a different language at a very young age," said Hussein. "That's why I knew I had this window."

Hussein's next step was to meet with a group of teachers from school districts specializing in a variety of disciplines, from psychology to child development, in order to begin developing a curriculum. Because Hussein was living in La Cañada (her daughters attended Parents' and Children's Preschool in La Cañada), she decided to begin holding classes at the Community Center of La Cañada Flintridge.

The focus of Gift of Language is to make learning a new language fun by teaching classes that are game-based, Hussein said in a phone interview from Newton Square, Pa., where she's attending graduate school. This nontraditional way of teaching allows students to exit the formality of a classroom, where a teacher stands in front of a chalkboard and students tak notes at their desks.

"The goal was to replicate a toy store, or a game store," Hussein said.

Gift of Language has a staff that teaches students Mandarin, German, Italian, French and Spanish. Classes are offered in La Cañada, Glendale, La Crescenta, Pasadena, Northridge, Burbank and Tarzana.

One such class is taught at Mountain Avenue Elementary School in La Crescenta, where Spanish tutor Cendy Iraheta began the second hour of class Monday afternoon by playing a game of Simon Says.

In this version, Iraheta pointed to a different body part. The students were divided into two groups. Each student had to name that body part in Spanish. For every correct answer, the student received a bean for their group. The group with the most beans at the end won the game.

"Language is a tool," said Jacqueline Amaya, Gift of Language regional director of teacher development. "The idea is that we don't speak to them in English. We don't acknowledge them if they speak English."

Another lesson involved the use of flashcards, except that instead of just naming the object, the students were required to put the object pictured — in one case, a bicycle and a hat — into a sentence: "Connor tiene la bicicleta" ("Connor has the bicycle.") or "Wesley tiene el sombrero" (Wesley has the hat."). This allows students to begin to formulate sentences. Ultimately, the goal is that students will be able to hold complete conversations.

"They're learning the sentence structure and, most importantly, the language skills," said Iraheta. "If they're still confused about it, we go ahead and clarify that and play more games. To make sure they know how to use it, we play games with it — everything's games."

Gift of Language focuses on total immersion from the first day, even if the student has never spoken the language before. Instructions are given in English at the beginning, but that is the extent that English is spoken.

If a student cannot vocalize a need or question, they are encouraged to act out what they want, then they are taught to pronounce it in the appropriate language. Even after the lessons are complete, the language being taught continues to be spoken up until the moment they leave the company of the instructors.

"If they don't understand, we tell them, I know you're going to feel frustrated, but I want you to figure it out," Amaya said. "Once they figure it out, they become less frustrated."

Chris Kim, 8, of La Cañada, is learning Spanish as his third language. Kim, who is fluent in Korean, learned English as a second language. He hopes to follow in the footsteps of his parents and sister, who are already fluent in Spanish.

"They might get better at the language they're learning, if they're learning English," Kim said of ESL kids his age learning a new language.

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