soaps & telenovelas

To learn a new language, immersion is the key.  For me, immersing myself in Spanish is just not going to happen unless I live in a different country.  But there are things I can do to help.  One of those things is watching some Spanish language TV.  Something full of body language is right about at my level.  So, a telenovela it is.  Spanish language soap operas are unlike ours in that the story is not endless.  They’re more like a mini-series and less like All My Children.

So flipping through channels one evening I landed on Telemundo where La Casa de al Lado sucked me in.  There’s a ghost, an evil twin, a beautiful mute quadrapalegic who knows too much, a scheming housekeeper who thinks she can speak English, and layers upon layers of intrigue.  As if this wasn’t enough, the entire production is drenched in dramatic music.  “¡Usted está vivo!” (cue music)  Bum-bum-BUUUUM.  “¡Usted no es mi madre!” Bum-BUM-BUUUUMM!  “¡Es martes!”  BUM-BUM-BUUUUUUUMMMMMM!  In fact, the music is so over-the-top I can hardly hear what the characters are saying,  Not really ideal for language learning.

Meanwhile Netflix suggested I would enjoy “장난스런 Kiss“, a Korean mini-series.  There’s a cheerful girl, heartless boy, goofy side-kicks and a long drawn-out story of unrequited love.  My inner-13-year-old is thrilled.  (Oh Netflix, you know me)  The music is cheesy Korean pop, but at least I can hear what the characters are saying.  And, much to my surprise, I understand a lot of it.  I’m 7 episodes in and feel like I can turn off the subtitles without missing much.

This is part of my problem when trying to learn Spanish; any time I’m struggling for a word, I automatically throw something Korean in there.  I guess it’s an argument for total immersion.  Although I took 2 years of Spanish in high school and a few casual classes since, it’s those 3 years of living in Korea that really ingrained the language.  This, despite the fact I was teaching English all day.

So while I figure out how we can move to a Spanish speaking country, I’d better watch more telenovelas.  What are your favorites?  Any with less Bum-BUM-BUUUMMM and more cheesy teen romance?

a little extra? or too much?

Last fall Violet’s teacher called me.  She wanted to know if we would let Violet move into Spanish Language Arts.  “Yes!” I nearly shouted into the phone.  After all, full immersion is the program we originally wanted for the kids.  But the way AISD’s program works, Language Arts is taught in the child’s first language for kindergarten and 1st.  This is supposed to give them a solid foundation in reading skills.  (I’m not sure, based on current research, that that approach is totally necessary for kids who grow up being read to and are familiar with letters and sounds.  It’s mostly geared towards helping kids whose families don’t have that kind of environment. )

At Violet’s school, the monolingual English-speaking population is slightly higher.  That means that her English class had a few more kids than what is ideal.  So they wanted to move some students who are reading at levels higher than 1st grade over to the Spanish class.  Solid foundation in English?  Check!  Moving on.

Violet is always up for anything new, so my immediate reaction was that she’d have no problem with the change.  Her teacher agreed, and expressed concern only about Violet’s… behavior.  It turns out (not surprisingly) that when she doesn’t understand something, her mind wanders.  And when Violet’s mind wanders, it’s not an inner dialogue.  Obviously that’s a problem for the teacher and the other children trying to pay attention.  Now I’m even more sympathetic to the ESL kids who struggle to understand their teacher and are labeled problem students when they tune out.  Remember trying learn a foreign language?  It’s exhausting.  No wonder these kids’ brains need breaks.

The wonderful thing about the dual language program is that the teaching is scaffolded to support the students while they’re doing all this tricky work.  In Violet’s case, she is allowed to write in English for now.  For example, their teacher read them a story about George Washington in Spanish.  The kids talked about it in Spanish.  Violet asked a couple vocabulary words, and then she wrote a summary of the story in English.  “George Washington died of old age.  He was a soldier.  He did such a good job he became president.”  (Knowing how to lead an essay with a good hook is hereditary, by the way.)

The girl reads a lot in English at home, so we’re not worried about that.  The only annoying part of this deal is that she has to do English writing homework once a week, in addition to her other homework.  (Which would take 5 extra minutes if she would just SIT DOWN AND DO IT).  And she misses her English teacher.

Next year all the kids will be taking Spanish AND English language arts.  But for now, I’m excited we get a little extra.  I learn her vocabulary right along side her each week.  Violet?  She’s not thrilled about the homework, but she seems to be surprising herself about how much she knows.

Rosetta Stone

Whew.  I just finished my first “live session” on the Rosetta Stone language learning program.  I got Level 1 for Mother’s Day because, as I’ve said, nothing else has been working for me.  Classes are expensive, time consuming, far away and only moderately useful.  With Rosetta Stone on my computer I’ve been able to sit down every day after the kids are in bed and practice for 30-45 minutes.  It’s almost like an addictive video game.  I listen, speak, write, read stories and play games (solo or online).  Once a unit is complete I can sign up for a live session.  For 50 minutes I see and talk to a Rosetta Stone “teacher”, a real person, on the computer.  She shows us pictures, asks questions and makes us speak to the other 3 students enrolled in the session.  It’s all total immersion.  No English allowed.  Exhausting, but exciting.  Unit 1 was mostly review for me, though, so it’s definitely getting more challenging.  I still haven’t downloaded the smart phone apps included in the package or listened to the CDs in the car.  (Since I have the kids with me most of the time, I really can’t mess around with a phone app or listen to anything but child-babble while driving.)

I’ve finished almost half of Level 1 and feel pretty comfortable with what I’ve learned so far.  I even noticed that I understood more of the conversations at a recent party we went to hosted by a friend from Mexico.

It turns out that AISD is offering Rosetta Stone for a really reduced price to parents of kids in the DL program.  We jumped on that so we can continue studying after Level 1.  After all, we can install the program on all the computers in the house.  Rob is going to study and Violet has already started.  She actually loves it.  Since she won’t be writing Spanish until 2nd grade, I disabled the writing section of the program and she is whizzing through it.

Bueno.  Must go study.

1st year wrap-up

“So say something to me in Spanish.”

That’s what most people ask Violet when they find out she has finished a year in a dual-language Spanish immersion program.  After that, my generally loud outgoing daughter shrinks back behind me and whispers, “I can’t.”

At this point I get a confused or pitying look from the person asking.  But the truth is, becoming bilingual doesn’t happen in just one year.  It takes 2-3 years of immersion to be conversationally fluent and 5-7 to be academically fluent.  (This is a big part of the reason that traditional bilingual programs, which end after 2-3 years,  have such a low success rate).  The kids are not supposed to be able to speak so soon in the process.  Since learning a second language follows the same trajectory as learning the first, expecting these students to converse already is like expecting a 1 year old to talk like a 3 year old.  Sure, the monolingual kids can sing a few songs and repeat a couple phrases, just like a baby can mumble through the ABCs without really knowing what each letter is.  But  the DL kindergartners quickly learn to understand their teachers, just like a toddler can understand the adults around him.  And, more importantly, Violet can explain to us what she has learned.  The life-cycle of a ladybug?  The behavior of shadows?  How to classify items as alive or not living?  She only learned about these things in Spanish, but happily explained them all to us in English.  (She can also recite the Texas pledge in Spanish and English.  Very important, apparently.)

So how was the first year?  That’s the big question.  Well, the answer is that it was a big year.  A lot changes for the girl.  She has matured and grown a lot.  She can read, has lots of friends, and can (mostly) follow rules.  The fact that half of this experience was in Spanish was really beside the point.  For the kids, getting used to school in general was , by far, the biggest hurdle.  Doing it all in two languages seemed normal to them.  They played, sang songs, communicated and did all the things that kindergartners do.

I, on the other hand, did not learn as much Spanish as I had hoped.  More on that later.

nota roja

I can’t say I was thrilled about this:

However, I am happy the staff are implementing the dual language program with fidelity, even when assigning “sentences”.  Violet insists that she was NOT involved in this alleged comida throwing incident.  But the whole table had to be punished.

Her lunch box was empty, though…

tired of fighting

Well, there is a good reason I haven’t been writing; school closure threats.  Ugh… state budget crisis, school district budget crisis, everyone looking to cut cut cut.  I won’t go into details, but let’s just say that our free time has been consumed by meetings, writing, meetings, outreach, meetings, phone calls, meetings, building websites, meetings, crunching numbers, meetings… etc. etc.

I’ve had to take a step back this time.  When we tried to open ACS it was just a handful of us vs. the state.  The utter exhaustion and frustration was very hard on our whole family.  We just can’t afford to do that again.  Thankfully this time we have more volunteers.  Still, it’s an uphill battle.  I don’t want to see any schools close, and I especially don’t want to see this Two-Way Dual Language program compromised.  We’ve worked too hard to lose it now.

Find out how you can help here.  Keep up with current Becker news here. Offer ideas or vote for ones proposed by the public  here. (Rob created that one.)

Hopefully we’ll find a solution that keeps all the schools open and we can actually get on with the business of regular life again.

Uh oh

This is what Violet brought home last month.  The teacher usually translates the directions, but not this time.  I pieced together most of it, but had to consult Google Translate for conformation.  And if I have to do that for kindergarten homework, I’m in trouble for the coming years.

But, for me, studying Spanish has proved to be far more problematic than I thought.  Classes are hugely expensive, and only moderately useful.  Plus, when would I take them?  It’s nice that there are some free websites out there, but how can I study with kids running around?  I suppose some people could accomplish this, but my kids actually insist on talking to me and asking me to do things.  In English.

I’ve accosted Spanish speaking parents at Violet’s school.  But I quickly ran out of conversational possibilities:

“Tengo dos ninos.  Mi hija tiene cinco años y mi hijo tiene tres años.  Umm…. Hace calor hoy.”

Aaand… that’s about it.  Clearly I must work on this.

first week of school — primer semana de clases

With all the emotions that go along with starting kindergarten, the whole dual language aspect has kind of been pushed to the back of my mind.  But since the first few days went well I’ve been able to take a breath and evaluate where we are.

Violet recently asked me, nervously, how she’s going to understand her teacher when she’s speaking Spanish.  I explained that her teacher is going to make sure she understands by using a few techniques.  Then we practiced giving commands (in my very limited Spanish) using sign-language and over-exaggeration.  “¡Necesito un baño!  ¡Por favor!  ¿Dónde esta el baño?”  She got the meaning.  Nothing like a little potty humor to ease anxiety.

I also gave her a little cognate lesson:

“What do you think “cho-co-lah-tay” means?”  I said, pretending to eat and making yummy sounds.

“Chocolate!”

“Well, there are a whole bunch of words like that in Spanish that sound almost the same as the English words.  Those will help you understand the rest of the sentence.”  I also explained that learning Spanish was going to take some time and practice, like anything else.  But the “time and practice” idea has never been a big hit around here.

The teachers spoke English and Spanish this first week, just while the kids are getting used to their environment.  I’m okay with that.  After all, they are in a whole new world.  So next week they’ll really dig in to the 50-50 model.  That is: half their subjects will be in English and half in Spanish.

The class is supposed to be 1/2 English speakers and 1/2 Spanish speakers.  I think the ratio in this particular classroom is closer to 60/40, but that’s still doable.  However, Violet said that, at her Table, the other 3 kids speak only English to her.  So, as I’m beginning to suspect, many of the Spanish speaking kids in the room are bilingual.  This means, at least for now, that most of the play will be in English.  Eventually this will even out.  As the kids get more comfortable and familiar with the languages, it will show in their play.  And play is when we really learn, right?

Bueno.  Ahora soy necesito estudiar español.

the number of languages we can speak now:

One.

Monolingual.  Pretty much.  Here is where we all are at the start of this linguistic adventure:

Cheris: I took a couple years of Spanish in high school.  Do I have to tell anyone that high school is probably the WORST time to learn a language?  It didn’t help that one of my teachers taught German most of the day and would lapse into it while explaining Spanish grammar.  I’ve been taking a Spanish class through a language exchange at Violet’s school.  One hour a week?  Not so helpful.  Mostly a review of what I learned in high school.

In Korea we learned the language in real life situations.  If we hadn’t, we wouldn’t have been able to eat, or travel.  So I’d say we have a very basic survival level of Korean.  Rob and I made a good team; in general I was good at gleaning general meaning and he was good at grammar/vocabulary.

Rob: He took French in high school.  Not so useful down here in Austin.  But I would argue that he is multilingual in that he’s a musician.  I’m not sure if there have been any studies on this.  Still, I have noticed, anecdotally, that musicians pick up languages better or faster.  Hypothesis: those  neural pathways are already there, ready to take in new sounds and patterns.

Violet: She was enrolled at a “bilingual dance” Mother’s Day Out program two mornings a week for about 18 months.   Granted, the program was more about dance than being bilingual.  I mean, the teachers would say everything in Spanish, but then immediately translate it into English.  Plus almost all the kids spoke English at home.  (So it wasn’t the ideal dual immersion program, but I was mainly interested in getting a break a few hours a week.)   She got some exposure to Spanish; learned colors, songs, numbers and a few commands.

Graham: He joined Violet’s school for a few months.  Aside from that, they were Dora and Boots for Halloween last year.  Does that count?

She got in!

Violet is starting dual language kindergarten this fall!  This is the culmination of three years of hard work and, while it didn’t turn out exactly how I’d hoped, I am SO excited.  And terrified.  And relieved.  And… well… let’s just say there is a lot to think about.

Here’s our journey in a nutshell:

We moved to Austin after teaching English in Korea for 3 years.  I got into the Foreign Language Education Master’s program at UT.  After Violet was born I wondered what dual language program she would attend, only to realize thatthere isn’t one here.

So I started my own website to to to mobilize like-minded locals.  Then I joined forces with Austin Community School, a proposed dual language charter, and eventually became board secretary.  This was the only DL game in town.  What happened for the next 3 years was a lesson in how ridiculous, frustrating, and scary bureaucracy and educational politics can be, especially in Texas.   Add this to the usual strains of recruiting and working with volunteers in the world of non-profits and the result is a lot of work for not a lot of reward.

So ACS is not open… yet.  But what about Violet and Graham?  The way dual language education works is that kids start in kinder or 1st grade and stick with the program for at least 5 years.  If Violet misses that window she’s out of luck.

Thankfully a new superintendent swept into Austin, turning the district’s long held belief about bilingual education on its head.  ACS joined in the effort to get a DL program started in AISD.  Their board eventually voted to start 4 pilot programs this fall.

They held a lottery for the limited number of slots, and we won a spot!  Unfortunately, the program isn’t in our neighborhood school.  But it is in a school close to Rob’s work.  He’ll drop Violet off every morning.

So this is the end of the beginning.  Now we see exactly what we’ve gotten ourselves into.  I have ridiculous amounts to say on the subject.  And you know what that means…  a New Blog!  Yes, I’ll be pontificating about dual language immersion and our journey towards becoming a bilingual family.