María Ibarra is an inspiration to us, and it was such a delight to be able to interview her about her family’s experience in the immersion program at our partner school, Holland Language Academy.
María’s son, Alex, is six years old and throughout the interview, you can really feel the pride that she and her husband Juan have in him and how excited they are about what the two-way immersion program is helping him to achieve. By elevating and affirming Alex’s home language and culture, enabling Alex to communicate across generational lines, and providing a way for María to advocate for and be involved in her son’s education, the two-way immersion program has, in María’s words, changed their lives.
The conversation was recorded in Spanish, so I’ve provided a summarizing English transcription below for those who’d prefer to read their way through the interview.
Stephanie: So, María, thank you for being here.
María: No, thank you, Stephanie.
S: We would like to ask you some questions about your family’s experience in your son’s immersion program, but first to get to know you a little bit, we would like to know a little bit about your family. We’d like to know your first names and ages or stages of your family members.
M: My name is Maria Ibarra. My husband’s name is Juan Alvarado. My child’s name is Alex Alvarado. I have just one son who is six years old.
S: What immersion language is your son acquiring and what school does he attend?
M: He attends the Spanish program at Holland Language Academy.
S: Very well, thank you. And, how did you and your family decide that immersion would be the best educational option for your son?
M: Well, we decided on it because I don’t speak much English, so for me…[Alex] comes from a family of Hispanic heritage, so the most important thing that I liked was that he will learn both languages. That was what grabbed my attention the most; that he would be able to acquire the Spanish language more than anything.
S: Very well, so then, he’ll be doing that [learning Spanish] along with English, or rather, both languages.
M: Both languages. That called my attention the most because, well, I’ve experienced that with many people their children know only English and they forget where they came from. For me, because I don’t understand English, my child by learning two languages will be able to help me translate. It’s a very beautiful experience with this program.
S: I’m interested in something that you said there which referenced the idea of recognizing who the children are and their personal stories and culture. Can you talk a bit more about how this program is helping maintain that cultural identity, all the while helping students acquire a second identity?
M: Yes, as I mentioned previously, we come from a Mexican family, and often times the children who are born here [in the U.S.] are born with the English language. So for us, as Hispanics, it’s a little more difficult for our children to dialogue with someone, right? So, when they offered me this opportunity, I saw that my son opened up a little bit more while speaking the Spanish language.
S: Thank you. You already mentioned various thoughts on the reasons why you decided to place your son in the program, but why do you think it’s important that he learn English and Spanish at the advanced level? Or better said, why is it important that he learns both languages to the point where he speaks them, but also reads and writes in them? Because it’s not enough to solely speak it…
M: Oh, of course not. Practically, I think that any child, well…I have heard the experiences of people that I know who tell me, “My child speaks Spanish, too.” But, I when I think about speaking it and writing it, they’re two different things. At best any child can grab onto the language to speak Spanish, but not take out a book and start reading. So, that is the most incredible thing…that you see your child reading it, and then on top of it can translate it. It’s something incredible. One thing is to speak it, but it’s another, something very different, to be able to write it and read it. And, that’s the difference. Any child can grab onto Spanish living with their Hispanic family [who speaks Spanish in the home], but he won’t develop completely because they have to learn how to write it and read it. Reading in Spanish is incredible.
S: So, you’re talking, I imagine, from experience and evidence that you have seen with your own son. So, would it be possible for you to describe for us a little bit one of those stories that you’ve experienced in which you’ve seen the development in your son?
M: Yes, sure. I have many stories. Many stories and anecdotes have happened to me with my son. But, I’ll tell you about a few experiences. One day he surprised me because I was, like… How would you say it?…in a process where I was talking with an American person and I didn’t know what he was saying to me, so suddenly, my son answered and translated what he was saying. I was surprised, and I turned around and said, “Wow! My son is answering! He is translating!” So, that was one of the experiences that surprised me because I hadn’t heard him. It is important also to pay attention to the children [what they do and say]. And, well, that was what surprised me. Also, his father sends me messages, or people send me text messages and he himself [Alex] reads them to me! He even answers them for me! He answers his dad’s text messages! Why? Well, he already knows how to write and he knows how to read, so then, that also surprised me. When he says, “Mi papi dice esto…” (“My dad says this…”), I say, “Wow!” There are a variety of experiences that I have observed.
S: So you’ve seen, essentially, development not only in Spanish, but also in English. Even though he is learning the majority of the time in these first years of this type of program in Spanish, his capabilities are transferring to English because he could translate with his own voice that conversation. And then, seeing the texts from his dad arrive in your messages! It’s impressive.
M: Yes. The truth is that I’m surprised by the development and learning he has experienced. And, all of that was just halfway through the school year. It wasn’t even at the end of the year! That was only four months into the school year cycle, and wow, I see it as incredible.
S: How wonderful. What pride!
M: Yes! Actually, when I share this, I’m filled with, I don’t know…satisfaction and I try to keep motivating the program, to, yes, support my son constantly in the program.
S: What do you notice happening with the interactions among his friends? Do you see that he has many friends in his class with whom he plays? In your program, there are many children who are learning English as their second language, and other students who speak English as their first language. How do you view that dynamic in the classroom?
M: Practically speaking, he says he learned both languages through experience. Before entering this cycle, or what is this program, he did not have a lot of experiences with many other children. He was very timid when relating to other friends. He was very closed off to friendships because the majority of the students spoke English. He didn’t know much English and so he stayed more with Spanish. Then, when he entered this new school year, he began to open up a bit more. He had many more friends, he would speak and I would say to him, “Look, you seem like a parakeet because you just talk, talk, talk!” He tells me, “Yes, mommy! It’s that I have a lot of friends! I started to have more friends!” He no longer has difficulties making friends or relating to more children. He, as soon as he sees a friend, invites him to play, whether it’s in English or in Spanish! For him right now, any child who is in front of him at any given moment, he’s able to relate to them as if they were friends. He doesn’t have any difficulties talking to adults either. That’s what I saw. That my son opened up a bit more with respect to this experience. He has no difficulties in relating to others.
S: How great! So, you’re seeing the benefits that are social in nature, apart from the academic and linguistic benefits in Spanish, and that his time in the program even with extended time dedicated to learning in Spanish is not having any negative impact whatsoever on his English language acquisition.
M: Oh, of course not! What surprises me about him is that I don’t know where he’s getting so much English learning in! Because at the same time that I have him in the academic program [in Spanish], he’s not forgetting any English! I was so surprised by him because he can relate to kids who speak English! Many parents, we thought that…well…I had my husband Juan who thought that, maybe if we have our son in this program he would forget or not learn English. And, I told him that it’s the exact opposite! He will learn an additional language! My husband doubted, and he thought that he would forget English or not learn it. But, he also has noticed experiences of our son and has said, “Wow, it’s good that you recognized and decided to put him in this program because, really, I see that he’s not losing either of the languages!” And, that’s thanks to the program, truly.
S: Well, María, the last question that I have to ask you is related to interactions that you’ve described having with other parents. Please talk a little bit about what you would say to parents who are considering enrolling their children in a dual language immersion program like the one Alex is in. What would you tell them if they have worries or concerns such as the ones you’ve mentioned, such as… “I’m worried that my child won’t acquire English”, or “I’m worried that she’ll be behind academically.” What is it that you would tell them?
M: Well, really, I would say that as a mom…I really…I, too, like I told you earlier I didn’t know anything about English. It was very difficult for me to talk to the teachers. I don’t know if there are other moms like me who don’t know English. So then, I struggled a lot with my son. But, thanks to this Academy, I participate in many activities at the school. I participate in field trips with my son. I participate in meetings. This program has helped ME open up even more and involve myself in this program with my son. My child can see me more now at school because whatever activity there is, I participate. Why? Because at the school I find myself with people who speak my language. This program is helping me, because I’ve become more involved and whatever doubt I have I can solve it because there are people there who can help me. In other experiences, in another school where they spoke solely English, I really struggled to express concerns that I had about my child, and they couldn’t help me because I didn’t know English and I didn’t understand them. For me, there were many experiences that were extremely difficult, and so truthfully, I sometimes cried because of an inability to advocate, because of feelings of desperation…all because I didn’t know English. And I said that I didn’t want for my child to go through a situation like the one I was living. Yet, my child when he was in another school had a question or concern, but he would tell me that he was told, “I don’t understand you” [when he expressed it]. So, my child’s self esteem automatically went down. So, for me, to see my child suffering, and to watch his self esteem go down, and to hear him saying he didn’t want to go to school because nobody understood him…for me that was a moment of desperation, and a time to say, “I need something different for my son and for me.” So then, thank God that I found this program and my life has changed. My son’s life has changed. His self esteem. He doesn’t want to miss a single day of school. So, for me, I would recommend families to not be fearful. Truthfully, the English language they’ll never miss out on because we’re in a country where English is everywhere. Also, to see your child speak with their grandparents in Mexico, and to watch them speaking clearly in Spanish, that experience I also had when my own parents said, “Wow! I thought your son was going to speak only English!” And, to see him, how he speaks with them in Spanish is a beautiful experience. I, to all of the parents who are hearing me, I would tell them to not regret it, to not be afraid and that, practically, this Academy is to open us up a little more and to help acquire an additional language. I invite them to help us participate, to help us make sure that this voice, this Academy will never be part of what is the past. We want it to be our future. So, thank you so much for listening, and I hope that my story reaches many other parents like me who have struggled greatly with translation.
October 30, 2016