Immigrants Keep Children Bilingual By Schooling Them At Home

Many Spanish-speaking immigrants want their children to stay fluent in Spanish even as they learn English. Bilingual home schooling does that on a more personal level.

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Many Spanish-speaking immigrants want their children to remain fluent in Spanish, even as they learn English. In fact, a Pew Research study recently found that 95 percent of Hispanic-Americans think it's important that their children speak Spanish. Now, that could mean bilingual public or private school, but bilingual home-schooling makes it happen on a personal level. Solvejg Wastvedt reports on parents teaching their children two languages and two cultures at home.

SOLVEJG WASTVEDT, BYLINE: Ixeh is 6 years old, lives in Long Beach, California and knows all about butterflies.

IXEH: First, they're caterpillars. Those ew-y things that have juice inside.

WASTVEDT: He's showing off a dried-up caterpillar preserved in a little glass container and explaining the chrysalis stage.

IXEH: The crisalida.

WASTVEDT: Crisalida - that's Spanish for chrysalis. Ixeh learned science and all his other subjects in Spanish and in English. His mom, Ayopechtli, home-schools him in both languages.

AYOPECHTLI: (Spanish spoken).

WASTVEDT: Bilingual home-schooling is kind of an ambiguous term and there aren't any solid numbers on how many people do it. It can mean teaching every lesson in two languages, like Ayopechtli, or it can be less structured - just alternating between languages throughout the day. What makes it bilingual home-schooling is that the teaching and the results are more or less split 50-50 between the languages.

AYOPECHTLI: And obviously, it's my story, it's my history that I'm sharing with him. It's my knowledge that I'm sharing with him.

WASTVEDT: More immigrant families these days see staying in touch with their home cultures as an asset, rather than the liability it might've been in the past.

URSULA ALDANA: I live in a different time than when I know that historically, other immigrants felt like they needed to sort of assimilate.

WASTVEDT: Ursula Aldana teaches education at the University of San Francisco.

ALDANA: The reality is, I don't think that that's - that's just not the time that we live in. We live in such an era of globalization that it seems ridiculous to ask for that.

WASTVEDT: The school system has reflected that trend. The number of public and private duel language immersion programs has skyrocketed in the past decade from the low hundreds to around 2,000. You might think kids learning two languages would take longer to pick up specific skills, like reading or writing, in each. Aldana says that's not the case. The two languages work together to build literacy.

ALDANA: Literacy is really just understanding how language works and students being able to understand that writing and reading are sort of very interrelated - that happens in any language.

GIOVANNA BUSINARO: (Spanish spoken).

WASTVEDT: It's happening at the home of Giovanna Businaro, who lives in Long Beach and home-schools her daughter Lilli in Spanish and English. Giovanna keeps her culturally up-to-date with songs and stories.

BUSINARO: I will go to the library and ask the librarian, do we have any stories on "The Three Little Pigs"?

WASTVEDT: And movies. Take the movie "Frozen," for example. Giovanna figures she's heard "Let It Go" about 100 times.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LET IT GO")

ELSA: (Singing, in Spanish).

WASTVEDT: Lilli knows the lyrics in both English and Spanish. Giovanna says home-schooling lets Lilli take charge of her own education and follow her interests. That fosters a lot of independence.

LILLI BUSINARO: Mommy?

WASTVEDT: Sometimes, Lilli even keeps her mom on her toes. When Giovanna forgets to turn off the light, Lilli is on it.

LILLI: (Spanish spoken).

WASTVEDT: Giovanna is making sure Lilli can succeed in this increasingly bilingual world. She compares home-schooling to staff training she did at an earlier job. So is Lilli like, her employee?

BUSINARO: I would say she's more of my intern.

WASTVEDT: How's that?

BUSINARO: Because the interns coming in wanting to know what the job is like, right? And so that's what I'm trying to do - show her what the job is like.

WASTVEDT: The job meaning her life - in both languages.

For NPR News, I'm Solvejg Wastvedt in Los Angeles.

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