Promoting bilingualism in my local community: story time


(Photo courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons, catnip studio)

Thank you friends for patiently wait as I took a short break from blogging since November. I needed a break so much I didn’t even announce the break. Now I’m back, and it feels good.

In my last post I did mention that I would write a follow-up on ways I’ve changed how I perceive and relate to my daughter, based on reading María Montessori’s book The Secret of Childhood. I’m half way through that post, so stay tuned.

In the meantime…

Very few people in our neighborhood speak Spanish, our family’s home language, and E.’s current dominant language.

While most friends, family, and neighbors in our community generally express support for our choice to raise E. bilingual, few actually speak the language with and around her. I appreciate the positive reception to our family’s lifestyle, but for a while now I’ve wanted to do more.

How can I go beyond enumerating the benefits of bilingualism with friends at parties to actively promoting it – and even encouraging others to join in on the fun? I’ve thought.

And, then it came to me. Story time at our neighborhood library. In Spanish!

Would there be community interest? I initially wondered. I started counting on one hand the Spanish-speaking families I knew in our neighborhood (three), plus the number of Spanish-speaking nannies hired to speak their language (at least three more). Six didn’t sound like a ton, especially compared to the number of families who attend the English story time on Wednesday mornings (15+).

But, it was enough to get started. And that’s all I needed.

Today, I’d like to share with you the simple steps I took to implementing a Spanish story time at my local public library and I why I think it’s a great way to promote bilingualism while simultaneously building community among families.

If you’ve been following this blog for any amount of time, you’ve probably picked up on the whole “we need a community of support” vibe. Well, it’s true. We can’t parent alone, and we certainly can’t raise bilingual children on our own. We need others.

So, in that spirit, here’s how it all began:

     1. The idea, the desire. The more I journey along the ever-changing path of parenting, the more I’m coming to realize that if you want something for your children (and I don’t mean more stuff), be their advocate. Bilingualism is important to me and my husband, I thought. So, I’m going to take that family value, that idea, and turn it into something real and tangible.

     2. Ask, and you shall receive. We’re often afraid of the big two-letter word NO (especially when you’ve got as many library fines as I do…gulp.). But, I’m constantly surprised at how often people say…YES! So, with a spirit of optimism, I walked over to the library and just laid out my idea of leading a story time for toddlers in Spanish. My request was met with an initial “we like the idea” followed by a “we need to check with the city’s library headquarters.” I could work with that.

     3. Follow up, follow up. A month and a half went by and no response. Before assuming the worst, I followed up with the librarians and it turns out they were waiting on confirmation from their boss. The final answer was a big YES! We love the idea!

     4. Spread the word. Our neighborhood has an active parent listserv, so I knew that was the best place to start. I published an announcement in both Spanish and English about two days before the event. I also talked one-on-one with the three Spanish-speaking families I knew.

     5. Plan, yes, but also have FUN! I’m an over-planner (blame it on my eight years teaching), so I pulled at least twice as many books as I thought I’d need (it’s only half an hour). Well, like anything you do the first time, our first session lasted a whopping 15 minutes! Haha! My first reaction was to worry I’d let down everyone who came, but then I stopped myself and thought about all the smiling and clapping and laughing that marked those 15 minutes. We’d had fun, and that’s what mattered. Not a perfectly-timed story time.

The outcome…so far:

So far, I’ve led three sessions of ¡Cuentacuentos! (the Spanish word for story time) and attendance has already more than doubled (starting with approximately 6 and increasing to 15 people)! Leemos un poquito (we read a little), cantamos un poquito (we sing a little…and thank goodness they’re toddlers because I sing horribly!), bailamos un poquito (we dance a bit), y lo pasamos pipa (and we have a ball!)!

Most who have come so far are parents and children with little to no knowledge of Spanish, but all with tons of enthusiasm and interest. Some have told me that their child is exposed to 15 minutes of Spanish a day at pre-school; others have told me that they really want their child to learn the language because they see how important it’s becoming in our country; and, others, namely my friends, have come to show moral support (thank you!).

It’s also been encouraging to me as a mother to a Spanish-speaking child to watch the other native Spanish-speaking kids interact with E., and also to watch their faces light up when they hear another person – other than their own parent – speak their home language.

Finally, leading a story time hasn’t only been great for promoting bilingualism, it’s been an awesome opportunity to meet other parents in the neighborhood and to build community with others.

I’d like to leave you with my favorite piece of feedback that I received yesterday from the sweetest four-year old English-speaking neighbor, B., who boasted, “Did you know I take Spanish at school, and I can say the word manos?”

Okay, so maybe it wasn’t really a compliment, but the look of pride on her face at knowing one of the words to a song we sang confirmed for me that children want others to affirm and validate their life stories (don’t we all?). And, although E. is only 23 months and can’t yet verbally express similar feelings, my hope in creating this story time is that she will feel like her bilingualism is beautiful and important to both me and her community.

Stay tuned for updates on Spanish story time in the weeks and months ahead! How have you promoted bilingualism in your local community? I’d love to hear from you!

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