For many families keeping their culture alive through language immersion for kids on the weekends is a way of life.. Parents and grandparents emigrate from their native country, and many become bilingual. But children grow up speaking English, and don’t really have the opportunity to learn their family language, other than in conversations at home.
That’s why for many families, attending Saturday schools that offer language and cultural immersion are important ways to build family relationships and give children the invaluable gift of truly being fluent and educated in two languages.
Maya Reinfeldt is one of more than 50 students enrolled at the Madison Russian School, a weekly immersion program where students can take classes in math, language, literature and drama, often using the same texts as their counterparts in Russian schools.
It’s not all academics. Students also do many performance events, sing together in a choir and participate in cultural gatherings with their families. And because they spend years together in the same classroom, they often develop deep friendships linked by a faraway culture.
“Sometimes I get more out of it than normal school,” said Maya, whose mother helped co-found the Russian School in 2003 so that her daughter, then 2, could master the language. “It’s a pretty good way to spend a Saturday morning. Otherwise I’d just be wasting my time.”
Many families may be familiar with dual-language immersion programs — such as Madison’s Nuestro Mundo charter school — that have a growing presence in area public school districts.
But programs that immerse students in language and culture outside the regular school day also have carved out a special niche — one that seems to be growing, as language schools are launching summer camps or expanding enrollment.
In rented classrooms in central Madison’s Neighborhood House, the German School of Madison holds weekly after-school language lessons for children of native German speakers, as well as those with no German language background.
Like the Russian school, the German school was formed by parents to give their children a linguistic link to their heritage.
It started as something else — an informal group where adults got together a couple times a week to chat in their native language.
“The adults would speak German with one another, and their kids would run around speaking English,” said Chris Tabisz, a teacher at the school. “The parents got to thinking they should have some sort of instructor or tutor to play games with the kids or do arts and crafts, and do it in German.”
In 2012, organizers began offering more formal German language classes for students from preschool through seventh grade who were growing up in German-speaking households. Last fall, the school added a class for children from non-German-speaking homes.
The class proved so popular that the school had to add another section this spring. It plans to add more in the fall.
For non-native speakers, “I’ve seen them really fall in love with the language,” Tabisz said. For the children of parents who grew up speaking German themselves, “it’s about keeping it alive.”
The children “all go to public school and speak English all day long,” he said. “Even at home sometimes, their parents will speak German to them and they will speak English back. So this is really an opportunity to pull out whatever remnants they have of German.”
The value of studying another language and culture goes beyond connecting with one’s heritage, said Amanda Zanchetti-Mayo, director of the Verona Area International School. Students at the public K-5 school spend half their day studying math, science and language arts in a Mandarin Chinese immersion program.