Imagine sitting down at a wooden desk in a simple classroom. The cement floor is cold and sunlight streams in through the sole window. You’re nervous, it’s your first day after all, but you’re surrounded by your peers and eager to learn. When the teacher arrives and the lesson begins you’re terrified to realize you don’t understand a lick of the language she is speaking. Now imagine trying to complete your homework in that foreign language. Imagine passing a test to qualify for the next grade in that foreign language. Imagine trying to keep up, much less thrive, in that foreign language.
The New York Times recently published in an article the results of a series of studies that tout the benefits of being bilingual. The benefits reach far beyond being able to communicate in an increasingly globalized world to include enhanced problem-solving abilities, improved planning skills and a heightened ability to focus.
In the Guatemalan highlands, where Reading Village has begun its work, residents speak one of a number of Mayan languages as their primary language. Typically, it is only at school that children begin to learn Spanish. It is no wonder, then, that in classrooms where teachers only speak Spanish young students are left struggling to keep up – a reality that contributes to the high dropout rates.
In our Leaders and Readers program bilingual teens read aloud to children three hours every week. They build their vocabularies and engage their critical and creative thinking skills. And they run an independent reading program to help children to become fluent in both their Mayan language and in Spanish. And it’s working! Evaluation results show that sixth graders in our partner communities have higher Spanish reading comprehension scores than students in control communities.
When we launched our work ten years ago, we chose to focus on literacy because of all the economic, health and civic participation benefits these children would receive by being able to read, write and speak Spanish. This new research gives us even more reasons to promote multilingualism.
By: Linda Smith – Founder and Executive Director, Reading Village