Meet a Class of Bilingual Fifth Graders

May 26, 2016

The lesson plan for a Spanish immersion class at Saint Anthony Catholic School in Des Moines.
Credit Rob Dillard, Iowa Public Radio

A class of fifth graders at Saint Anthony Catholic School in Des Moines are reaching a milestone. The students are coming to the end of six years of taking all of their coursework in Spanish. 

The 10- and 11-year olds are native English speakers. They have been completely immersed in a second language since kindergarten. Eleven-year-old Tyler Faris wasn’t quite sure what to expect when he began learning in Spanish at the age of five.

“I felt kind of nervous because it was a whole different language and I barely knew English,” he says.

Tyler and his classmates are the first at Saint Anthony to complete six years of taking all but physical education and music in Spanish. Joe Cordaro has been the principal there for 27 years. He saw the Spanish immersion program as a way to set the school apart.

“It was just a matter of telling people we want to give your child a gift," he says. "The gift is a second language.”

A basket of supplies for a fifth grade class at Saint Anthony Catholic School in Des Moines.
Credit Rob Dillard, Iowa Public Radio

Now, he feels kind of out of it.

“I’m the only one who doesn’t know what’s going on," he says. "I don’t speak Spanish.”

About a third of Saint Anthony’s 300-plus students are enrolled in the Spanish immersion program. The chair of the department of world languages and cultures at Iowa State University, Chad Gasta, would like to see more schools take this approach to foreign languages. He’s studied the student benefits.

“They are better problem solvers and critical thinkers," he says. "They also earn higher salaries when they enter the job market, and they progress through the ranks at their corporations faster.”

Gasta doesn’t have to convince 10-year-old Amber Van Oort of the value.

“The more languages you speak the better it is,” she says.

The father of one of the fifth-grade Spanish speakers, John Bonanno, majored in Spanish at college and knows a little something about what it takes to learn a foreign language.

“The only way to become fluent or proficient in any language is you have to completely immerse yourself,” he says.

He says a second language does not soak in as well when one tries to pick it up as an adult.

The mother of Tyler Faris, Diane Faris, works for a Des Moines company with offices around the world. She says she’s hard pressed to distinguish the students’ voices from those of native Spanish speakers.

“They have the dialect, they have the accent," she says. "And they know what they’re saying. It’s very authentic.”

She says her son, Tyler, is already asking what language he can learn next.

Teacher Ana Arodrido leads her fifth-grade class in a Spanish language game.
Credit Rob Dillard, Iowa Public Radio

Todd Bordenaro has one daughter just finishing her sixth year in the immersion program and another just beginning it. He’s noticed a change in the older girl.

“It’s really helped her be confident in public speaking,” he says.

He says his younger daughter has struggled a bit, but he’s confident she’ll find a path.

Sarah Riley’s son has just finished his kindergarten year in the program. She speaks Spanish, but says she’s occasionally schooled by her six-year-old.

“It’s embarrassing," she says with a laugh. "He corrects my pronunciation.”

She says she doesn’t know whether to be angry or grateful for this.

The teachers are all natives of Spanish speaking countries. Fifth-grade teacher Ana Arodrido is from Spain. She says the classroom lessons go both ways.

“I am learning from students," she says. "They can teach me English.”

The immersion into Spanish will not be as intense as the kids move on to middle school. Katherine Bonanno, the daughter of John Bonanno, says she still plans to keep her skills sharp.

The greeting outside the door to a Spanish immersion program at Saint Anthony Catholic School.
Credit Rob Dillard, Iowa Public Radio

“I’m going to keep working on it because someday I want to go around the world,” she says.

Advocates for language immersion programs point to what Katherine wants as one more advantage provided by such learning methods. They inspire young people to explore.