Learning a foreign language is about more than the language itself. At Duquesne University’s Department of Modern Languages, students are encouraged to immerse themselves in cultural communities outside their own to enhance their experience. For many Spanish language students recently, this community manifests in the form of 4-and-5-year-olds at Beechwood Elementary School in Beechview.
For two years, Lucía Osa-Melero has been bringing her university students to the south Pittsburgh neighborhood to visit and exchange knowledge with young, bilingual students.
She’s dubbed the program “Reading to Play, Playing to Read,” because the time they spend together, she said, is both fun and educational.
For several weeks after school each April, Duquesne students interact with the Beechwood children, where they play games, speak Spanish and learn about different topics. This year, the participants talked about health and nutrition.
Osa-Melero, assistant professor in the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures, said children are wonderful learning tools for her students, because they don't judge each other, love company and always want to talk. She was able to find most of the young students through the organization Casa San Jose, a resource center for Latino families.
The program is based on a 50-50 approach, Osa-Melero said, that encourages students to practice their conversational Spanish with elementary students speaking their native tongue. Everyone gets to learn healthy habits, she said.
This past school year, Duquesne Spanish instructor Carmen Alicia Martínez brought her Spanish for Health Care Professionals class to Beechwood. Her students, she said, are all training to be in the medical field.
“This is entirely different from everything I do,” said Jeremy Tock, 20, a sophomore physician assistant major at Duquesne.
The program is a great opportunity for him to get out of the classroom and apply some of his education, he said.
Early childhood education sophomore Kayla Kerila, 19, agreed. She said often she’s taught the necessity of cultural-responsive teaching, but hasn’t been able to practice until now.
A typical session at Reading to Play, Playing to Read involves some physical exercise to get out all the “wiggles” from the children, followed by conversation and rehearsal for the end “play.”
Duquesne students come up with lessons plans to teach the Beechwood students about health concepts, Martinez said. They then combine their new knowledge into a theatrical play that they present to parents at the end of the program.
“It’s a very engaging way to work with the children,” Martinez said, laughing. “They like to make believe, to pretend, so to them, it’s like a game.”
But it’s more than a game, she said.
These young students often do “language brokering” for their monolinguistic parents, so the lessons they learn can be translated for the entire family.
While the young bilingual elementary students aren’t always aware of how special their dual-language abilities can be, Osa-Melero said the program also emphasizes the gift these children may not even know they have and works to celebrate their heritage.
“They need to be proud of it,” she said.
Osa-Melero said she encourages her college students to talk about how special being bilingual can be, especially in a city like Pittsburgh, where there is a vibrant, but often hidden, Latino community.
When her students complete reflections at the end of the semester, Osa-Melero said they often admit they weren’t aware of the Spanish community in Pittsburgh.
“That was shocking to me,” she said. “That was like, ‘Wow, you grew up here for 18 years and you didn’t know this?’”
Ultimately, she said she hopes the program continues to benefit both the bilingual elementary children and the Duquesne Modern Languages students, but said she hopes the rest of the Pittsburgh community can acknowledge and embrace the growing Latino population as well.
Join the Conversation
- Throughout the summer, Osa-Melero and other members of the Spanish community in Pittsburgh will be presenting an hour of Spanish storytelling at the Carnegie Library in Squirrel Hill.
- The Pittsburgh Jazz Live International Festival will celebrate the city's growing Hispanic population with tributes to great Latin-American musicians in the industry Friday through Sunday.