When John and Amy Stevens adopted their son Gabriel two years ago, they decided to give him something they didn’t have as children – a bilingual upbringing.

“We first became interested by working overseas, especially near the French-Italian border, where the bilingual kids were able to switch languages so easily and didn’t have accent issues,” said John Stevens.

So when Gabriel was 2 months old, the Stevenses arranged for him to spend time each weekday with Spanish-speaking friends. He now speaks Spanish and English with equal fluency.

The Stevenses are not the only ones promoting bilingualism in eastern Idaho.

Nancy Schellenberg teaches bilingual kindergarten at Iona Elementary School.
Her classes consist of roughly equal numbers of native English and Spanish speakers, and the goal is to teach all the students both languages.

“It’s interesting to hear the kids saying things at play time,” she said.
“Both groups use both languages interchangeably – and that’s what you hope to get with the dual program.”

Bonneville School District started the program four years ago. Currently it offers bilingual kindergarten and first-grade classes at Iona and Tiebreaker elementary schools.

Gay Willis, the first-grade teacher in Iona’s program, said the majority of native Spanish-speaking children in her classes learn to read in English by the time they finish first grade. She said school officials had originally intended to extend the program through sixth grade, but lack of funding has reduced it to its present size.

Matt Stevens, director of speech pathology at EIRMC and no relation to Gabriel’s parents, said that although some experts on language acquisition suggest children should be raised with one language designated as primary,
his experience suggests this is not necessary.

“Having one parent that speaks Spanish and another parent or caregiver that speaks English in the home should not have any negative effect on the child,” he said. “Children with normal language abilities – meaning children who have not been diagnosed with a learning or language disorder – should be able to learn both languages at the same time and do really well with both of them.”

This has been true in the Stevenses’ case.

“We expected some language development delays,” said Amy Stevens. “People had told us that it would take a couple of extra months for Gabriel to sort out two languages, but he spoke his first words right on time.”

In addition to reaping the benefits of knowing two languages, bilingual children seem to develop enhanced language skills in general.

“Parents of bilingual children say that they are actually farther ahead in English and Spanish for their chronological age than their peers,” said Matt Stevens. “What impressed us was how quickly Gabriel acquired language,” said Amy Stevens. “I don’t know if it’s because his brain was turned on – kind of supercharged – or what it was, but he learned both languages very, very fast.”

Schellenberg agrees. “The kids that are coming from my program are outdistancing their peers,” she said.

Reporter Todd Morrill can be reached at 656-0101 or at tmorrill@idahonews.com.

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