Bilingual Programs
Prepare Kids for Future

Louise Hudson, For Neighbours
Published: Thursday, May 03, 2007

Speaking just one language is becoming a disadvantage in today's global economy -- and it will likely be even more so in the future.

Calgary parents have begun to realize this, and the demand for more bilingual schools in the city has increased.

French remains the most popular choice among language-based programs in Calgary, with about 7,000 students in Calgary Board of Education schools alone. But Spanish, first offered in 2001, is now second with 1,119 CBE students, ahead of German and Chinese.

Escuela Dalhousie offers the newest of five Spanish bilingual programs in the city. With Spanish spoken by about 400 million people worldwide, it's now the second language of international communication. It is also an official language in 20 countries.

The transformation of Dalhousie to a Spanish bilingual school began when, with enrolment at the former Dalhousie Elementary dwindling, officials decided to look into offering an alternative educational program. Since the nearest Spanish program, at Escuela Collingwood, was filled to capacity, it seemed logical to move Dalhousie in the Spanish direction.

"Escuela Collingwood was bursting at the seams, taking all kids north of the river," says Dalhousie principal Diane Heming. "Dalhousie is situated perfectly in terms of size and location for all the new communities in the northwest of Calgary."

Bilingual programs attract many parents who regret not having a second language themselves. They often see it as a future advantage for their children.

"It gives children opportunities that might not have otherwise been open to them," says Heming. "To have the chance to speak Spanish fluently, as well as learn about the Latin culture, is very intriguing for parents. They are interested in it from the point of view of travel as well as the business world."

Teachers who are fluent in English and Spanish are recruited from all over Canada as well as internationally.

Escuela Dalhousie's curriculum leader is Claudia Espinosa, originally from Colombia. She brings both academic and linguistic expertise to the school, along with a rich cultural background of music and dance.

Bilingual programs are not the same as immersion. An English language arts curriculum is offered alongside the Spanish program, with math and physical education conducted in Spanish. Entry points are kindergarten and Grade 1, with native Spanish speakers able to enrol at any level in ESL programs.

"The children speak Spanish all morning, mixing in a few English words to keep the conversation going when they are first learning," says Heming. Parents and school staff are also learning Spanish through the school's evening classes.

Of course, helping with homework could still be a challenge for unilingual parents.

Classroom parent co-ordinator Melanie Miltimore doubts her Spanish will ever match six-year-old daughter Sydney's fluency.

"I will be taking more classes, but I am probably never going to be able to keep up with my daughter's progress," she says. "I will be able to support her in my own way, though."

The bilingual program at Collingwood first attracted Miltimore. She later moved her daughter to Escuela Dalhousie, nearer to her Scenic Acres home.

"I regret not having a second language myself," she says. "The bilingual approach appealed because it has the English program as well, so my children will never lag behind in English."

Her son Jacob will start kindergarten at Escuela Dalhousie in 2008.

Miltimore enjoys her volunteer work sorting and coding the new Spanish books, which are gradually being added to the school library.

"All the parent volunteers have loved seeing the library getting stocked," she says. "It's fun to be involved. Spanish is such an exciting language."

Dalhousie's transition to a bilingual program has led to complex juggling of resources, facilities, kids and staff, but learning Spanish is the "glue that holds it all together," says Heming.

With a school motto of Together We Reach Amazing Heights, Dalhousie is gradually moving from a dual track to the Spanish program. Each year another grade will be added.

Escuela Collingwood was the first Spanish bilingual school in Calgary, with the program there beginning in 2001. It is now a kindergarten to Grade 4 school with 460 students.

Principal Tom Eriksen has seen Collingwood through its transition from mainstream elementary to international Spanish bilingual school.

"It took around three years to get to the full Spanish program," he says.

He attributes the school's success to three factors: "First is the popularity of learning Spanish, which has a lot of appeal in Calgary and all over Western Canada due to increased travel to Spain and Central and South America."

A regular English language-arts program is the second aspect that appeals to parents. "This is not immersion," Eriksen says.

In 2006, three Collingwood Grade 2 teachers were awarded the Cristobal de Villalon Award for international teaching excellence. And Eriksen credits teachers and staff for playing a major part in the school's success.

"We have an outstanding staff throughout the school," he says. "Our teachers represent two-thirds of the 20 Spanish-speaking countries worldwide. And we have three visiting teachers from Spain."

Spain's Ministry of Education and Science supports Canada's Spanish programs, providing exchange teachers as well as academic backup.

Jacques Ferguson, the CBE's principal of French and international language programs, says Calgary is a leader in bilingual education. "In fact, Calgary is the only city in Canada with Grade 7 Spanish bilingual education available (at Senator Patrick Burns School)," he says.

Ferguson says all the bilingual programs are increasing in popularity. He says Chinese is poised to become an important language of the future.

"Chinese could eventually win out when you look globally at population growth," he says.

Learning any second language boosts mental prowess, enhancing all areas of learning, says University of Calgary linguistics professor John Archibald. Alberta Education agrees, and is helping to fund his research, acknowledging the link between languages and improved cognitive ability in all subjects.