Editor’s note: “Hall Passages” is a weekly education feature in the Missoulian. Each week on a rotating basis, K-12 education reporter Jamie Kelly visits a private or public school in the Missoula Valley to see what’s new in the halls and walls of our learning institutions. This week, Kelly spent some time at the Missoula International School.

Perhaps the only reason it’s not known as “La Escuela Internacional de Missoula” is because Missoula’s parents might not know that means “Missoula International School.”

The kids sure do, though.

From the second they first walk through the door of the private Rattlesnake Valley school, students at MIS are bombarded with a new language – or in the parlance of education, “immersed” in it.

And that is how, within a couple of years, students as young as 5 will speak Spanish nearly as well as the other language they’re learning – English.

“They are not afraid of making mistakes,” says Patricia Cano, a native of Colombia and an eight-year teacher at Missoula International School. “And that makes a difference. Their brains are like sponges. They’re ready to absorb everything.”

On a cold autumn morning, around 20 second- and third-graders sat parked in a semicircle in front of Cano, who was giving them a lesson on “ideas para tu diario” – “ideas for your paper (or diary).”

Not a word – not one word – of English escaped her, or any of her students’, mouths.

With every question she asked, the students thrust their arms in the air, answering with a chorus of “si! si! si!” or sentences and phrases in perfect Spanish.

You have to examine this room in the former Prescott School building thoroughly, in fact, to find anything written in English.

But it’s right there on the classroom door: “Great things are worth the work!”

*****

There are several levels of Spanish immersion at MIS, the only language-immersion school in Missoula County. The first is a whole-child dunking in Latin language and culture, kindergartners and first-graders who completely leave behind the world they’ve known to begin learning the roots of a new language.

At that level, the teacher starts them on a new journey of words and sounds, never lapsing back into English at any time during the day.

“The immersion approach is a theory that they can learn a second language the same way they learned the first,” said Julie Lennox, the school’s headmaster, who has been with MIS since it began in a Missoula living room 15 years ago.

In the earliest years, the children aren’t even aware that they’re learning a new language, and will thus try to answer the teacher in English – only to be corrected. And from that first correction, their young, adaptable brains take in the new words and syntax with amazing proficiency.

“In their minds,” said Lennox, “they’re not translating. They’re just receiving.”

As they grow older, the students are challenged constantly to learn new words, and when an English word escapes their lips, “I give it back to them,” said Cano.

“The child might say, ‘me gusta comer apples,’ ” she said. “So, I give it back to them and say, ‘Oh, te gusta comer manzanas?’ ” (You like to eat apples?).

Mastering a language is a two-way street, of course – understanding it, and then communicating it. But it’s a street on an incline. The mind has a much easier time recognizing and comprehending Spanish or any other new language than it does assimilating it into speech.

Still, a child who is motivated and has parents involved in his or her new language is usually speaking Spanish at a high level by the third year, said Cano.

“In two years, the conversations are much more complex,” she said. “You see that it’s shaping and taking form. By the third year, they’re maintaining a conversation and talking about new subjects with a native speaker.”

*****

Will Erving seems to be there already, a third-grader who sat down with his fellow students for some reading time after the “diarios” lesson.

“Que estudian ahora?” asked a Missoulian reporter, who can still recall how to say “What are you studying now?” from three years of high-school Spanish.

“Estudiamos mapas,” said Erving, who had books on “beisbol” (baseball) and “Cristobal Colon” (Christopher Columbus) in front of him.

“Que tipos de mapas?” (What kinds of maps?)

“Mapas del mundo!” (Maps of the world!)

Excited to be speaking Spanish with a stranger, Erving then began talking with a rapid cadence, saying something in Spanish about his parents and homework and possibly other things beyond what three years of high-school Spanish can keep up with.

So it seems the English sign on the classroom door is correct: Great things are worth the work.

Or as they say here: “Cosas grandes valen el esfuerzo!”

Reach Jamie Kelly at 523-5254 or at jkelly@missoulian.com.

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