Is language fun? Si! Oui!; Learning: To give young schoolchildren a leg up on diversity, two teachers have founded a company to teach them Spanish and French.


Tricia Burke stands at the front of the class of 14 squirmy elementary schoolchildren at Rockburn Elementary School in Elkridge and, like a fairy godmother, gives them Spanish names.

Lauren becomes Lenora. Mark becomes Miguel. Kate becomes Katalina.

"I had to change your name to give it a Spanish flair, OK?" she tells one pupil, a "Paige" who looks a little surprised to have suddenly become "Patricia" with four syllables.

Burke is a teacher for Si Si Oui Oui, a private company that teaches French and Spanish classes to elementary schoolchildren in the Baltimore suburbs. Like all Si Si Oui Oui teachers, Burke aims to make the class fun, but the parents who enroll their children have something more serious in mind: giving their children a competitive edge in an increasingly diverse society.

That explains why about 300 youngsters in the Baltimore suburbs enrolled in the latest six-week sessions starting this week and last -- and why similar companies report growing interest in recent years.

"The United States is one of few countries in the world that does not offer language at the elementary-school level," said Maria Gonce, one of two Baltimore County language teachers who founded the program four years ago. The other, Cleary Grimm, adds that younger children pick up languages faster than older children.

"It's the brain before the age of 10," she said. "They can master the languages."

For the increasing number of parents who want their young children to learn another language, Si Si Oui Oui -- which teaches classes in Baltimore, Harford and Howard counties -- is one of several options in the Baltimore area. Berlitz, a well-known company based in Princeton, N.J., offers such classes, as does the Towson-based Language Institute.

Victoria Kirchgessner, director of the Language Institute, said the group, founded two years ago, is teaching languages to more than 270 nursery and elementary schoolchildren throughout the Baltimore area. Susan Jacoby, director of Berlitz Jr., said the company has noticed increased interest in elementary school language classes nationwide in the past five years.

"There is an incredible interest from educated parents," she said, noting some "women who believe if their children start from the moment of conception they will make better progress."

Some elementary schools -- but not many -- offer languages as part of the curriculum. They include Roland Park Elementary/Middle in Baltimore and Crofton Elementary School in Anne Arundel County. But most school systems focus more on reading and arithmetic, and say they don't have the funds to offer language classes.

"I certainly wish we could offer language in elementary schools," said Patti Caplan, public information officer for Howard County schools. "It would be wonderful."

Instead, interested parents hire tutors for their children or turn to companies like Si Si Oui Oui, which is usually invited to a school by the school's PTA, Grimm and Gonce say. When the PTA sponsors the activity, Grimm says, they have the blessing of school administrators to use the buildings after school, free.

Pilot project

Eight years ago, Si Si Oui Oui was a pilot project led by Gonce and Grimm at Riderwood Elementary School in Baltimore County. But demand for it was so great that they decided to start a company in 1995.

Now, they offer classes in about 20 schools, including 12 in Howard County. Grimm and Gonce note several reasons for the interest in Howard, among them the county's affluence and its proximity to Washington.

"The more professional the parents are, the more they realize how important it is," Grimm said.

It is not always easy to teach 10 to 15 elementary schoolchildren after they have spent a full day in class. But Gonce and Grimm are seasoned teachers -- with more than 50 years' experience between them -- and they know that to succeed, they have to make the class fun.

They change the curriculum each session and hire people like Burke, a bubbly woman who goes out of her way to entertain as well as instruct. In six 45-minute classes over six weeks, the pupils will play board games, shoot foam basketballs, sing goofy songs and wear masks -- all the while learning colors, numbers, greetings, customs, sports, food and geography.

Bedtime statement

"Now, when it's time to go to bed, what will you say?" Burke asked her class after teaching them greetings.

"I don't want to go to bed," whines one child. Another provides a different, more Spanish-oriented answer: "buenos noches" -- "good night" in Spanish.

"It's fun, because instead of just trying to memorize, we play games to learn the words," said Chelsea VandenAssem, 9, who goes by "Corrina" in Burke's class.

"It's fun to learn a new language," said 8-year-old Jordan Swearer, who pronounces his name "hor-DAN" in class. "It's fun to talk to your friends in a way they don't know what you're talking about."

While kids talk about "fun," parents talk about something else: giving their children a leg up in an increasingly diverse country where more people are speaking Spanish all the time.

Janice Harman, mother of 8-year-old Andrew Harman, a pupil in Burke's class, said when she and her family moved from Nevada to Elkridge last year, she was surprised to find that Howard County schools don't offer Spanish in elementary schools.

In Nevada and other Western states, Spanish is a staple, she said.

"Living on the West Coast, you learn how predominant Spanish is," Harman said. "There are so many people who speak Spanish, I thought it was important he learn. I really believe that kids today have to communicate with everybody."

Extra car trip

Amy Schultheis of Sykesville sends her 5-year-old daughter, Emily, to Spanish class at West Friendship Elementary School, though it means an extra car trip because her daughter attends a different school.

"I actually would have appreciated her being able to take languages even earlier, but that was the earliest," her mother said. "I wish they did it earlier, and I wish they did it more."

Although Schultheis would have preferred that Emily take French, any language is better than no language.

"She can learn French also," her mother said. "It's about having the flexibility. It's not just different words but a different structure."

Si Si Oui Oui teachers do not give homework, Grimm said. That would make the lessons seem too much like school. The six-week classes cost $49, and scholarships are available, as well as discounts for siblings.

In their zeal to make the classes affordable, Gonce and Grimm don't make much of a profit. Despite spending at least 20 hours a week each on the company, in addition to their full-time jobs as language teachers, they pocket only $5,000 to $8,000 each a year, Grimm said.

They say they do it because they believe in it -- and because they want the company to become so big that they can quit their day jobs and devote themselves to it full time.

The company has taken over their lives, Grimm said. They both dream about it at night, she said, and both have customized license plates. Grimm is a French teacher, so hers say "Oui Oui." Gonce, a Spanish teacher, has "Si Si."

"We'd like to retire to it someday," Gonce said. She added hurriedly: "But not anytime in the near future. They'll have my job filled by Monday."

Pub Date: 2/18/99

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