Planting the Seeds of Language
An Interview with Natalie Kane, Founder of Semillitas de Español
Semillitas de Espanol, “Little Seeds of Spanish,” is a Spanish language school in Austin, Texas. The school’s founder, Natalie Kane, uses the “magic of music” — melody, rhythm, repetition — to help children learn Spanish. Music helps children with memory retention, syllable recognition and pronunciation. As it turns out, it helps their parents, too.
A native of Monterrey, Mexico, Natalie Kane was raised bilingual. She attended an English-speaking school, but the rest of her life took place in Spanish. “My academic language is English and my social language is Spanish,” she says.
When her son was born, Natalie started speaking to him in English because that’s how she felt most comfortable communicating. But by the time he was two, she began reevaluating her decision. “I was going through huge turmoil about whether I was taking something away from him by not speaking to him in Spanish.”
Like many parents who try to introduce a second language, Natalie faced resistance when she tried to speak to her son in Spanish. Because his connection with Natalie was in English, her son found a new language frustrating and uncomfortable.
But Natalie was determined. “I didn't want him to lose the opportunity to acquire Spanish from a young age,” she says, so she looked for ways to incorporate Spanish that he would accept and enjoy, while still giving him the opportunity to communicate with her in English. That’s when Natalie started singing.
From their bath routine to getting dressed, Natalie would sing about everything — and she saw that her son was enjoying it. At the same time, she and her son would attend weekly Music Together classes offered at Heartsong Music. To her surprise, the classes had a tremendous effect on her son’s English language development and vocabulary. Following a fortuitous conversation with the director of Heartsong, Carey Youngblood, Natalie was offered the opportunity to host a weekly Spanish music class. But instead of focusing on tonality, rhythm and musical styles, she focused her class on language acquisition and song content. “I picked up my guitar, dusted it off and brought it back to life for the purposes of my classes,” she says.
Using the Magic of Music
As the demand for her program grew, Natalie became convinced of the need to share her experience more broadly. “I was learning so much in my own journey as a parent raising a bilingual child that I felt I could share that with other families.” After three successful years with Heartsong, she opened the doors of Semillitas de Español in 2012.
Many parents who aim to raise bilingual children express frustration at not being able to take part in their child’s language journey, so the classes at Semillitas are designed to address that disconnect. Most are geared for children 0-5 years of age — a time when parents are most directly engaged with their kids and want to be part of the learning and teaching process. And active parental participation is integral to the curriculum at Semillitas. “As a parent, you are learning skills and tools that you can use at home to keep emphasizing language learning.”
In her experience teaching at home and in the classroom, Natalie has discovered that learning takes place as a byproduct of music. “Music is magical,” she says. “It creates a very engaging environment for learning, and you can’t help but participate.” Plus, she says, “When you hear melody, your brain automatically knows how many syllables there are and keeps track of them,” which also helps with pronunciation. When parents and children are together enjoying the music, movement and gestures that she incorporates into her program, they forget that they’re learning key words and phrases in Spanish.
Music also allows children to ease out of their silent phase and start becoming more vocal. Until they really begin talking, kids often spend time observing but not necessarily participating. Music helps them turn that corner. It also creates opportunities for kids to practice their sounds and exercise the tongue for speech. And when it comes to learning a new language, everything music does for kids, it does for parents, too.
Watching It Grow
“Having children offers us the opportunity to explore new things in life,” says Natalie. For many of us, having kids is a time for self-reflection — a time to decide if we want to change course, reinvent ourselves or experience life differently with our kids. Making the commitment to learn a new language, or teaching our children our heritage language and culture, expands our own knowledge as adults. It all starts with planting the seed.
Did you enjoy this post? If so, subscribe to our newsletter!
Be sure to like our MamaLingua Facebook page, join the MyMamaLingua Facebook community group, and get the MamaLingua app for iPhone!