A world of knowledge
Languages take center stage at new academy
By TRAVIS M. WHITEHEAD
HARLINGEN — Hello.
Hola, bonjour, ni hao.
If you’d like to learn how to say hello in Spanish (easy enough), French or Mandarin Chinese, the World Languages Academy at Vernon Middle School is the place for you. Students can even learn how to say hello without saying it, instead using a hand gesture to communicate in American Sign Language.
But you have to be a sixth grader like Kristen Casares, one of about 100 students signed up for the academy’s inaugural year.
“I think it’s nice that other students can learn a different language and have other opportunities,” said Kristen, 11, who is taking French.
“I’m taking it for opportunities and future traveling,” she said. “I really want to visit the Eiffel Tower.”
She said she’s a little nervous about having so much homework, and French teacher Berenice Sainz, 25, conceded there will be plenty of that.
“Practice makes perfect,” she said with a smile.
Berenice was born in the U.S. but grew up in Matamoros until middle school when she moved to the Valley. Her first language, hence, was Spanish, and then she learned English, so at a young age she was already wired for language.
She carried that power with her to what was then the University of Texas at Brownsville where she earned two bachelor degrees, one in English and the other in French.
She did a study abroad in France and then backpacked across Europe for a couple of months in 2013.
“I went again the next summer but to Spain, and the next summer I did a study abroad in Italy as well and then backpacked again through Europe — London, France, Greece, Turkey,” she said.
At school she studied French history, culture, art, film, philosophy and literature, which came in handy in her travels.
“It was just an amazing experience to learn and then actually apply my knowledge,” she said.
Taking off across Europe was a little intimidating.
“It was a whole other experience to just throw yourself into the unknown, but at the same time it was a beautiful experience,” she said. “I got that opportunity to practice it, and live it, and learn more about it and observe it on a daily basis.”
Lorene Torres observed American Sign Language on a daily basis from her friends while growing up in McAllen.
“I grew up in McAllen on the south side and that’s where the deaf community was located,” said Lorene, 47.
She knew some of the kids and learned how to communicate with them in sign language, so she already had a head start when she studied it in college. And now she’s ready to share her knowledge with students at Vernon.
“I’m really excited,” she said. “That’s actually been one of my goals that I wanted to do and now I have that opportunity,” she said.
Part of the language instruction will include cultural education. That application is obvious in spoken languages, but how will she apply it in sign language?
Well, the hearing impaired community definitely has its own culture.
“They have their own clubs, media, their own activities, churches,” she said. “The children are going to have to learn how to gesture, how to role play. It’s facial expressions, it’s body movements.”
Students studying Mandarin Chinese will learn from Chinnei Teng, who hails from Taiwan. She will have the added challenge of teaching students a completely different kind of writing.
“In English you just pick up the A to Z,” she said. “The different letters you put together to make a word. For Chinese when you are writing you have to follow the stroke order. The first semester they are going to learn 147 characters.”
She said learning to speak Chinese won’t be as difficult. She’ll be using what she called the “pinyin” system — a romanization system for Standard Chinese — to teach the sounds.