When he was in the first grade, Jackson Roblow, now 11, couldn’t speak a word of Spanish.
That normally wouldn’t have been an issue in the largely English-speaking Fort Worth school district, but Roblow’s mother wanted him to learn Spanish, so she placed him in a classroom where he could learn a second language.
“At first, it was very uncomfortable. I didn’t understand what the teacher was saying,” Roblow said.
Years later, Roblow, who is now a sixth-grader, speaks fluent Spanish and is on his way to learning a third language at the World Languages Institute, a program for youngsters who hope to maintain their bilingual skills and adopt a third language as well. He is among the 150 students enrolled at the Institute.
The school, housed in a multistory building on Magnolia Avenue, began admitting students in grades 6 and 7 in August 2014. The enrollment is expected to swell to 500 students by 2020, when the first senior class graduates.
The school’s goal is to continue the fluency of students who can speak both English and Spanish. Then once those two languages kick in — at both the social and academic levels — students are expected to begin learning a third language, said Guadalupe Barreto, principal of the Institute.
“At this school, every child is treated as a gifted and talented child,” Barreto said. “If they are already bilingual, their mind is already working in a different way.”
Sixth-grader Jorge Munoz, 12, is an example of the typical multilingual youngster at the Institute. In the morning, he takes a Latin class, then switches over to English for reading and writing. After that, he bounces to social studies taught in Spanish. His afternoon includes science, taught in English. By sixth period, he’s in math, taught in Spanish.
“I try to remember what language I have to speak when I go to my class,” said Munoz, who adds that he will likely choose Japanese or Chinese as his third language.
Another sixth-grader, Joceline Rojas, 12, also has a schedule that demands linguistic flexibility.
“It just comes out natural,” Rojas said of her ability to switch from English to Spanish and vice-versa. “It’s part of my life. It’s something that I really love. I know lots of kids who speak only English and other kids speak only Spanish. I’m grateful that I speak two languages.
“I really wanted to learn two languages, and you can do it,” she said. Rojas has chosen Mandarin as her third language. “If you want to do it, everything is possible.”
Once students master two languages, picking up the third is easier, said Marie-Lise Mosbeux, assistant principal at the school. Years ago, she traveled to the U.S. from Belgium as a foreign-exchange student, and she is a native French speaker.
“From my own experience, learning a second language can be a little difficult,” Mosbeux said. “But once you learn that second language, the brain is conditioned, and it is much easier to pick up a third or fourth one.”
Many of the students at the institute have a background in dual language/bilingual education, like Rojas, or in Spanish immersion, like Roblow.
Still another group of about 20 has more in common with Angela Castillo, 12. She had never taken a Spanish language course before enrolling at the Institute.
“I came to this school to learn more Spanish,” said Castillo, whose father is bilingual.
She gets extra Spanish language support in the classroom, Barreto said, and a Spanish-fluent teacher goes with her to courses taught in Spanish, Barreto said.
By the time Castillo is a sophomore, she will begin education in a third language. She has chosen French, she said.
“Because she is taking Spanish for the first time, we’re looking at establishing that third language probably when she hits her sophomore or junior year,” Mosbeux said. “It depends how it goes for her.”
Barreto said the institute’s language acquisition strategies often depart from typical practices,
The traditional classroom tends to depend on rote memorization to teach new vocabulary, for example. But at the institute, students often work in groups and conduct hands-on projects, she said.
“We do a lot of group work,” Barreto said. “We don’t only listen to the teacher. We also talk among ourselves.”
The institute’s instructors also provide language learners with two sets of language-proficiency skills. The easiest type is “surface” skills, which include listening and speaking. The more comprehensive level of language acquisition includes a student’s ability to cope with the academic demands of subject matter.
According to Cummins, it takes a non-native speaker only a few years to develop the “surface” skills, but the same speaker might need seven years to reach cognitive fluency.
Michael Sorum, chief of academics for the district, said a lot of research shows that youngsters who begin to learn a second language before puberty can master the language.
“Our ears, when we’re born, are attuned to learning language,” Sorum said. “As we get older, our hearing and our ability to replicate the sounds of other languages really diminishes.
“So if a child can start the language before then, he or she really can learn to speak it fluently without any accent,” Sorum said.
The non-English languages offered at the World Languages Institute are Spanish, French, Italian, German, Japanese and Chinese. The Institute hopes to offer Arabic and American Sign Language during the 2015-16 school year.
Yamil Berard, 817-390-7705