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Instructors (from left to right) Monica Reyes, Karen Molina and Alvaro Duque

Learning Spanish is possible at any age

By Alejandro Bustos on February 28, 2013

With waggling hands and adorable smiles the gathered toddlers begin to sing in Spanish: “Mi cuerpo, mi cuerpo hace música,” they chant, “my body, my body makes music.”

Following the body gestures of the group instructor, the eager toddlers proceed to clap their hands and stomp their feet as they recite the rest of the song.  “My hands go ‘clap-clap-clap,’ my feet go, ‘stomp-stomp-stomp,’ my voice says, ‘la-la-la’, and my body goes ‘cha-cha-cha.” The last part is eagerly performed by cute little arms swinging back in forth in a toddler version of the cha-cha.

Welcome to Vamos a Cantar, a program at the Main Branch of the Ottawa Public Library (120 Metcalfe) that takes place on the first and third Saturday of each month.  While ostensibly for children four years or younger, the program is really designed for parents who want to teach their little ones Spanish.

“Everyone is welcome,” says Monica Reyes, the volunteer group instructor who came up with the idea for the bi-weekly gathering. “Many people who are Latin do not know the songs … so it’s a good way for them to learn.  It’s also a good way for others to learn Spanish.”

For those parents who are not sure whether they would fit in, fear not, as the participants come from diverse backgrounds.  While the majority are from Spain or Latin America, or at least have Latin family roots, many are native-born Canadians who learned Spanish as a second or third language.

In between songs, as parents chat with the group instructor or each other, you can hear Spanish with French or English accents, blending in with the regional dialects from several countries.  The result is a combination of families who want to make sure that their children continue speaking Spanish at home, and others who are introducing their little ones to a new linguistic world.

Based on the results to date the program has been a success.

“Since the program started, the amount of Spanish-language material that has been taken out of the library has gone up,” says Karen Molina, who works at the Ottawa Community Immigrant Services Organization and who organizes the singing program at the library.

Buoyed by this positive reaction, other Spanish-language programs have been launched. For instance, a creative writing pilot program for children aged seven to twelve was launched on February 23. (Full disclosure: My mother Camila Reimers runs this program).

The writing program – which also takes place at the Main Branch – is run in Spanish, but when it comes time to write a story the children can pen their first draft in French, English or Spanish.  Once the story is written, the draft is either translated into or polished in Spanish. The program is currently filled, but it’s possible that a second group will start in the spring.

Another planned idea is to have storytelling for children in Spanish.  Alvaro Duque, who volunteers for both Vamos a Cantar as well as the pilot creative writing program, tells Apartment613 that he would like to create a program where parents and children can engage in storytelling.

“We can start to tell stories that parents can then discuss,” says Duque.

Vamos a Cantar takes place on the first and third Saturday of each month.  It is divided into two sections, with the group for babies to 18 months (10:30am-11am), and the second for toddlers 19 months to 4 years (11:30am-12:15pm).