Thursday, February 5, 2009

Viva Spanish! on its Teachers and a Hot-Button Issue

In order to help Viva Spanish! Language Programs teach Spanish to young students and/or workers at public entities and companies who serve the Hispanic population, prospects must do more than just talk the talk.

Whether her staff is teaching its lessons to fourth graders at an area Catholic school or continuing its pilot program for employees at the Cleveland Clinic, Viva teachers also evoke the culture of the countries where the language is spoken, said Gladys Benitez-Reilly, the owner and president of the Willoughby-based business.

The teaching could incorporate entertainment, little known facts and other tidbits, but Viva isn’t just looking for dictation and recitation.

“We want people to understand the Spanish community, as well as the language,” Benitez-Reilly said. “With our kids, we’re really trying to promote the value of learning. A lot of kids in the schools that we work with don’t have a lot of diversity in their schools. If we can help them understand that there’s other people out there, that there’s people different than them, then we’ve done a good job.”

“La Presidente” has seven instructors on staff, and they’re all native Spanish speakers who live in Northeast Ohio, but hail from the likes of Mexico, Venezuela, Columbia and the Dominican Republic. They undergo constant training, but they all have college degrees. For teachers who want to take part in the school segment, experience with children is a must.

‘We will talk with and interview anyone,” Benitez-Reilly said. “Our goal is to make this a great place to work. It’s empowering for (teachers) to see people interested in their culture.”

It’s no coincidence that interest is increasing along with the rise in our country’s Spanish-speaking population. Of course, there’s also no shortage of controversy and opinions regarding how quickly said population should learn English.

That’s not lost on Benitez-Reilly, but neither is the idea that some of the people in question should be given more time before being subjected to such criticism. In my story last week, she made the point that so many immigrants have come over to make better lives for their families, and frankly don’t have the time or energy to put into learning a new language just yet. She says it’s no different than Germans, the Irish and other nationalities who previously made their way to the U.S.

I agree. Whenever I hear someone bellyache that Spanish-speakers, particularly immigrants, need to learn English because “they’re in our country,” I can’t help but think of sour grapes.

The reality is that America’s fastest-growing minority population includes many families who prefer speaking to each other in their own language. It’s pure evidence that the country is becoming that huge melting pot that we’ve always bragged about. Should they eventually learn English? Sure. But to angrily insist that they do it immediately, as many have done on Web sites across the net, including this one, in my opinion, reeks of separatism much more than someone greeting you with, “Hola.”

Well, I tried, but I’ll leave it to Benitez-Reilly, a Cleveland native with parents from Paraguay and Venezuela, to really drive home this very important point. Really, the following is a reporter’s dream quote about a hot-button topic, and one I also whole-heartedly agree with:

“The truth is, that second, third and fourth generation are all going to speak English. I really don’t believe the country’s going to become half-Spanish or anything. At the same time, you have a lot of immigrants that are here, and they’re all making money and they’re spending money. They’re a huge consumer group. People who are smart are going to be marketing to the Hispanic market because they’re huge! They’re 15 percent of this country right now.

“If you don’t market to them, you’re going to be losing. That’s why everywhere you call, it says, ‘Press 1 for English, press 2 for Spanish.’

“People know that’s the truth. If you want to serve the general population, you have to attend to the Spanish. Even if you don’t think it’s a good thing, it’s still a reality.”

-- Brandon C. Baker

Photo by Duncan Scott/The News-Herald

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