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DeKalb, Cortland students help break language barriers

CORTLAND – When Lissette Jacobson wears her blue scarf, her bilingual first-grade students know they should be conversing in English.

But when she takes off the scarf and flips over the “Hora de Español,” sign, Spanish is the only language heard throughout the classroom at Cortland Elementary School.

About 44 DeKalb High School Spanish students visited Jacobson’s class and several other of the school’s nine bilingual classes Friday to speak the language with the younger students during their Spanish hour.

“We’re trying to not talk in English because we’re supposed to be talking in Spanish,” said Magdalena Hernandez, a second-grader in one of the bilingual classes.

The students read books and played games with each other while completely conversing in Spanish.

“We’re teaching them what to learn,” said Emma Cohen, one of Hernandez’s classmates.

Of the 44 high schools students, about a quarter of them were native Spanish speakers, said Amanda McCabe, a Spanish teacher at DeKalb High School. McCabe has been coordinating the annual visits for about six years.

The high schoolers spent about an hour with the younger students, with whom they have been exchanging letters as pen pals.

“It kind of brings the real Spanish-speaking world to our students,” McCabe said.

Jacobson said she was thrilled her students could see the Spanish language is alive beyond their classroom.

“For them, to see big high school students with an interest in Spanish, that is a big deal,” she said.

Although her students have been studying Spanish for at least four years, McCabe said having a conversation with a native speaker still can be a challenge.

“The high school students were actually very nervous that their Spanish wouldn’t be good enough,” she said.

Jacobson said teaching her bilingual students to speak Spanish and English correctly is more than just identifying words, but rather applying skills and concepts to bridge the gap between the two languages.

“So much is shared [between Spanish and English],” she said. “It’s a cool thing more people need to become aware of.”

The transition between Spanish and English is generally easy for the native-speaking elementary students, including Hernandez, who speaks both languages at home with her family.

“I speak English to my sisters, and Spanish with my mom and dad,” she said.

Jacobson said some of her native-speaking students eventually lose their Spanish fluency, which is why she feels it is essential to encourage them to keep speaking the language.

She hopes the community someday will recognize the importance of being bilingual, especially since the demographics of the area and the country continue to change.

“We have to have an educated society,” she said. “And this is the best way.”

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