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"Camp Spanglish" Unites Spanish and American Teens

When high school senior Jeany Larsen met her Spanish roommate at the UW Global Village Summer Camp in July, she was tongue-tied. She had been studying Spanish since middle school, but chatting with a native speaker was nothing like conversing in class. And learning about Spain from another teen was nothing like reading about it in books.

  photo of students looking at fossils and rock specimens
  Jeany Larsen (in pink) grabs some rays with Pilar Otero Sancho from Segovia, Spain.

That was the beauty of the camp, says Tony Geist, chair and professor of Spanish and Portuguese Studies, who spearheaded the program.

Known informally as Camp Spanglish, the three-week program brought together American and Spanish teens—35 in all—for three weeks on the UW campus.  They separated for language classes in the morning but spent the rest of their day together, taking field trips and working on collaborative projects. 

“The basic concept is language learning through cultural immersion,” says Geist. “What makes the camp unique is that kids of two different languages and cultures come together.”

Geist knows of no such offering elsewhere in the United States, although similar camps have been offered in Spain, with teens from other European countries attending. In fact, the camp director for the UW’s program, Angel Moretón, previously directed a language immersion camp in Spain. One of the UW camp’s five counselors also worked at the camp in Spain.

photo of students examining artifacts from the Burke's ethnology collections  
The campers pose with national flags and a homemade bull (center, cloaked in black plastic).  

“This camp is similar to those in Spain, except that many of the activities are in the city rather than in a camp setting,” says Moretón. Activities included a trip to Safeco Field for a baseball game, a day at Wild Waves water park, and tours of Microsoft and the Pike Place Market. The last few days of camp were spent on the Olympic Peninsula, where the group hiked in the Hoh Rain Forest and visited Forks, the setting for the popular Twilight book series. “The Spanish kids are just nuts over the series,” says Geist. “They couldn’t wait to take the Twilight tour.”

The Spanish campers may even have read the Twilight books in English. Most of them have impressive English skills, having studied the language since first grade.  For them, visiting the Northwest was as big a draw as the language immersion. And thanks to scholarships from the regional government of Castilla y León in Spain, most of their expenses were covered. “It was a once in a lifetime opportunity,” says Carlos Fernández Romo, a student from Avila in Castilla y León. “I had to do it. I’d never even traveled by plane before!”

The American teens, most hailing from the Puget Sound area, had different motivations. Although staying on the UW campus held appeal, it was the opportunity to hone their language skills that was the main selling point. A minimum of two years of Spanish study was required for American participants.

  photo of students looking at fossils and rock specimens
  When the campers attended a Mariners' game, they were welcomed officially—on the scoreboard!

“Spanish is a little tough for me, so I wanted to do something to work on it over the summer,” says Larsen, who attends Lakeside School in Seattle. And while most of the field trips covered familiar ground for Larsen, she enjoyed sharing her city with her Spanish peers. “It makes me super proud of Seattle,” says Larsen, “and it helped me see the city differently.”

As for Larsen’s reticence to speak Spanish on the first day of the camp, Moretón considers that totally normal. “The first week is the toughest,” he explains. “The kids are shy. They’re uncomfortable speaking another language.”

To encourage greater interaction, the program included a digital storytelling project that required intense collaboration. Working in small groups, the campers planned, filmed, and edited short (up to five minutes) pieces using film-editing software.  The digital stories were screened at a Camp Spanglish Film Festival the last night of camp.

“The digital storytelling project was designed as a way for the students to interact with each other intellectually and emotionally on a project,” says Geist. “That project and the language classes were the constants, the threads that ran throughout the program.”

The approach evidently worked. By week two, the teens were chatting like old friends, their conversations often a mix of English and Spanish. “We sometimes spoke in English to the American kids and got an answer in Spanish,” says Fernández, laughing. “We’re all great friends now. We’ve been inviting our American friends to Spain.”

Geist admits that while the morning language classes were important, it was the opportunity to practice speaking while socializing with peers that made the lessons really stick. The desire to communicate, he says, can be a powerful motivator.  “Usually in language learning, there are times when skills climb, then plateau, then climb again. With these kids, the trigger was tripped and they just zoomed.”

Larsen agrees. By mid-camp, she already noticed a big change.  “I’ve definitely gotten a lot better,” she said at the time. “I can tell. I still get frustrated, having something to say and not being able to say it, but yesterday on my run, I found myself thinking in Spanish. How great is that?”

EDITOR'S NOTE: Camp Spanglish was discontinued in 2010.

Return to Table of Contents, September 2009 issue


September 2009 issue
Table of Contents
Letter from the Dean
Act III for Jones Playhouse
Camp Spanglish for Teens
Archaeology Field School's a Gem
Dance as Social Commentary
Scandinavian Studies' Centennial
Extreme Makeover for Savery Hall
Revisiting Helen of Troy
Humanities in the Digital Age
Awards & Honors
Other Links
Past Issues
Editor's Picks
Article Index
Arts & Sciences Home
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