In a colorful room in a south Lincoln church there is much singing and dancing on a snowy morning in February.
The song — “Cinco Ratoncitos” — is about five little mice, and the five little sock-footed humans in the room appear to be taking on the “mice” roles while their teacher leads them.
Observers not fluent in Spanish can’t say that’s precisely what’s going on (without a little help from teacher Karina Saavedra-Mendez), but the snack time that follows is pretty self-explanatory, even though all the "pleases" and "thank-yous" and directions are in Spanish.
That’s the point at Aventuras, Lincoln’s first Spanish immersion preschool.
“We’re not teaching Spanish,” said co-owner Angela Gonzalez. “We’re teaching in Spanish.”
It’s a well-planned and fledgling program now, begun by Gonzalez and her husband, Luis Gonzalez, to fill a need in their own family and one they saw in the community.
They see the advantages of bilingualism in today’s global society, the couple said.
“That’s a gift I wanted to give to my kids,” Luis said.
Luis Gonzalez grew up in Mexico and followed his father — who’d married a Lincoln woman and moved here. Gonzalez was 21 years old when he joined his dad in Lincoln and he spoke English, but not with the fluency he’d gain living in a place where it was the primary language.
Angela Gonzalez was born and raised in Lincoln, and the two met after she graduated from UNL with a degree in international studies and French.
Today, the couple has three children — Liliana, 5; Evalee, 3; and Mateo, 1 — and Luis speaks Spanish to them at home. But it didn’t seem to be enough. The kids understood their dad, but often responded to him in English. When they visited his family in Mexico, they had trouble communicating.
Luis saw the benefits of bilingualism in his own life: first when he worked at the Department of Health and Human Services, where he helped people enroll in Medicaid and then as the owner of a construction business.
They’d enrolled their kids in bilingual preschool at Irving Recreation Center, but it wasn’t exposing them to enough of the language, Luis said. Because it was a bilingual program, kids spoke both English and Spanish.
The couple knew — from personal experience — that the best way to learn another language is to be immersed in it. When Luis came to Lincoln and was surrounded by the language it made a huge difference. It was harder, he said, but he learned much more quickly. Angela majored in French in college but it wasn’t until she lived in France that she really learned to speak the language.
They knew that young children learn languages much more easily than adults, that research shows knowing more than one language helps develop problem-solving, critical thinking, math skills, listening and concentration skills. It opens children up to different cultures, to a bigger world, the couple says.
“Ultimately, what we see is the benefits of learning a language at a young age,” Luis said.
So they decided to jump.
“He’s the entrepreneur in the family,” Angela said of her husband. “He said if it doesn’t exist, let’s create it.”
Angela has the experience to run the program: She’s completed coursework in child, youth and family studies, spent two years teaching English language learners and four years as a project coordinator administering grant-funded nonprofit programs for new Americans. She's been a research administrator at UNL for six years.
Luis knows about starting a business, and the couple worked with the Nebraska Business Development Center to get started. Their research told them the most interest was in the part of town their church happened to be, so they rented space on the lower level of Epic Church at 6601 S. 70th St.
Language immersion programs have been around in other communities for some time, often as programs in elementary schools. And a group of parents in Lincoln have advocated for a bilingual program at LPS, though the district has not started one.
Adventuras opened in January and offers six-week, half-day sessions for children ages 3 to 5.
They use the Spanish edition of a preschool curriculum, and simplify it when necessary so that it’s accessible to children who don’t already know Spanish — because students don’t need to know the language when they start, the Gonzalezes said.
Their two daughters, the teacher’s son and two other preschoolers make up the first class, but they hope to offer a summer program to school-aged children.
“We will expand as long as there’s interest in it,” Luis said.
In the meantime, the students in class are going about the business of being preschoolers.
They’re learning about animals, what they’re called and the sounds they make — and recently tried their hands at making butter. Er, la mantequilla.
Last week, they learned about snow, went outside and grabbed a few handfuls of the white stuff and put it in buckets. Then they set those buckets aside. And after snack, they looked inside.
Here’s what they found: La nieve se derritió!
Turns out the same thing happens in English, too, it's just pronounced differently.