Language ambassadors serve new immigrants at Santa Rita School

Crystal Tai/Town Crier
Blaine Dzwonczyk, right, Santa Rita School’s English Learner program specialist, holds a lottery during a recent lunchtime meeting of the language ambassador program.

Santa Rita School has a culturally diverse student body, with 32 languages spoken on campus. Newcomers who are not yet fluent in English can seek help through the school’s language ambassador program, which had an all-member meeting right before the winter break.

A so-called language ambassador at Santa Rita is a bilingual student who can serve as an interpreter between a new immigrant or foreign visitor and an English speaker who doesn’t know that language. The school currently has 75 language ambassadors, all fourth- through sixth-graders, who cover a total of 20 languages, according to Blaine Dzwonczyk, the school’s English Learner program specialist.

When the 75 language ambassadors gathered at a lunch meeting in December, Dzwonczyk had them practice their interpreting skills through activities.

Their first exercise was for each language ambassador to find 10 others who speak 10 different languages and write their names as well as languages on a worksheet, which also presented a question: If you could choose any superpower, what would it be?

The students laughed about one another’s answers while filling out their worksheets.

Another exercise had language ambassadors get into groups of three, with two speaking the same foreign language and one who didn’t understand it. Then one of the two foreign language speakers would serve as an interpreter to translate “You’ve got a lifetime supply of ice cream” into that language.

Collectively, the 75 students speak Arabic, Cantonese, Dutch, Finnish, French, German, Greek, Hebrew, Hindi, Japanese, Korean, Mandarin, Norwegian, Persian, Portuguese, Romanian, Russian, Serbian, Spanish and Tamil, according to Dzwonczyk.

A ‘welcoming message’

Launched in 2013, Santa Rita’s language ambassador program comprises not only students, but also parents, Dzwonczyk said.

Lemo Sekiguchi, a Santa Rita sixth-grader, and her mother, Rika, have both served as language ambassadors for a year.

Lemo said she signed up for the program last year because she wanted to help other students.

“Last year there was a girl who just came and couldn’t speak any English. I helped her for the whole year,” she said.

Lemo added that it’s fun to be an interpreter, but she would advise new language ambassadors to explain everything in detail so that the message will truly be understood.

When Lemo needs to use some advanced Japanese vocabulary words she doesn’t know, she can ask her mother, she said.

An active parent at Santa Rita, Rika said she enjoys sharing her family’s pleasant experience in Los Altos with new immigrants from Japan.

“When my family moved here, many teachers and many parents helped us out, so I would like to help new (families) out,” she said.

Rika said she always tells newcomers not to let the language barrier keep them from getting involved, and those inspired by her are no longer afraid to “participate in this Santa Rita community.”

“I always appreciate this program. It was very helpful for me,” she added.

The language ambassador program is a welcoming message Santa Rita sends to multilingual students, Dzwonczyk said.

“We celebrate our students who are multilingual,” she said. “We confirm for them that not only is it OK to bring multiple languages into the classroom and into school, but it’s a really wonderful thing we appreciate about our students.”

Former Town Crier reporter Elizabeth Barcelos contributed to this report.

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