Dual-language program provides a bonus by linking family generations.

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Maria Gonzalez coaches son Diego while he does his Spanish language homework at their Walla Walla home as his younger brother, Rafael, listens in. Diego, native English speaker, is participating in the dual-language program at Sharpstein Elementary School, where he is in kindergarten.

My first child started kindergarten this year, and a few weeks ago he brought home his first "test."

Diego is in the dual-language program at Walla Walla's Sharpstein Elementary. His exam tested how many colors he could identify in Spanish after several classroom lessons.

I'd be lying if I said he aced it. I think 2 out of 11 is about right.

This probably wouldn't concern too many parents seeing their child introduced to a new language. Except my son has grown up hearing Spanish spoken around him. Diego's father and I are both fluent in Spanish.

The test didn't seem so much a failure on Diego's part but more on mine. And this is where being bilingual, an immigrant and a naturalized U.S. citizen gets tricky.

My husband Carlos and I were both born in Spanish-speaking countries and grew up speaking Spanish in our homes. Yet we immigrated to this country early enough -- he was 3, I was 7 -- that even though English is our "second" language it is the one we speak most fluently and proficiently.

As much as I love talking to my husband in Spanish, we speak in English the vast majority of the time. We've both been educated in it; our Spanish is rough and not studied. In Spanish we both fumble over certain words and phrases, and never really learned proper grammar rules. Reading and writing in Spanish is a struggle -- we are basically back to being children when we do.

When Carlos and I met and started a family, we didn't give much discussion to whether we would teach our children Spanish -- I think we assumed it would somehow magically happen on its own. We both had the desire to see our kids speak Spanish, but didn't really have a plan for how to carry that out.

What I have learned from the last six years is that to make it happen, one of us would have had to take on speaking Spanish exclusively -- all the time, to everybody in the house, no exceptions.

Carlos and I are now expecting our third child, and this might be the perfect time to decide who should be the Spanish teacher in the house. But then there are the doubts: Will our new daughter pick up English as well as her two brothers if it's spoken half as often? And will our mangled Spanish really be the best for her?

When I first came to this country in the mid-'80s, programs like bilingual education and dual-immersion were still being developed. In my second-grade class, I was pulled to a special part of the room during certain lessons with other Spanish-speaking students in the basic "English as a Second Language" model of learning.

By third grade, from pure saturation, I became fluent in English. I even made it into the advanced reading group in my class. But my Spanish education was halted in the classroom. Spanish had become limited to what I heard at home between my parents, and visiting friends or relatives.

My brother and I started speaking to each other in English and we spoke to our cousins in English, too. In high school I took French.

Walla Walla has given my children an amazing opportunity thanks to its dual-language program. By the time Diego is getting ready for middle school, he should be able to talk with me in Spanish the way I talked to my family at that age. And when grandma visits, she might finally be compelled to speak to her grandchildren in her native Spanish instead of her heavily accented, broken English that makes my children giggle.

Since that color test at Sharpstein, Diego and I have been naming colores around the house. As other lessons come up, I hope to help him a lot more.

I may not have done the best job raising my child bilingual, but at least I can help him as much as I can now that he's got the opportunity to also learn it in school.

Maria P. Gonzalez is the education reporter for the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin. She can be reached at mariagonzalez@wwub.com or 526-8317.

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