Aisha has spelled her name thousands of times, but tonight she’s having so much trouble that when she’s done, she realizes she’s forgotten a letter. Thankfully, Pedro Vallejo is patient. He says the “h” in Spanish for her again, and she repeats it after him. “Excelente,” he says. Aisha sheepishly smiles.
It’s the second week of the beginners’ Spanish course at the Language School. Five students, including Aisha, sit around a table and ask each other how to spell their names in the foreign language. Their instructor stands close by, listening intently and correcting any mispronunciations. Aisha, a mail carrier from Aurora, signed up for the course because she was tired of coming across non-English-speaking clients and being unable to ask them for simple things like a signature.
Sitting in the small waiting area outside is David Stevens. Dressed in a suit, he’s doing administrative work from a computer as his short, white poof of a dog bounces around the room. In a previous life, Stevens worked at a tech start-up in Boulder, but after he realized he was losing his Spanish – which he picked up after a trip to Spain in college – he quit his job and opened the Language School in 2011. The two conference-rooms-turned-classrooms are in an office building tucked behind dispensaries in northeast Denver.
The eighty students currently enrolled at the Language School – and the thousands who came before them – don’t get traditional lessons in grammar and verb conjugation, at least not at first. Stevens’s approach to teaching a foreign language is to start with conversation and get to the technical stuff later. He’s even written the books that Pedro and other instructors use in class, the most basic of which encourages students to engage in simple conversation.
“On day one, if you’ve never spoken a word of Spanish in your life, we teach you a dialogue for how to introduce yourself, but we’re not explaining the grammar behind it,” Stevens explains. “Later, in our intermediate and advanced classes, that’s when we start hitting the grammar hard.”
Stevens points to the two classes on a recent Tuesday night as an example of his approach’s success. While the students in the beginners course struggle with rolling their r’s, others in a more advanced class – separated from the novices by only five months or so – are not only talking with Pedro in his native tongue, but joking with him.
The conversational approach to language learning is not only more effective, Stevens argues, but also brings people together. Strangers who could barely communicate at the school’s weekly conversation meet-ups, in which students are invited to simply talk to each other, ended up good friends. That makes it all the harder for Stevens to understand the hateful, anonymous notes that people sent the school, the ugly messages they left, during the presidential election.
“I’ve received letters and phone calls and messages, like nasty messages, saying, ‘We don’t need to learn Spanish, they need to learn English,’” Stevens says. “It’s unfortunate, but I think that gives me all the more motivation to want to do what we’re doing here – to break down cultural misunderstandings. If I can get people together in the same room, talking to each other, people become friends, and they develop relationships that last a lifetime.”
Vallejo is tall and lanky, and his ashy blond hair covers his head like a bowl. Dressed in khakis and a polo, he apologizes to his students for his slightly broken English. In Venezuela, Vallejo was a geologist; political unrest forced him to leave and resettle in Denver. As he sorts out the paperwork necessary to seek political asylum, he makes a living by teaching his native tongue and driving travelers to and from Denver International Airport and the mountains in a passenger van. On his card he calls himself “Rodeo Pete.”
“It’s so typical of people who are coming to this country,” Stevens says. “I’m glad we found him and are at least letting his language talents not go to waste.”
More and more people like Vallejo are calling Denver home. In Montbello alone, 60 percent of the community is Spanish-speaking, Stevens says. “I’ve talked to cops and firefighters, and they have a difficult time simply because some of the people they come in contact with don’t speak English, and they all want to learn Spanish so they can do their job more effectively and feel safer,” he explains.
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Ailene (the students communicate with each other by their first names) works at the Denver Housing Authority and focuses on real-estate development in west Denver, where she frequently encounters the Hispanic, Vietnamese and Somali communities. She picked up a little Vietnamese from her immigrant parents, but she doesn’t speak much, if any, Spanish.
“I’m working on an initiative where I’m mostly just listening and spending time with the community to hear their needs and wants,” she says. “I’ve noticed at our meetings that if there’s not a translator there or not enough people there feeling comfortable, they’re less likely to speak up. It’s already hard to get people to come to community events. The language thing adds another layer to people feeling timid to share their opinions. But most people at least try.”
She and others in the class can certainly relate. Pedro shows them a PowerPoint presentation and asks each student to name in Spanish the objects in the pictures he’s showing: markers, pencils, paper...things that these twenty-, thirty- and forty-somethings learned to identify in kindergarten.
“The U.S. is facing a very challenging stage in the history of it being a country,” Stevens says. “In the past ten to twenty years, we’ve seen so many immigrants coming to America, [and it’s] particularly impacted cities like Denver. We teach both English and Spanish so that we can try to integrate our communities. We’re bridging the language barrier.”