Courtesy Felipe Gomez/El Circulo.

For families who speak a second language at home, it can be difficult to preserve that language without community support. And in Pittsburgh, which has a growing but not centralized Latino population, it can be even more challenging for Latino families to make sure their kids are keeping up with their mother tongue.

A program at Carnegie Mellon University’s Department of Modern Languages brings together Latino children in its El Circulo Juvenil de Cultura, a course that spans 10 weekends, where students work together on a group project and improve their social skills as well as their language skills.

Some children in the classes, which include students between 5 and 12 years old, speak very little English, some are fluently bilingual and others fall somewhere in between.

“We wanted to help immigrant kids keep their Spanish language heritage,” says El Circulo co-director Felipe Gomez. He and co-director Mariana Achugar are both professors in CMU’s department of Hispanic Studies. The goal of the program, which started in 2007, is to show bilingual students that having a second language is an asset.

An instructor and student in the El Circulo program. Courtesy Felipe Gomez/El Circulo.
An instructor and student in the El Circulo program. Courtesy Felipe Gomez/El Circulo.

The workshops rely on the support of CMU undergraduates and volunteers as instructors which Achugar says is key to giving the kids role models.

“They see the value of using Spanish when they see other people using it,” she says. “They see they’re not the only ones with a bicultural identity.”

By creating a program for the students to tell stories in different media, the students’ Spanish literacy improves, as well as their understanding of the different technology involved. They learn how to write a story, how to think about constructing characters, and collaborate with the undergraduate students, Achugar explains.

And part of the session involves the building of an elaborate Rube Goldberg machine, which the kids loved, she adds. “Any time they can figure out how to solve a problem or create something, it helps them become more comfortable expressing themselves,” Achugar says.

On Sunday, Dec. 6, the Cuentamelo students will hold a showcase for families and friends to show off what they’ve done in the program. El Circulo goes on hiatus as the university calendar winds down and will begin a new cycle sometime in February.

Kim Lyons is an award-winning writer and editor always on the lookout for a great story. Her experience includes writing about business, politics, and local news, and she has a huge crush on Pittsburgh.