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Spanish-only program helps participants master language

Oct. 2, 2006

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A UMNS photo by James Galbreath

John Darlington and Aurora Cervantes look up a word in the dictionary during conversation practice.

By Henri Giles*

ROCKFORD, Ill. (UMNS) — A weeklong experience of speaking only Spanish for 14 hours every day helped clergy and church leaders gain proficiency in the language.

Fifteen church leaders, or pilgrims as they are called, descended upon the Bishop Lane Retreat Center in Rockford for seven days of activities, language sessions and worship services in Spanish.

Called Spanishtown, the total immersion language program was designed by the Rev. Kirk Reed to help participants minister to a growing Latino population.

Reed, pastor of Trinity United Methodist Church in Wilmette, Ill., said the program has been a dream of his since he was a young pastor.

“I really wanted to communicate in Spanish and I didn’t have the tools,” said Reed. “I’d gone to Mexico for four weeks to try to come back fluent in Spanish and I didn’t progress very much.”

He concluded that the most effective method for learning another language was to create an environment where only that language was permitted. “Solamento espaņol, todo el dia” or “All Spanish, all the time” became the mantra for the week among the program’s participants.

Englishtown model

Reed developed the curriculum for Spanishtown from the Englishtown program that is taught in Spain. Reed’s church near Chicago is part of one of the nation’s largest Latino communities; he estimates the area has 1.6 million Spanish-speaking residents.

Since only Spanish was allowed, English conversations almost become a memory after a week. Some even found themselves dreaming in Spanish. “I wake up in the morning thinking Spanish words, conjugating verbs,” said the Rev. John Darlington, pastor of Christ United Methodist Church in Rochester, Minnesota.

Reed said the tranquil and remote location is a wonderful setting for entering into the mindset of the Spanish language. Instructors, known as guides, help ease the anxiety of tackling a new language.

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A UMNS photo by James Galbreath

Spanishtown participants play Pictionary in Spanish as a fun way to practice their new language skills.
Javier Martinez, a native of Monterey, Mexico, is a seminary student at United Methodist-related Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Ill., and one of the program’s guides. “I had to learn to speak slower, clearly and even to ask them to repeat what they were missing, and to help them lose the fear to make mistakes,” he said.

For Delia Ramirez, Spanishtown has been a learning experience. “It’s been a time of a lot of conversations, a lot of getting to know one another, and realizing that we have a lot in common. I remember saying many times ?me too, me too.’”

Once the pilgrims relaxed and were comfortable with making mistakes, the conversations flowed, she said. By the end of the week, participants were sharing information about their lives and dreams. “I think for me that’s been the greatest affirmation that God is supporting this and God wants this to happen,” Ramirez said.

Reaching out to Latinos

Spanishtown helped pastors who are serious about embracing the Latino communities they serve.

“We have no Mexicans in our church, and so I wanted to become fluent as much as possible in Spanish and reach out to those persons in the community, and perhaps start a service in Spanish and invite them into the church,” said the Rev. Maryann Meador of First United Methodist Church of Mendota, Ill.

Darlington said the experience made him a better leader and prepared him to personally help individuals in need. “This experience says that whether I’m having a good day with the language or not, whether I’m suffering from nervous moments because I can’t think of the right word in espaņol, the overall experience is improving me. I feel like more of a child of God when I can communicate better with more of the children of God.”

“I really think that the result of this will be new partnerships,” Reed added. The test is not ?did we have a good week?’ but ?does it benefit the church?’ Is the ministry of the church enhanced? That’s our hope, our prayer and our commitment.”

Repeating the experience

This gathering marked the first year for Spanishtown. Reed said that if the enthusiasm and dedication among the pilgrims and guides are any indication, the language program should continue with great success.

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A UMNS photo by James Galbreath

The Rev. Kirk Reed prepares for the closing communion service.
The idea was so important to Ramirez that she took a week of her vacation time from work to help others learn her native language. “The connection that we get from seven days — one language sharing all day — can’t be compared to many things, so it was powerful. I don’t think I have the words to tell you how much it meant to me.”

Reed hopes to create Spanishtowns all over the United States. The fellowship among the pilgrims and guides from several faith traditions was an eye-opening experience for participants.

Besides photographs and mementos, Reed said, participants gained a renewed appreciation and understanding of the Spanish language, culture and one another.

*Giles is a freelance producer based in Nashville, Tenn.

News media contact: Fran Coode Walsh, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5458 or

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