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Midvale Journal

Kids stay active while learning at Tyler Library’s Spanish language program

Oct 02, 2019 03:45PM ● By Sarah Morton Taggart

Maria Sommer reads a story in Spanish to children at the Tyler Library on Sept. 5. (Sarah Morton Taggart/City Journals)

By Sarah Morton Taggart | [email protected]

Children are usually taught to sit still and be quiet while at the library. But during Cuentos y Baile, kids are encouraged to sing, dance and play—while also learning Spanish.

The hour-long program, whose name means “story and dance” in Spanish, takes place every Thursday morning from 10:30 to 11:30 at the Tyler Library, located at 8041 S. Wood St. in Midvale. Cuentos y Baile is geared for children ages 0 to 5, but is open and welcoming to all.

First is story time, with library assistant Maria Sommer reading Spanish translations of engaging picture books. Sometimes she’ll pause to let the kids shout out a word they know. “How do you say cat en español?” Sommer asks. “Gato!” the children reply.

“I like to teach the words to them. I have them repeat the word so they learn to pronounce them,” Sommer said. “It’s not usually Spanish-fluent people who come. It’s English-speaking moms who want their kids to learn.”

Sommer knows a thing or two about learning a new language. When she came to the United States from Bolivia nearly 30 years ago she could read and write in English, but spoke only in Spanish. She began dating a man who only spoke English, and they had to use an improvised sign language to communicate at first. Yet they later married. “My husband still doesn’t speak Spanish,” said Sommer with a laugh.

Sommer, however, did learn to speak English and in 2003 began working for the Salt Lake City Library system—as a custodian. She later moved to the technical services department, where she processed new materials. She kept learning new skills and eventually took a position as a shelver. That’s when she started doing a monthly story time at the Sprague Library in Sugar House.

“The librarian needed help with one of her programs, so she invited me to read books in Spanish,” Sommer said. “I liked doing it and did story time there for three years.” She eventually went back to shelving books and later took on an additional shelving position at the Tyler Library.

She again worked her way up in Midvale and had become a library assistant when she was asked to help with a bilingual story time. “There was some participation, but then it kind of died off,” Sommer said. “So I came up with something else. I wondered, would it help if I did one language instead of bilingual?”

The resulting program, which began in August 2018, is a unique mix of story time, games and music. 

“One family has been coming since the beginning. They’re not fluent in Spanish, so I use some English,” Sommer said. “They’ve been amazing. They’ve been learning a lot. They really focus to learn the language.”

Sommer follows a similar routine every week, but also customizes the activities to suit the children in attendance. For that group of regulars, the best part is the games.

“They love that wolf game,” Sommer said. “The first time I did it they loved it so much so I had to keep doing it. I put the words on the screen so they could learn the words. Their mom sings along to learn the words and the tune and she practices it at home. Her kids are homeschooled and she learns along with them.”

Along with learning, Cuentos y Baile is an opportunity for kids to get some exercise. The interactive games encourage lots of movement and running. Then each session ends with 15 to 20 minutes of Zumba.

“I do it slow for them and they are enjoying it,” Sommer said. “They are learning to coordinate their bodies.” Sommer also teaches a popular Zumba class for adults at the Tyler Library on Tuesday evenings. 

Lauren Richards moved to Midvale this summer and brought her almost 2-year-old to Cuentos y Baile in September. “I saw it online and thought music and dancing. That should work,” said Richards.

“I love that the program encourages language learning through songs and play,” said David Bird, the Tyler Library manager. “It also immerses the families in Spanish so they are experiencing the language and the culture and, I feel, finding deeper tolerance of new experiences.”