The Thirty-A Review March 2020

l o c a l c u l t u r e

The Language Studio: Teaching Kids to Celebrate Diversity b y A n d y B u t c h e r

T he young students will face no big end-of- semester test, but Val Wallace will consider her new language program for kids a success if they offer these four words at the end of their time: “Me gusta el español!” (“I like Spanish!”). She is not just looking to encourage a new generation of Hispanic speakers but foster an appreciation for other voices. “We need to teach our children there are different countries, different languages, different looks; and they are okay, and we accept and celebrate them,” says the Bolivian-born founder of The Language Studio, opening its Emerald Coast doors in the first quarter of 2020. Children aged three through six are being introduced to Spanish and Latino culture through a new, play-based after-school program in Santa Rosa Beach. The 45-minute sessions are deliberately technology-free, relying on hands-on activities and music to stimulate interest. Practically speaking—no pun intended—there’s good reason for starting Spanish classes young. The Hispanic-speaking population of the United States, currently around 18 percent, continues to grow, making fluency an advantage in personal and business life. And then there are the other benefits of learning another language while still young. It has been found to improve academic results in other areas, in addition to encouraging individual openness and curiosity. That inquisitiveness is what brought Wallace to the United States in the first place. She arrived as a 17-year-old exchange student, only to discover that the classroom English she had learned back in Bolivia was a far cry from that of her host community in Central Florida. Undeterred, she pressed on, learning to speak like a local, and graduated high school here, going on to earn a degree in marketing from the University of West Florida in Pensacola. From there she went to Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., for a master’s in international education. Since then she has worked as a college counselor, helping hundreds of Bolivian students pursue further education in the United States as she did.

“After Alex was born, I felt the need to really connect to my world, my culture, to immerse her in who I am as a person, so we had a couple of years in Bolivia,” Val says. Anna was born while they were there, in Val’s home city of La Paz. Now back in the United States, Val and her daughters speak Spanish at home, switching to English when needed. While Florida has the fourth-largest Hispanic population in the country—around a quarter of its people, behind California, Texas, and New York—the Emerald Coast doesn’t reflect that statewide mix. The Latino or Hispanic populations of Bay, Gulf, and Walton counties are each around just 5-6 percent, while Okaloosa hits 8 percent. Still, Wallace has found an interest among parents wanting their children to explore Spanish language and culture that is encouraging to her. “I love living here, it’s a wonderful community,” she says, “but I think we are missing a little of that cultural diversity piece we all need; that’s part of what I want the studio to provide.” As The Language Studio grows, she is considering adding sessions for older students and even adults. For now, the emphasis is on kids and fun. “It needs to be organic,” says Wallace, who has given her bi-lingual skills as a volunteer translator at the Point Washington Medical Clinic in Santa Rosa Beach, which offers free primary care. “They need to take it in in a very natural way, like my girls have done.” Hence the hands-on, no- tech emphasis—games, songs, activities, art, repetition. Classes are small, just a handful of students, to ensure plenty of one-on-one attention. “I don’t expect them to come out speaking a lot of Spanish, but I feel I will have accomplished something if we have created this multicultural awareness and appreciation,” Wallace says. Something as simple as, “Me gusta el español!” The Language Studio is located at 827 E. Mack Bayou Drive, Santa Rosa Beach, FL. Call (850) 428-0206 or go to to find out more. Open: Tuesdays and Thursdays: 3-4 years, 3:30-4:15 p.m.; 5-6 years, 4:30-5:15 p.m.

Val Wallace

The Language Studio is born out of her personal and family experience. She and husband Trent—they met when Val was in Pensacola—have focused on providing a bilingual and multicultural environment for their two daughters, Alex (5) and Anna (3).

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