“Di-ver-ti-do!” Children shouted out each syllable as they clapped their hands together in a fast-paced hand game. “Di-ver-ti-do!”

Divertido means fun in Spanish, teacher Kristen Wolf told her students. And she was doing all she could to make learning a foreign language as fun as possible.

Wolf, named Montana’s language teacher of the year, taught kids a Spanish language version of rock-paper-scissors, and one of the hand games ended with lots of tickling.

Elsewhere in Bozeman’s Story Mansion, children in Christina Clark’s Chinese class were cutting out paper horses to make traditional shadow puppets.

In the kitchen, kids in Hannah Jacobsma’s French class were cracking eggs, measuring flour and finding the butter to bake French madeleine cookies – while learning phrases like “Cherchez le beurre!”

No dull verb conjugations here at the World Language Initiative’s summer camp.

“It’s a very playful, activity-based teaching style,” said Elizabeth Williamson, executive director of the nonprofit WLI-Montana. “It captures the heart and mind of the child.”

When kids are playing, they’re not as self-conscious about saying words in another language, she said.

Eight-year-olds Scarlett Dominquez, Lillian Williamson and Allegra Smith said their favorite French words so far are “Bonjour” and “Bon appétit.”

Research shows that children who learn foreign languages in elementary grades do better on math and reading tests later and are more likely to become fluent in another language as adults, Williamson said. It increases awareness of and empathy for people in other cultures, and can prepare students for jobs in a globally competitive world.

WLI’s first summer language camps last year attracted 52 students, and in this second summer the camps grew to 135 kids, ages 4 to 13.

The classes are part of the city’s summer recreation program and so were able to meet in the city’s Story Mansion.

“Our kids love it,” Williamson said. “It’s an amazing, inspirational space.” Plus classes can easily go outside and play language games on the lawn.

In July the initiative offered half-day sessions in French, Chinese, Arabic and Spanish, plus a full-day Spanish camp. The cost was $170 per week, and 10 percent of students received scholarships.

Summer camps ended last week, but in September WLI will start up again with its after-school and in-school classes. The initiative has 26 language coaches, including volunteers, paid staff and several native speakers.

“We’re fostering the next generation of global citizens,” said Williamson, a parent and former Bozeman School Board trustee.

Bozeman’s public schools offer foreign language classes in middle school and high school, but have struggled over the decades to offer instruction in elementary grades, when many believe it’s easiest for young brains to soak up new languages.

“A lot of parents ask why can’t this be in school,” Williamson said. “There’s no state money (for it). It’s hard to deliver things when they’re not (required for state) accreditation.”

WLI doesn’t rely on taxpayer dollars or “mercurial” state and federal grants, she said. Instead it relies on enthusiastic parents, parent councils and fundraising. She compared language classes to the “enrichment” offered by artists in the schools, also funded by parents’ volunteer efforts and school art festivals.

This will be the third year that WLI has partnered with Irving School to offer Arabic and other languages. A teacher from Morocco will expand instruction to all grades there, not just fourth and fifth.

WLI is also working with Morning Star School to offer Chinese, with private Middle Creek Montessori and with Gallatin Gateway School to start Spanish.

“We’re very passionate,” Williamson said. “It’s an opportunity to make a difference in my children’s lives and other children’s lives and in the community I love.”

Information about fall classes can be found on the World Language Initiative-Montana website, (http://k-5.fwlbozeman.com/).

Gail Schontzler can be reached at gails@dailychronicle.com or 406-582-2633. Follow her on Twitter @gailnews.

Gail Schontzler covers schools and Montana State University for the Chronicle.

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