World Langugage Initiative

Students participate in a World Language Initiative summer camp in 2018 at the Beale Art Center. The theme for the lesson was, “The French at Sea.”

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Hundreds of young Bozeman kids are learning Spanish, French, German, Arabic and Chinese after school, thanks to the nonprofit World Language Initiative that’s working to bring world cultures to the Gallatin Valley.

“Bozeman is becoming more diverse — we want to celebrate that,” said Elizabeth Williamson, the nonprofit’s executive director.

Williamson, a parent and former Bozeman School Board trustee, said recent examples of hate — a KKK warning written on a black man’s car, racial slurs posted online against Curry Express — show that it’s important to celebrate diversity and not let prejudice take root.

“In these times it’s more important than ever to be delivering programs which foster kindness, awareness, tolerance, acceptance,” she wrote.

World Language Initiative started five years ago when a group of moms were talking over tea and coffee about wanting to give their kindergartners the chance for complete immersion in a foreign language, she said. They realized that would reach very few kids, so their idea expanded to exposing many elementary children to languages.

“Research shows that kids who get exposure to early language education are statistically more likely to become fluent in a second language as adults,” Williamson said.

What started as a dozen children getting after-school language instruction at two schools, she said, has grown to 350 kids at all eight Bozeman elementary schools with 18 coaches teaching five languages. Many coaches are native speakers.

Last summer WLI worked with the city recreation department to offer summer classes for 60 kids. This spring its coaches are teaching at Middle Creek Montessori. It’s looking into working with homeschool families and Gallatin Gateway School next year and holding summer classes this summer at the Story Mansion.

Now World Language Initiative is planning its first big fundraiser, a World Dance Party Shake-Out at the Baxter Hotel on Jan. 26. The Baxter donated the space, 80 local businesses donated cash or silent auction items, and artist Jim Dolan donated a metal, table-size sculpture of a horse for a raffle.

The band Left on 10th, which has two WLI coaches in Spanish and French, will perform disco and world music.

World Language Initiative, an official nonprofit for two years, is trying to make the transition from “a passion project,” Williams said, to a fully sustainable organization that can reach all ages and go beyond the Bozeman School District’s borders.

Money raised at the dance will also go toward student scholarships. For after-school lessons — one hour a week for 18 weeks — it charges $210. About 10 percent of students get scholarships.

Lead coach for WLI is Kristen Wolf, who just won the Montana Association of Language Teachers’ 2019 teacher of the year award.

It’s really important to start teaching languages when kids are young — before they become teenagers, Williamson said. Bozeman schools offer foreign languages in middle school and high school, which she said seems a terrible time to start.

“It’s really important to get it in when students are less self-conscious about making mistakes,” Wolf said. Younger students “are more open to hearing something different.”

Coaches try to be expressive, use gestures, familiar words and lots of fun activities, like learning Chinese-style bamboo painting, making foreign foods and French pirate hats – not drilling kids in grammar and rote memorization, Wolf said.

“You don’t need to conjugate verbs, you need to have fun so kids are engaged,” she said. “My opinion is language is our heart, our way of expressing feelings.”

Wolf said she fears many people will rely on computers to translate in the future, but doing that, “you lose the human connection.”

The dance party will run from 6:30 to 10 p.m. Jan. 26 in the Baxter. Tickets are $40 per person and can be purchased online at Raffle tickets for the Dolan sculpture are $50.

This story was changed Jan. 22 to correct the year of Kristen Wolf's award and one incorrect reference to the World Language Institute, which should say Initiative.

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

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