Did you know that more than half of the world’s population is bilingual? How many languages
do you speak? Personally I would be hard-pressed to have a simple conversation in French
despite years of study in high school and college. I only speak English.
Speaking more than one language is truly an asset. Research suggests that bilingualism
improves your competitiveness in the job market. It boosts your resume to the top of the pile
and can open up new career opportunities. And according to the Department of Labor
translators and interpreters are expected to be one of the 15 fastest growing occupations. In
addition, it has been found that college graduates who speak two languages make an average
of 2% more.
Also consider the cultural benefits. When you can converse with someone in their native
tongue it gives you the opportunity to understand the nuances of their culture. It offers you a
new perspective and it may help you to see the world a little differently.
However, one of the best gifts of bilingualism may be the enormous health benefits. Numerous
studies have found improved brain function. Speaking a second language can improve one’s
problem-solving, multitasking and decision-making abilities. And it can slow the effects of old
age. Conditions such as memory loss, confusion and difficulties with problem solving occur later
in life for those who speak more than one language.
So open your ears and listen. You will find an entire generation of bilingual individuals in our
community just like Estefania Fuentes. A senior at Richland Northeast High School, she was
born in the United Sates and grew up in a Spanish-speaking household. It was not until
kindergarten that she began learning English. However, if you met her today you would have no
idea that English was not her first language.
Recognizing that she has a valuable gift to share Estefania volunteers as an interpreter in her
school’s guidance office five days a week. She is a member of the Student Interpreters Program,
an initiative at Spring Valley and Richland Northeast High Schools. This is the third year of the
program that was the brainchild of Ron Huff, the District’s Hispanic Family Liaison. Through this
program Spanish speaking 11th and 12th graders with strong grades are recruited and trained
as volunteer interpreters for parents, students, teachers and district staff. They volunteer at
their schools and at outside community events.
All volunteers must commit to 200 hours of service over the course of the school year. This
begins with a series of trainings preparing the students with professional skills to become
certified as an interpreter. Volunteers learn the five pillars of interpretation and other real
world skills to hone their talents. Those who succeed in completing the program receive a
district certificate and can earn graduation credits for work-based learning. In addition, they
have established the foundation to open their own interpretation business some day.
This is Estefania’s second year in the program. She loves helping others and recognizes the
importance of providing her valuable language skills to give others a voice. “It is not always
easy. You must first make the person feel comfortable that you are there to help. They often
wonder who I am. I introduce myself and things become less awkward,” shared Estefania.
“Some situations may be sensitive or personal. There is a fine balance between words and
context and we provide our student volunteers with training about handling these discussions.
We prepare them with role playing exercises,” explained Nathan O’Neill, the ESOL Director for
Richland County District 2.
This year there are 16 student interpreters in the program. “ I really like working with my
teammates. We work so well together,” Estefania shared. Student interpreters recognize they
doing much more than volunteering – this opportunity is literally life changing and establishing
a foundation for their futures.
With a generous grant provided by the Sisters of Charity Foundation of South Carolina the
student interpreters are proudly wearing polo shirts with their school logo and the tagline -“Yo
Hablo Espanol.” In addition, volunteers will have the opportunity to take the Language Line
Academy’s Electronic Language Proficiency Test in Spanish to assess their skills.
“We are pleased to invest in Richland School District 2’s program as part of our Immigrant
Families Initiative,” said Vice President of Initiatives and Public Policy, Dr. Stephanie Cooper-
Lewter at the Foundation. “The program is uniquely designed to provide bilingual Latino high
school students an opportunity to build their skills, lead and serve, well-preparing them for the
21st century work force.”
While the Student Interpreters Program has so many great outcomes to share, I think it is best
summarized by Nathan O’Neill, “To me, the most amazing result of the program is to see how
much the students grow in their confidence as bilingual professionals, how their families see
the potential for a future using their bilingualism, and how District and community leaders
experience these students as a real asset to our culture.”