Maria Clarke knew she wanted her children to learn more than one language. So when she saw a sign advertising the nonprofit ReDefiners World Languages program, she didn’t hesitate to enroll her two children in its classes.
His son Sammy was one of the first students of ReDefiners when it launched in 2016. He started learning Mandarin and Spanish when he was four years old and has been going for almost five years now. Clarke’s daughter, Emma, has also been taking Spanish lessons for four years.
“We are redefining who has access to language education and how languages are learned,” says Chantelle Daniels, Founder and Executive Director of ReDefiners.
Daniels was an English instructor before starting ReDefiners. During her time teaching, she saw language education prioritized everywhere but the United States, and wanted to create an accessible opportunity for people to learn a language.
The organization offers English, Spanish, Arabic and Mandarin lessons for children and adults. There are six different programs and classes are hosted virtually and in person.
ReDefiners has had 435 students so far this year and over 3,240 students since 2016.
“I thought to myself that whenever I have kids, I want them to have the opportunity to learn a second language,” Daniels says. “So the time came, and I realized there really wasn’t an accessible opportunity for my own kids, let alone the wider community.”
She discovered that cost was a significant barrier.
“I discovered that the only opportunities available in the Tampa Bay area were at very expensive private schools,” Daniels says. “I didn’t see this as a fair opportunity.”
To help make language education accessible, ReDefiners often offers scholarship and stipend opportunities with the help of funding partners, most of whom are based in Tampa Bay.
Much of their funding comes from the Children’s Council of Hillsborough County, Tampa-based credit union Suncoast Credit Union, and health maintenance organization Simply Healthcare.
These partnerships have also allowed ReDefiners to offer free programs in Hillsborough County at community centers in Plant City, Wimauma and Brandon.
For Clarke, this is what sets ReDefiners apart from other language programs she has studied for her children.
Finding language education for children was difficult, but finding affordable programs was more difficult.
“[ReDefiners] is much more affordable,” says Clarke. “It takes into consideration that the parents of some students may not be able to pay for this service.”
While its programs are accessible to everyone, regardless of age, they focus on children ages four to 11 to target the optimal time for language learning, according to Daniels.
“If you think of our school system, most languages [in the U.S.] are learned in high school. That’s the starting point,” says Daniels. “However, it’s really counter-intuitive because the critical period for learning a language where you can really develop a native-like skill is in elementary – that’s before age 11.”
She imagined a solution.
“I said, ‘Okay, we have all the data. However, there is a gap here. So let’s close the gap,” Daniels says.
Interaction is a key part of programming because it is essential to learning a language.
“When we think of traditional classes in school, it’s heavily focused on grammar,” Daniels says. “It’s that rote memorization, and that’s really not the way to learn a language. It has to be something that’s developed to actually interact with people.
Clarke is experimenting with much of this practice at home, with her two children taking virtual classes twice a week.
“They’re not just sitting around listening to the teacher, they actually have a program where the kids can interact with each other,” Clarke explains. “Teachers also ask students to go and ask their parents questions in this language.”
The programs also take a holistic approach to lessons, according to Daniels. Students learn the culture of a language alongside the language itself.
“Our world continues to evolve and get smaller, if you will, and we want the people we interact with day in and day out to be really able to interact competently with the people around them,” says Daniels.
The range of RedDefiners increases. They received a letter of support from the City of Tampa Parks and Recreation endorsing their programming at after-school recreation centers. They are also waiting to finalize an agreement that will bring their programs to community centers in Pinellas County.
State lines will also be crossed over the next two years, according to Daniels, when ReDefiners launches its programming in schools in Michigan and Virginia.
“I want to see language education really come to the forefront of every after-school program, community centers — it has to become a priority,” says Daniels.
For more information, visit Redefiners.