Maria Clarke knew she wanted her kids to learn more than one language. So when she saw a sign advertising the non-profit program ReDefiners World Languages, she didn’t hesitate to enroll both of her kids in its classes.
Her son Sammy was one of the first students at ReDefiners when it was launched in 2016. He started learning Mandarin and Spanish at four years old-- and has continued for almost five years now. Clarke’s daughter Emma has also been taking Spanish classes for the last four years.
“We're redefining who has access to language education, and how languages are learned,” says Chantelle Daniels, ReDefiners founder and executive director.
Daniels was an English instructor before starting ReDefiners. During her time teaching, she saw language education prioritized everywhere but the U.S., and wanted to create an accessible opportunity for people to learn language.
The organization offers English, Spanish, Arabic and Mandarin education 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 told myself whenever I have children, I want them to be able 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 children, let alone the wider community.”
She discovered that cost was a significant barrier.
“I found that the only opportunities available in the Tampa Bay area were at very expensive private schools,” Daniels says. “I didn't see that as an equitable opportunity whatsoever.”
To help make language education accessible, ReDefiners often offers scholarship and stipend opportunities with the help of funding partners, most of which are based in Tampa Bay.
A major part of their funding comes from the Children's Board of Hillsborough County, Tampa-based credit union Suncoast Credit Union and health maintenance organization Simply Healthcare.
These partnerships have also allowed ReDefiners to offer some free programming across Hillsborough County at community centers in Plant City, Wimauma and Brandon.
For Clarke, this is what sets ReDefiners apart from the other language programs she looked into for her children.
Finding language education aimed at children was hard, but finding programs that were affordable was harder.
“[ReDefiners] is much more affordable,” Clarke says. “It takes into consideration that some students' parents may not be able to pay for this service.”
While its programs are available to everyone regardless of age, they focus on children ages four through 11 years old to target the optimal time for language learning, according to Daniels.
“If you think about our school system, most languages [in the U.S.] are learned in high school. That's the starting place,” Daniels says. “However, it's really counterintuitive because the critical time period for learning a language where you can really develop a native-like proficiency is in elementary – it's before age 11.”
She devised a solution.
“I said, ‘Okay, we have all the data. However, there's a gap here. So let's bridge the gap,’” Daniels says.
A key part of the programming is interaction because it’s essential to learning a language.
“When we think about traditional classes at school, it's heavily grammar-focused,” Daniels says. “It's this rote memorization, and that truly isn't the way to learn a language. It has to be something that's developed to actually interact with people.”
Clarke experiences a lot of this practice at home, with both of her children taking virtual classes twice a week.
“They are not sitting down just listening to the teacher, they actually have a curriculum where the kids get to interact with one another,” Clarke says. “The teachers also have the students go ask their parents questions in that language.”
The programs also take a holistic approach to lessons, according to Daniels. Students learn about a language’s culture alongside the language itself.
“Our world continues to evolve and become smaller, if you will, and we want the individuals that we interact with day in and day out, to really be able to interact with competence with the people around them,” Daniels says.
ReDefiners’ reach is growing. They’ve received a letter of support from the City of Tampa’s Parks and Recreation endorsing their programming at recreation centers after school. They’re also waiting to finalize an agreement that will bring their programs into Pinellas County community centers.
State lines will also be crossed within the next two years, according to Daniels, when ReDefiners will launch its programming at schools in Michigan and Virginia.
“I want to see language education really become at the forefront of every after-school program, of the community centers– it needs to become a priority,” Daniels says.
For more information go to ReDefiners.