Teaching Mom: When an English Learner Turns Family Interpreter

At just eight-years-old, Anyi Molina is very clear about one thing: when she grows up, she wants to teach the world English and Spanish…and maybe Mandarin, too.

She is starting with her family.

Holding her collection of sight word cards brought home from Mount Vernon Community School, she selects one and asks her mother Yeny, 33, to repeat after her, “Cheese,” and then encourages her to try to pronounce the “ch” sound again and again until perfected.

Sitting on a comfortable sofa, she looks Yeny in the eye and says, “Try your best. When you try your best, the better you learn and when you learn, then your dreams can come (true).”

Yeny, a single mother to three children, came to the U.S. from El Salvador in 2016, first to New York and later settling in the Chirilagua neighborhood of Alexandria.

Like so many arriving from Central America, she hoped for a better life for her children, away from violence and poverty.

Neither mother nor daughter spoke a word of English when they arrived in their new country and it was a struggle.

It felt so weird coming to a place where you understand completely nothing and you just don’t know how to feel,” Yeny said in Spanish. It was hard for me to take formal lessons because I had to dedicate myself to working. Anyi started off by teaching me short words words for fruits and other short phrases. She tells me them in English and then she tells me them in Spanish.”

Anyi also acts as translator. “When we are at the store, she tells me how much something costs and how to count the money. If we are buying a ticket to go to another state, she is on top of all that. I am very proud of her.”

When Yeni arrived at Mount Vernon to register Anyi in second grade last year, she was thrilled to discover that it was a dual language school where half the day is taught in English and half in Spanish.

Determined to make the most of the opportunities afforded in America, Anyi has been able to focus on learning. She fell in love with the school from day one and as she learned, so did her mother.

“I remember my first day at Mount Vernon very well. It was my best day ever. Everything changed,” Anyi said.

“I came home and said ‘I want the world to learn both languages, I want every child to learn so that when they grow up they know how to speak English and Spanish.’”

She added, “It’s important to learn English because if you don’t know it, then how are you going to buy something? How are you going to speak up when you need something?”

Now in third grade, she comes home armed with reading material and text books and sets about teaching.

It’s amazing to feel that I can teach my mom something,” she said.

“The first words I taught her were ‘baby’ and ‘cry’ and I taught her ‘apple’ and ‘strawberry’ and I taught her ‘one’ and ‘two’.

“Mom is a good learner, she knows a lot of things. I ask her to say things in English to challenge her just like I am challenged in school. Sometimes she doesn’t get it but I make her say it and then I tell her in Spanish also and then she understands.

“I encourage her like this, I say to her, ‘If you try your best you will learn. If you don’t try your best you will never learn.’”

It is still a struggle for Yeny but she hopes one day to be able to converse with fluency, like her daughter, and improve her job opportunities.

For her family, Mount Vernon has been a blessing.

“I cannot even describe how grateful I am to the school. The support the school has provided to me and Anyi is incredible,” she said.

“I am extremely happy about the dual language program because as she grows up, my daughter will dominate in both languages.”

But Anyi is not content to stop at two languages. She wants to learn Mandarin so she can help even more nationalities become bilingual.

“I want to help the community talk both languages and I want to learn Chinese so I can help another community learn, too,” she said.

ACPS, Mount Vernon, Video