Kathryn Anderson: Pioneer and Entrepreneur in Bilingualism


Girl Campers at Camp Amigas

Fifty years ago, when Kathryn Anderson was a little girl growing up in Austin, being bilingual was anything but common.  Non-native English speakers worked as hard as they could to learn English as quickly as they could, and native English speakers had no need to learn a second language.  It would be decades before scientific research would begin to demonstrate the unequivocal benefits of bilingualism. 

None of this held Kathryn Anderson back. 

Introduced to the formal study of Spanish when she was in the second grade, Kathryn can trace her love of the language back to her earliest days, vacationing with her family in Mexico.  Her parents found an Austin-based family who rented them a beautiful home in Cuernavaca, and from there, they branched out all over Mexico, traveling from Ixtapa to the Yucatan, discovering all corners of the country

“I think what struck me most about Mexico was the people,” Kathryn reflected to me as we chatted over coffee one morning.  “It’s an old-fashioned place, somehow.  The people are just so gracious and genteel.” 

As is Kathryn.  Now a grandmother of three (bilingual!) grandchildren, Kathryn has lived a lifetime committed to bilingualism.  Her three children are all fluent in Spanish, and her middle daughter also speaks French fluently, as she lives and works in France.  Kathryn credits this to two things.  First, their education: all three children attended St. Andrew’s, where Spanish is introduced from the very earliest grade, and faithfully followed throughout their education.  Second, their travel: Kathryn continued the tradition of summers (and other holidays) in Mexico, and the children grew up spending extensive amounts of their free time there, immersed in the language and culture.  Even today, they continue to travel together, three and sometimes four generations of the family gathering in Mexico for a Christmas holiday or summer trip. 

What has helped to make the tradition of bilingualism so strong in Kathryn’s family?  Speaking one afternoon to her daughter, Emily, I begin to understand more fully how things emerged.  The family’s repeat visits to the same village in Mexico helped to lay the foundation for rich relationships with native Spanish speakers.   “Those kinds of interactions are critical in developing fluency,” Emily reflected.  Emily, herself, has carried the tradition forward, speaking only to her two daughters in Spanish in their home.  Further, they do enrichment activities at the library and elsewhere in Spanish, and they travel at every opportunity to Spanish-speaking countries— all in the hopes of finding new and interesting ways for her two daughters to interact in Spanish.   Kathryn listened closely as her daughter explained all of this.  “Diverse interaction is key.”

Bilingualism is not just a personal commitment for Kathryn.  Her work life revolves around it as well.  During the year, she has an extensive tutoring practice; her earliest students all came to her for help with Spanish, but over the years, she’s expanded into other subjects as well.   But perhaps even more important to Kathryn is her summer camp: Camp Amigas, a special summer experience for young girls of all ages.

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Kathryn with her students

 As we turn our discussion to the camp, Kathryn eagerly and proudly assembles an array of memorabilia from years past to help illustrate what makes her so passionate about this project.  “The kids put these books together,” she explains, showing me a selection of beautifully handmade journals.  “Each day is catalogued with what we’ve learned about, what activities they’ve done, what food they’ve cooked…”

That’s right, food.  Camp Amigas takes an incredibly creative approach to language learning and culture.  Each day of the camp, the students study a new Latin American country, meeting with a speaker from the country, cooking its traditional foods, making traditional art, and learning about the country and its culture.   The ages, socioeconomic status, and Spanish fluency level of the girls range significantly.  All are welcome, explains Kathryn.  She just looks for kids with an open and curious nature, looking to learn about the world and each other. 

“It’s just so much fun to see them come together over the course of the week,” Kathryn reflected, as we spoke.  She paused a moment, and then looked at me sweetly, almost tearfully.  “I think what they learn is that we’re all just people.  They start to see the similarities they share, and what they may have in common with the cultures we are studying.  And maybe… maybe in that small way, we can help to make the world they will live in… maybe we can make it just a little bit more peaceful.”