RIPLEY, W.Va. -- By late Monday afternoon, Janna Beth Raynes was quick to introduce herself as Julia.
"I actually had to stop and think about my real name there for a second," said Raynes, a Riverside High School student participating in the West Virginia Spanish Language Immersion Camp in Ripley this week.
Raynes, of Charleston, has gone by her Spanish name, Julia, since last Wednesday, and has introduced herself as a resident of Spain, or Espana.
On Monday, she wore a "No English" button pinned to her tank top -- a reminder for the camp's 100-plus students to only speak in Spanish.
"I absolutely love Spanish, but it is really challenging to not break into English. Luckily, everyone is really helpful here," she said.
This is the second year of the free Spanish camp, and the enrollment has more than doubled since last summer, according to assistant director Anna Megyesi.
Banners with Spanish labels scattered the Cedar Lakes Conference Center, and students engaged beyond the basic schools subjects to learn about Latin American culture. Some played bingo and ate authentic Mexican food, while others learned how to dance the merengue.
Megyesi, who teaches Spanish across the state as part of the West Virginia Virtual School program, said immersion is the best way for students to learn another language. But, it's not easy.
"It's actually an experience that goes past the academic part of the language. How many times have you met someone who's taken several language classes in college but only knows how to say their own name," she said. "With an immersion project, there's an automatic connection -- it puts it all into context. It gives them perspective and a connection between West Virginia and the rest of the world."
About 61,000 students in West Virginia studied another language besides English this past school year, according to the state Department of Education. Most of those were at the high school level, where two foreign language courses are required for graduation.
Fewer than 1 percent of elementary school students studied another language last year.
"Learning a foreign language used to be viewed as this elite thing -- only for the cream of the crop. Now, it's more of a survival tool," Megyesi said. "In West Virginia, there are thousands of businesses making connections abroad. And we need people with the skills to link those relationships."
Andrew Erway, a student at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, was volunteering at the camp as a counselor, and said the experience allows students a chance at an open mind, as well.
"Some of these kids may not have had the opportunity to go out of the country, but here, they get to learn about other cultures and compare it to their own. Hopefully they take back some of that to their own homes and schools," he said. "We hope it also teaches them to stay away from stereotypes and to take an interest in other ways of life."Reach Mackenzie Mays at mackenzie.m...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-4814.