Culture and Language Immersion IS Possible!


language immersion

language immersion

language immersion, ecuador

Bonjour friends! Happy Monday! In anticipation of the WorldTowning launch (we are almost there folks) I will be sharing oldies, but goodies from the past several years of blogging.

I can’t wait to share our new adventure with you. If you want to get a jump on the WorldTowning launch you can sign up for our newsletter at the bottom of this post. Early newsletter subscribers will get a special pre-launch goodie. Let’s just say that there will be a drawing (after launch) that will involve time in a country outside the US. And those of you who sign up pre-launch get your name entered three extra times.

Published February 19, 2016

Hola, friends. Hello FRIDAY! WHAT. A. WEEK. Oral surgery, more visa drama, work overload and so much more. On Sunday, Will has to fly back to the US to get a new passport. Don’t even ask. It’ll all be in the visa fiasco post once I’m finished with my therapy for this whole situation. Ugh. Living the dream. Like I’ve said before, it’s not all rainbows and unicorns. Bah! But luckily, a rough week can be redeemed by a great weekend. Adventure day tomorrow. Here we come! What do you have planned for the weekend? Please tell me adventure is on your schedule.

Several days ago there was a thread on one of my FB groups asking about language/cultural immersion and if it was possible without putting a child in a traditional school. There were very strong opinions on both ends of the spectrum. I believe it is absolutely possible, because we’re currently doing it. But I must say that there are many factors that play into this type of immersion. It takes a strong commitment from the entire family and everyone needs to be on board.

Let’s start at the beginning with a little bit of history regarding our personal language and culture immersion. We began our travel life in Costa Rica 16 months ago. We spent a year in Costa Rica with one child in a traditional school and one child worldschooled. We knew the language and culture immersion would automatically happen for our traditionally educated child with little to no effort on our behalf. We assumed it would happen for our worldschooled daughter as well, but we knew it would not be at the same frequency or intensity.

Why not?

To begin with, we lived in a suburb of San Jose. Which means we spent a lot of time in the car and in our house (we work from home). As a result, we did not have constant exposure to the language and the culture. Second, we were in the trenches of adjusting to our new life. So the limited time we had to go out and expose ourselves to the culture and language was usually filled with stress because we had something we HAD to do. For example, buy a car, find a computer repair shop, purchase school supplies, find the grocery store, etc. We were new to this travel lifestyle and it was not easy to get the immersion we were looking for. However, we did find ways to increase Avalon’s exposure to the culture and language in Costa Rica:

  • We hired a tutor to come to our house several times a week to work one-on-one with her.
  • She joined a local dance group, which provided instant culture and language immersion.
  • We made friends with locals. This was not an easy task for us in Costa Rica considering our limited time to engage in social interaction. Remember, we were barely surviving, exhausted, and a bit stressed out.
  • She began practicing her Spanish on Duolingo.

All of the above worked, but they did not yield exactly the results we had hoped for. She was still not confident in the language and was shy about speaking in public.

After 12 months in Costa Rica, we decided to move to Quito, Ecuador. We learned a thing or two from our limited immersion in Costa Rica and we had big plans on how to do things differently. In addition, we were more adjusted to the travel life and were able to be pro-active in creating a language and culture immersion environment.

If you are looking for a heavy dose of immersion, I suggest the following:

  • FAMILY AFFAIR: First and most importantly, this has to be a whole family affair. The children need to see the parents on board 100%! Are we always on board? No. We have days when we just want to speak English and not struggle. I don’t hide when I am struggling with the language, but I do hide when I just want to give up. Unfortunately, since I want to be positive for my children, that sometimes means not disclosing that I want easy for a day. I recently made time in my schedule to learn Spanish because I felt that it was the one item that was distancing me from getting the language immersion. I wanted it for myself, but also so my kids could see that I’m committed to this immersion. If the kids don’t see you into the language immersion they will likely not be into it themselves. If you don’t want it for yourselves, but you do want it for your kids then you have to consider how much you want to fake it. Monkey see, monkey do. And if you doubt me on this, think about a situation where you have had a bad attitude about something. Did your kids see it? If so, did you see them take on that persona? It happens.
  • NO EXPATS GROUPS: Next, do your best to refrain from being part of expat groups that speak mostly in your native language. Now, I love expat groups, speaking English, and having a little taste of home when I am far away. It is familiar and comfortable, but when you make the decision to only hang out with people from your culture and language then you lose the immersion. I’m by no means saying that there’s anything wrong with this, but if you’re dead set on immersion, this is not the way to go. If you know me on social media you know I love guests. If you are in town, we want to hang out with you no matter where you’re from. If you decide to stay permanently and you’re expats, we would love to hang out more often. We are not anti-American or anti-English. The difference is that we are not going to the embassy, or the American schools, or social gatherings of expats in our community looking for friends. We let this happen naturally with other travelers or on social media. If we are meant to meet you then it just happens. Our children VERY rarely socialize in their native language and they are doing just fine. Of course when they have the opportunity to do it they are excited (Myka we are glad your family is here), but their new normal is socializing in three languages. Will socializes mostly in Spanish and I hold my own with Spanglish, but mostly English. I hope to become more conversational in Spanish as my classes progress.
  • ENTERTAIN: This has been huge for us. HUGE! We have a lot of parties in Quito and socialize a ton with locals. Honestly, I am tired by the end of the work week, but I make the effort because this is the way we get the immersion. At our parties, we have had friends from Largo’s school, friends from Avalon’s homeschool group, friends from the French Alliance, friends from activities and new traveler friends we meet online. Entertaining was a key part of our life that was missing in Costa Rica. I wonder if we had made the time and effort while living there if we would have had a better immersion experience. It’s always great to get together and laugh with new and old friends. I particularly love talking about local politics, food (and many guests bring items for us to try), the differences between Americans and Ecuadorians, education philosophies and so much more when we have parties. Get out of your comfort zone and have a party. Yes, it can be scary. I was so terrified when we had our first party. Think about it. I knew none of the guests and I did not speak the language, oh and I was cooking for 40 people. Yikes! I am so glad I did it because now we have a whole social network here in Quito.
  • LOCAL HOMESCHOOL GROUP: I searched for a long time for a homeschool group that consisted of local families. Depending on the country you are in, this can either be an easy task or such a group will be non-existent. In Ecuador, homeschooling is not a popular concept, but luckily we finally found a group that has welcomed us with open arms. We spend most Fridays with them doing activities in the community. I am very social and curious, so it has been hard for me to go to these events and often stand alone just observing. Many of the group members speak English, but Spanish is their native language and used more frequently. I go because I learn regardless of the language barrier, but also because it is a great experience in language and cultural immersion for my worldschooled daughter and myself. Find a group to be part of in your local community. If you can’t find one, start one. There’s usually someone else in the local community who’s interested in the same education style as you.
  • ACTIVITIES: Every community has extra-curricular activities for kids to get involved in. Do it! Plus, from my experience in Central and South America, the families have been very welcoming to our kids even when they did not speak Spanish yet. Honestly, our kids are a bit over-scheduled right now, but the culture and language immersion is so great, it’s hard to say no. They love going, chatting with their new friends, and learning. Some activities interrupt our dinner ritual, but we have made the concession in the name of language immersion, at least for now.
  • COMFORT ZONE: As a parent (especially if you do not speak the language like me) you have to be willing to venture WAY out of your comfort zone. You have to be willing to be in situations that are sometimes not much fun for you because you cannot understand what is being said. Not always, but occasionally. It can be lonely and unbelievably hard, but it does get easier and it is worth it in the end.
  • COMMUNITY EVENTS FOR KIDS: There are many free community events for children, take advantage of them. This is an opportunity for them to learn about the topic at the event, make friends and practice their new language. We have attended events at the local museums, art centers, libraries and much more. Again, it is not always easy for the parent to find these events if you do not speak the language, but google and google translate will become your new best friend.
  • LANGUAGE CLASSES: Enroll your home/world/unschooled child in language classes. We had Avalon enrolled for two hours a week in Costa Rica. Two hours were not enough for her to feel confident in the language. Now that we are in Quito we have upped her hours to 3-4 per week and it has given her much more confidence in the language. Plus, since we are in the city and walk everywhere she has more opportunity to practice. If you can find a place that offers group classes then even better. You will then have more of a social component and be exposure to a variety of children from other cultures.
  • WALK: I know, weird, right? We were in our car a lot in Costa Rica and it was not beneficial to our language immersion. If you can find a city that is walkable then I highly recommend going without a car. You will see and hear things that you would never have in your car. Plus, you have the opportunity to stop to look and listen whenever you fancy. I find now that I am walking I am more aware of the signage than when I was driving. I was focused on keeping my family safe so I never looked around. Now I look around, ask questions, give directions, chat with the street vendors and so much more. I think of walking the streets as my free Spanish class. And don’t even get me started about how much the taxi drivers have taught me. Ha!
  • BE AGGRESSIVE: I know it can be hard and it can be annoying, but if you want language immersion to work, you sometimes have to be aggressive. I am a passionate personality. I can be aggressive. I am not unkind or unaware, but I do commit and go after what I want. Life is short and if you want full language immersion, you often have to make the first step. I have found that many people in Central and South America are timid about approaching Americans and making the first move to encourage a relationship. Don’t be shy. If someone does not want to hang with you then you’ll get the hint pretty darn fast.
  • KEEP AN OPEN MIND: Language immersion can come in the most unlikely places. On the bus, from the taxi driver, at a church, on a tour, in an elevator, etc. Always be open to immersion and say YES to everything that comes your way. If you get an invite to celebrate a local holiday with new friends… say yes (even if you are tired). If you have the opportunity to go away with locals for the weekend… say yes. If you get invited to dinner, but you cannot speak a lick of the language… say yes. Body language is a very powerful source for understanding. Just say yes!

Of course, I do want to recognize that there are exceptions to my statement that culture and language immersion IS possible:

  • EVERY CHILD IS DIFFERENT: What works for us may not work for you and that is ok. The mere fact that you are traveling is very enriching and your kids will grow tremendously from it. If you are unable to get the full culture and language immersion it is ok. Don’t beat yourself up over it.
  • EVERY PARENT IS DIFFERENT: Your situation may not allow for time to take language classes. Your budget may be too tight to entertain. You just may not have the energy, time or desire to do the full immersion thing. Again, that is ok.
  • EVERY COUNTRY IS DIFFERENT: You may land yourself in a country that is just not that social or open to meeting new people from a totally different culture. This is something you will have to figure out on your own. It might even be a good idea to do the research before you move if the full immersion is something you truly want.
  • LANGUAGE RESTRICTIONS: If you don’t speak the local language and the locals don’t speak your language this can present a problem. Personally, I have found this easy to overcome, however, if you have a language barrier and a culture that is not open to socializing outside of their own, you could run into a problem.

We have a unique perspective because we have a child in both worlds. It is clearly easier to get the immersion if you have a child in a traditional school. But it is absolutely possible if you do not. Even in a traditional school setting, you’ll still need to put in the work as a family and make an effort to connect with the families outside of the school setting. And the more we travel, the more I find this to be particularly true if you are outside the US. The US pretty much invented the words “playdate” and “sleepover.” This is not something that we see practiced in Central or South America. Therefore, as a parent, you need to find other ways for your children to connect with local children, hence… family parties.

Was this immersion lifestyle hard for us at first? Yes, absolutely. It is still hard in many ways, but not as hard as when we first committed to it.

Did the children resist? Largo did not resist at all, but boy did he miss home. I don’t even think Avalon had time to think about if she wanted to resist it or not. She was so excited to be worldschooled that nothing else seemed to matter.

I think a big part of our children’s lack of resistance to this language immersion lifestyle is because they have traveled since infancy. As a result, they have been taken out of their comfort zone quite often. Also, they attended an international school in the US that had a very diverse student body. Children came and went frequently and they got used to being exposed to different cultures and languages. I don’t think we are doing anything special or unique, I just think language immersion on some degree has been part of their life for as far back as they can remember. It’s their normal.

Have they had challenges along the way? Absolutely! They’ve had days when they wanted to give up. We all do. Overall, those days are very few and far between the longer we engage in culture and language immersion.

Will we continue the immersion lifestyle? It really depends on the family. Right now it works well for all of us. But I don’t know what the future will hold and what our children will choose. As I stated above, I do believe there are exceptions to this language immersion choice and we may evolve as a family to the point where language immersion no longer works for us.

We have made friends here that are locals that I believe will be lasting friendships for us, as well as for our children. I have found that although we do not necessary have the same views on many subjects, we can all come together and share our lives. People are people wherever you go. We must learn to understand the differences, embrace them and grow from the experience. I leave each conversation with a local feeling enlightened. I’ve learned something new and whether I want to incorporate it into my life or not is not the point. The point is that we have learned a different point of view on a subject that we all engage in as individuals, parents, families, and children. At the end of the day, we are all the same.

I must put a disclaimer in here. This is not a post about whether someone is right or wrong with their opinion about this whole language immersion thing being possible. This is a post containing suggestions to help you make it possible if you truly want this immersion path. Ultimately, you have to figure out what works best for your family and your child/children. However, I do think language immersion IS possible. We are doing it, therefore I know it can be done. Please feel free to PM me if you have specific questions about how we make language immersion happen.


p.s. And if you have suggestions you want to add to my immersion or exceptions list please add them to the comments and I will do my best to include them.

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