For a variety of reasons, my family is currently in Merida, Mexico and our small kids (two and four) are in a local school where they are expected to learn and play in Spanish. Below, I document our journey from monolingual children to being in a position where we feel secure enough to leave our kids in an entirely Spanish environment.
We tried a number of methods to introduce the kids to Spanish. We had a Spanish nanny before we left home, we took them to Spain and we read to them in Spanish.
Upon arrival in Oaxaca, we enrolled in a language school that claimed they were set up for teaching small kids too. They weren't. So, after one week we moved them to a local kindergarten. Fair to say that for the most part they hated it. I say 'for the most part' because there were days when the big one wowed us by telling us he'd decided not to be sad because it was easy to decide to be happy. The little one, though, hated every moment of it.
What became clear was that at four, our son may not have enjoyed the experience but he did at least understand why he was going to school in a foreign language. He fully grasped why none of the kids understood him or he, they. He managed to make friends and have people to play with, barely speaking Spanish. Our generally sanguine and outgoing two-year-old did not do so well. The teachers didn't speak English and couldn't understand her at all and she was extremely frustrated by this. She just didn't understand why people couldn't understand her.
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It was difficult for them, and hard for us to leave our kids somewhere we knew was making them sad. But they did come out of it understanding a lot more Spanish!
We moved to Tulum and enrolled in a brilliant language school: Metzli. They had a wonderful teacher for the children. Our four-year-old fell in love with her. On the weekends he'd beg to go to school just so he could see her. The little one was less interested and would spend her time pottering around, sometimes joining in and sometimes coming to see what her parents were up to. We somehow left there with both kids having a better vocabulary and the big one even able to correct my pronunciation. Both were able to go and ask for things in shops and exchange a few words with kids in the playground... if they were in the right mood. We always stress that it's important to try, you don't have to be perfect before anyone can understand you. Happily, they have their mother to provide a great example of getting by with imperfect Spanish!
As of last week, the kids are enrolled in a real Mexican school. It's technically bilingual so the teachers all speak some level of English. They also learn Mayan there, which is pretty cool. We were expecting it to be difficult but after the first day tears they have fallen in love with school. They're making friends, they like their teachers and they are learning more Spanish. Yesterday, I worked through a book of maths puzzles with our four-year-old. He could follow the instructions and get the answers right... in Spanish. And when we ask the little one to do something, she often answers in Spanish, still telling us 'no, I don't want to', but in Spanish!
We regularly read with the kids in Spanish (it's good for all of us) and we watch kids' TV in Spanish. When we're out and about we get the kids to ask for things for us. We sometimes find the four-year-old using his new skills to hail cabs or inform waiters that food is bad but all practice is good practice, right?
We still have moments of defiance and sadness from the kids. One minute they're proclaiming that Merida is their home and they don't want to leave, the next they're asking to go home to London - but all things considered, I'd say it's a success. We couldn't have hoped for more from the kids. I'm pretty sure we'll see them speaking Spanish, not just understanding it, before we leave. At the very least they understand why we learn foreign languages, which is more than I did at their age. They have seen a different way of life: they've celebrated Day of the Dead with their school, they've battered piñatas at Christmas, eaten new foods, seen amazing animals in the wild, explored an incredible history and thought about poverty.
On balance, if we had to choose to stay at home or leave for an adventure, we'd make exactly the same decision again. We know it's not easy for our kids to get up every day and go to a school in a foreign language but we also know we're giving future them an incredible gift.
If you'd like to know more about our trip and how our kids are coping or ask any questions if you're planning something similar check out my blog: yacasillegamosblog.wordpress.com and drop me a line.