While you play, send your kids away on a confidence-building and interactive learning vacation they’ll love.
During a recent family vacation in Panama, I returned to our hotel, after a day of touring, to my children, who were enrolled in weeklong Spanish immersion classes. As I opened our hotel room door, my children enthusiastically started singing a traditional Spanish song of greeting—in Spanish. My eyes lit up in delight; they broke out in squeals of laughter. At ages 8, 6 and 4, this is the time for them to soak up languages, and they’re enjoying every minute.
This trip was not my family’s first experience with language immersion. We’ve studied Spanish abroad, some Russian lessons at home, and our hopes are to add Mandarin Chinese to the equation soon. I kid my husband that our kids will either make excellent translators or really good spies. My husband is confident that if our children know at least two languages, they’ll automatically “double their chances of [finding] a job.”
What prompted us to undertake language immersion? The world’s an ever-increasing melting pot, and we wanted to broaden our children’s horizons beyond the shores of the United States. Neither my husband nor I have Spanish heritage, but living in Florida where the language is prevalent, we were disappointed that our schools don’t teach foreign languages until the 8th grade, far past the optimal time for establishing a multilingual base. Since we love to travel, we sometimes consider interesting destinations to tour that also offer opportunities for language immersion.
Through trial and error, my husband learned the ins and outs of immersion schools. Spanish schools in Costa Rica can be very expensive; Vancouver, Canada, has Mandarin schools, but not many for children. One school in Panama wanted all the tuition upfront, which my husband found unacceptable; Guatemalan schools were inexpensive, but some didn’t offer a quality experience. We finally settled on the school Spanish Panama in Panama City. Joseph Ennis, the school’s director, says, “Good schools that are confident are not going to ask for all the money upfront.” He advises families to meet the head of the school upon arriving in a country to get comfortable. Other pointers from Ennis:
• Ask about the history of the school and the teachers. Instructors at good schools have university degrees and prior language-teaching experience.
• Make sure the school provides a variety of learning options. Not everyone learns in the same way.
• Be wary of schools off the beaten track as they have a smaller pool of good teachers upon which to draw.
• Make sure the school offers a selection of teachers. A teacher and student should connect early, and if mismatched, a change should be made immediately.
Kati Rodriguez, a Spanish immersion teacher, adds, “The teacher and student need to trust each other. They’re in it together.” Other teachers also stress that children can be afraid of making mistakes, but it’s important they try speaking the foreign language even if they won’t be readily understood at first. Later, good and clear pronunciation can be stressed.
What better way for a child to learn than in real-life settings? So, when learning about food and utensils, teachers take their students to a restaurant. The kids learn vocabulary related to the beach while playing by the ocean. They visit a local science museum, experimenting just like local schoolchildren, all in the Spanish language. For the children it’s like being on a series of field trips, and they take enormous pride in being able to communicate in a foreign language.
Coeur de France Ecole de Langues, a language immersion school in Sancerre, France, takes a similar field approach allowing the whole family to tackle French while visiting local artisans, folk festivals and goat cheese farms. At Scuola Verde L’Olmo in Italy, the school sometimes offers excursions to the forest in search of truffles or to visit local families. And the Toronto Mandarin School in Canada incorporates drama, cartoon drawing and Chinese paper crafts into the agenda, incorporating native tradition while letting children’s imaginations assist in learning. Many of these immersion schools use some English as support in the early stages of language immersion with the amount reduced as the child progresses.
What are the logistics of language immersion schools? Most schools tend to offer basic accommodations on-site, such as a private room or one with a shared bath, up to more luxurious accommodations; the Sancerre school offers a two-bedroom apartment in a 16th century mansion. Some also offer home stays with a local family. Such families are usually screened carefully. If you prefer the privacy of a hotel, schools usually have good affordable recommendations nearby.
Tuition varies but can be as little as $110 per week for private, half-day instruction in Guatemala, not including accommodations, to more expensive locations like France, where classes might run $400 per week. There is usually a range of options from half- to full-day instruction depending on the level of immersion desired. Some schools accept credit cards, but it’s more typical that they require some payment in advance via bank transfer or PayPal.
So is it worth the effort? My oldest daughter, Anya, has now been on Spanish immersion “vacations” about five times in both Guatemala and Panama. We walked down the street in Panama on our most recent adventure, and I asked two different people for directions in what I thought was understandable Spanish. I got blank nods. Anya repeated the question in a better accent and with more accuracy, and we received knowing gestures in the right direction. That’s the difference between learning at 8 and, well, a few decades later. For my children, now’s the time to learn.