An American Family Living in Spain – Will My Son Be OK in School?

by Corey · 10 comments

My husband and I live in southern Spain with our four young children. Two boys (ages six and four) as well as two girls (ages two and one). We have decided to enroll our children in the local Spanish schools.

So far this has been hardest on my six year old as he does not speak Spanish. He knows a few words and gets better everyday as do the rest of us, but as a mother I worry about grades, friends and communication. He can read and write in English, but Spanish is a different world to him.

Any words of wisdom would be welcomed!  Thank you!


Dear Jessica,

As you say, your big boy’s Spanish is getting better every day. There’s only more of this to look forward to, until the day your son will start correcting his parents’ uses of Spanish. Be prepared.

It won’t take long, I promise you. Many expatriate families like yours have gone through the same process and report similar experiences. Mine is one of them: my children started schooling in English, which was an all-new language to them, at roughly the same ages as yours. It took them about three months to feel at home in the language, including academically, and much less than that to make English-speaking friends, who in fact were the ones guiding them along their language learning, through play and serious peer talk.

You may want to try something I found helped (or at least I like to think so!): invite Spanish-speaking friends of your son home to you, just one at a time, and just for a short while at the beginning, and then leave the two children entirely on their own. Don’t peep, don’t fret, don’t try to “help”: children know best how to sort themselves out. The first few times are likely to be something like wild races around the house, yelling and wrestling. That’s fine: they’ll be racing, yelling and wrestling “in Spanish”. And if one friend turns out not to be so friendly after all, just try the next one.

The result, for us: English became our children’s own peer language, the language that they use among themselves. So be prepared for that too.

Do feel free to contact me privately, if you wish to discuss these matters in greater detail.


Madalena Cruz-Ferreira, PhD, University of Manchester, UK, is a multilingual parent, educator and scholar, and the author of Multilinguals are...?, a book on myths and misconceptions about multilingualism. Her blog Being Multilingual deals with multilingualism at home, in school and in clinic. Her contact, and details on her work, are at:

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{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Melissa November 12, 2010 at 7:11 am

Good advice. I would just add that depending on the child’s personality, if you invite one friend over you may find yourself with two children chattering in English: my daughter, for example, seems determined to teach everyone around her English, not the other way around. 😀


2 Rea November 12, 2010 at 10:08 am

I am an English speaker in Southern Spain too! Working in the local high school I was always amazed to watch some of the immigrant kids arrive with no Spanish and start getting better grades than the local kids in all subjects, including Spanish! I try to remember how resourceful and resiliant those kids are when I start to fret. Good luck!


3 Ann November 14, 2010 at 11:52 pm

We were in the same position 4 years ago, with a 6 year old and a 3 year old starting school in French with no knowledge of the language. The first year was a struggle for my older child but she got there eventually. We did do extra language lessons outside of school because she was struggling, but that may not be necessary for all kids. 4 years on and I think their French is better than their English.


4 Sarah Hill December 21, 2011 at 3:22 pm

That is great advice. I tend to agree with that response because kids brains are like sponges, absorbing information faster than we think. I have seen many families relocate to Spain, and go through a similar experience. Trust that your son will be okay, and everything will turn out great. In his future, he’ll thank you for the opportunity and for the fact that he will be bilingual.


5 Heidi Wagoner November 21, 2012 at 3:42 pm

Hi, I feel for you! We have an 8 & 10 yr old and moved to Almunecar early September. Our kids are in state public primary school and they knew very little Spanish (colors, counting, etc). The first 6 weeks were a real struggle, but we have found that it is getting a bit better. They are now understanding most of what their teachers say and don’t need as much help with homework. That said, they were over achievers in the US, so not “being the best” in all subjects has been a challenge. They are all different and are motivated in different ways. My daughter loves to work off of sticker rewards and visual on a chart. So we reward them on effort rather than the grade for now. If you want to chat more, just email. 🙂 Good luck.


6 Heidi Wagoner November 21, 2012 at 3:42 pm

Sorry, I just noticed this was Nov a couple of years ago. Apologies.


7 oksana November 26, 2012 at 8:53 am

I see there are a lot of families whose children went through some problems adjusting in different countries. I do believe that these kids will be overall rewarded with their own achievements.

Like every mother I am concerned about our next move. We are an American English-speaking family currently living in Ukraine. My 4 year old is fluent in English and Ukrainian (seems to understand little Russian) . My husband only speaks English so we speak English at home. He doesn’t read yet. It is our intention to move to Valencia, Spain. My knowledge is very basic (picked a little living in Mexico for a year). Being a linguist, learning Spanish wouldn’t be a problem for me. However I am concerned in 5 year old entering Spanish government school. I just found out the high cost of English private schools. I wonder would it be a good idea to start Spanish courses for my 4-year old here since we have the whole year to prepare. On the other hand, I have difficulties seeing an English speaking boy living in Ukrainian speaking environment and learning Spanish that is not used around him at all?
Any thoughts or suggestiong on the topic would be highly appreciated,
Thank you.


8 Tina November 29, 2012 at 7:44 pm

I think it is a great opportunity for you and your child. When my children were 4 and 7, we put them in the French speaking public school system in Belgium. We are an American English speaking family with neither parent being fluent in French. My husband had a few years in high school and I had had German classes. They were resilient and liked to learn…….took great pride in being able to interpret for us as we travelled around Europe. Within 4 months of being in school every day in French, they were socially fluent with perfect accents. Now, teenagers, they both love being bilingual! I wouldn’t waste the time on a year of classes for your child…it also may take away the joy of learning. When they learn in the every day environment as they did as a baby the English language, in the long run they are better off with their language skills. Good luck!


9 Heidi Wagoner December 3, 2012 at 1:45 am

The younger the kids are the easier they pick up the language. I think your kids will do fine in Spanish public schools. The schools seem to really offer extra assistance as well.


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