By Marcela Hede
The Beginning: Part 1 of 3
Here I am packing and making sure everything we need is ready for our one-month immersion adventure in Colombia, South America. For me, Medellín, Colombia was home 17 years ago. Now it is the city my gringo husband and I chose for our son Ian’s bilingual and bicultural immersion.
For 4 weeks now I have been a bit worried and excited about traveling to Medellín with my eight-year-old son. Ian will be studying at a regular school for three weeks, and he will have to adapt quickly to the new environment. This is the dream of my life; yes, you read it correctly, my life, not my son’s. I guess this is what is causing a bit of anxiety. However, like any mother who wants her child to experience the world I kept pushing the issue until my son reluctantly accepted.
As a child I always dreamed of going to faraway lands where people spoke different languages, used exotic utensils to eat, and lived a very different lifestyle from the one I was living. Don’t get me wrong, I loved my childhood and my parents, nevertheless that didn’t stop me from dreaming of leaving my home city, Medellín for many, many years.
Interestingly enough, my parents never pushed education abroad or life in another country. I felt I always had it in my soul, and I made it part of my life when I married my husband, an American with Scottish and Irish heritage.
My husband brought an open mind and enriched my life far beyond what I expected. When I met him he had done many of the things I had only dreamed of doing, like traveling to distant lands, mingling with people from many different backgrounds, and feeling like a citizen of the world. Within six months we were married and I have never looked back. I changed countries and started a bicultural life in New York City.
After having our son, I was determined to push bilingualism full force and that brings me to the present moment. This has been a frustrating as well as a very heartening journey from the beginning. Our son Ian learned to read and speak in Spanish first, and as he entered Montessori at two and a half years of age he started to prefer English. I had to quickly come up with an excellent strategy for keeping his Spanish up and running. OPOL (one parent one language method) didn’t seem enough considering he spent a big chunk of his day at school interacting only in English. That is when it occurred to me that every other year we should bring Ian to Colombia, or to other Spanish-speaking countries, so he can attend a regular school in Spanish for at least three weeks.
My Son’s Perspective
Ian is an outgoing boy who is willing to try new things and interact with people anywhere. He is athletic and outspoken (I wonder where he got that from?) so it may surprise you to learn he is a tad uncomfortable about going to school in Medellín. This is not the first time he has gone to school abroad. On previous trips to Colombia, he attended pre-school and kindergarten there also. On both occasions he seemed uncomfortable before the trip and worried about how other kids would see him.
Ian speaks Spanish with a gringo accent, although he laughs at his dad when he speaks Spanish and corrects him constantly. He reads very well in Spanish also, thanks to a daily practice I introduced about two years ago against protests and bad attitudes. It is a simple practice and I can attest it is quite effective. Every morning our son has to read for at least 20 minutes in Spanish. He can choose the books as long as they are appropriate to his level. This is to give him some power in the game. After two months of pure complaining he started to love reading in Spanish in the mornings before school.
My job is to make sure he has reading materials that suit his appetite because he doesn’t read, he devours books. This simple strategy gives him lots of confidence when entering bicultural experiences where the predominant languages are Spanish and English.
Even though he is very familiar with the language, it is now the social part that concerns him the most. When I asked him why didn’t he want to attend school in Medellin he told me:
- I don’t speak like they do, what if they laugh at me?
- I don’t know anybody; none of my friends are there.
- Besides, Dad won’t be there either.
So you can see that being away from his normal routine, in a different cultural environment and without his dad for a while are clear stressors.
How to Ease the Process for Your Child
Ian feels hesitant today as we are getting ready to wake up tomorrow at 4:30 am to catch our flight to Medellín. However, my husband and I found three main things that helped us ease the process for Ian.
Here they are:
1. Start talking to your child about the language immersion he is going to experience even if he keeps telling you he doesn’t want to go to school in another country. We approached the subject cautiously and started by introducing books, videos and diverse material that could make our son familiar with the other culture.
Because Colombia is my native country, I had the opportunity to tell stories about when I was growing up which made him laugh and ask questions about why people do things certain ways in Colombia. You can do the same and become a story teller. This sparks enthusiasm and curiosity in children while teaching them about the foreign culture.
2. Find a situation where a child is having a tough time attending school. It doesn’t have to be in a culturally diverse environment but it helps if this is the case. We used the story of Ruby Bridges and her challenge to adapt to a new school in a hostile racist environment.
I took Ian to the library to choose some DVDs and offered several including Disney’s Story of Ruby Bridges. While watching it my husband paused the movie and asked Ian to put himself in Ruby’s shoes. Then dad compared that situation to going to school in Medellin. Ian said: “Going to school in Medellín is way easier because other children probably are curious and want to sit with me, also nobody is going to be shouting hurtful things at me. The principal is probably nice and waiting for me to show me the school.” (We told him that.)
3. Try to end the trip with a super-motivating reward your kid can look forward to. Let me explain. If you are going to Switzerland and your little one loves hiking, then choose an adventure like going hiking on Jungfrau Mountain and plan for both parents to participate if possible. This will help address any concerns about dad not being part of the immersion and also provide a chance for an adventure. Show pictures, entice your child, and talk about it like it is the icing on the cake.
I am aware this last tip may seem costly because it ends up being a trip within a trip, but it doesn’t have to cost too much extra. Plan something locally. I enticed Ian by telling him that on one of the weekends we are going canopy riding, and on the next ones we are exploring some small towns with Aunt Lili, my sister.
In our case we are going to Cartagena the last week of our trip. Cartagena is a UNESCO heritage site. While for Ian that fact may not be too enticing, snorkeling, playing on the beach all day, and ending the evening with ice cream is enough to make him look forward to it.
He is intrigued and enthusiastic about that portion of the trip, and he let us know he “can’t wait to see the walled city that has the San Felipe de Barajas castle with the secret passages and the dungeons.” I introduced a bit of history about Cartagena and its battles with pirates and attackers to get him even more excited.
We are traveling tomorrow and I will certainly be watching every step of the process. In the next article, I promise to show you how to go about choosing the school for your child’s language immersion and also share with you how we are doing so far.
If you have specific questions you want to be addressed in the next piece, please let me know. I am looking to inspire you to take the plunge and to ease the process by sharing my story.
Marcela Hede is the creator and director of www.hispanic-culture-online.com, a site that connects Latin culture lovers and Hispanic Americans with their roots. She is an Internet entrepreneur and an inspiring voice and trainer for Spanish-speaking women who want to create their dream companies based on their talents.