How to Have a Perfect Bilingual Immersion for Your Child without Losing Your Mind

by contributor · 13 comments

Bilingual Child Immersion

The author’s son at a park called “Tutucan” which houses special-built colonial homes that represent a typical old “Paisa” town. Paisa is the name of the people who live in this area and include several states located in the Andes region that house coffee plantations.

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. 

My Perspective

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, 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.

{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

1 stephanie August 20, 2013 at 3:38 am

There are some great tips here! Kids are resilient and adapt quickly. I’m sure that Ian will love his experience – especially since he already speaks Spanish. I used to teach in an immersion school, with kids who spoke any number of languages at home. It takes kids all of four minutes to break through the language barrier and start playing together as old friends!


2 Marcela H August 20, 2013 at 7:58 pm

Thank you Stepanie for your comment. I really hope this experience brings for Ian the passion for knowing and experiencing other cultures beside the opportunity of growing up bilingual.

Tomorrow Ian is attending school and he went to bed a bit excited and nervous even though we toured the school today. Let’s keep our fingers crossed!


3 Martina August 28, 2013 at 1:55 pm

Hi Marcela,
Keeping fingers crossed that Ian liked the school!

You mentioned that Ian has already gone to kindergarten and pre-school there and that he had been very anxious before leaving. How did those experiences go at the end? Did he like them?
At the end I would also be interested to hear if you see any difference between the previous trips and this one – at which age was the social immersion the easiest?

Thanks a lot and looking forward to the next part of the story!


4 Marcela H September 23, 2013 at 10:53 am

Don’t think for a moment I forgot about you. I am actually incorporating your question into the third article of this set. Answering your first question I can share the anxiety before the trip has eased up by talking way in advance about the subject and explaining what it is all about. Daddy rarely comes with us when we are leaving for Colombia and that makes the process harder. If he travels he meets us there and this has been difficult for our son however, as he has grown up he is better each time.

The experience is generally a bit shocking for Ian at the begging, and a lot depends now on how well he relates to the kids in his classroom. On the other hand, I found that things take time for him to make sense and when he is starting to get acquainted he is pulled out off the situation because it is time to go home. This is why I recommended in this article to make an extra effort and plan a family ending adventure which worked very well for us now that I am back and I can look in retrospective.

I hope this answer your question. The last article will be about how went overall, sit tight because the outcome was a bit unexpected!


5 kristy March 11, 2014 at 5:55 am

I am very interested in your experience as I am thinking of traveling this summer to Medellian, Columbia where my brother lives. i will be bringing my 7 year old daughter who sounds similar to your son in many ways, very outgoing, open to new experiences, etc. and might al be bringing my 4 year old daughter who is much quieter. We will be leaving my husband, (and their dad and home:( I am thinking of going for the month of August and am looking for immersion programs for the. Any advice would be greatly appreciated. Thank you!


6 Marcela March 11, 2014 at 7:46 am

I’m very excited to know you’re trying to go the next August. It’s a wonderful time to be in the city because the flower fair is on along different cultural activities that you can take advantage off.

My first tip is to really try not to bring your daughters to a normal immersion program. Just find them a normal regular school. I tried to find an immersion program but actually it will be a little bit slow I think because if your daughters are at the same level that my son is they don’t need any immersion program. I think they’ll pick it up really quickly.

My son during the first week was a little hesitant to speak however, right at the start of the second week he had totally adapted and was speaking without fear. Don’t get me wrong, they don’t speak perfectly at least not my son, but it is worth the try to push them out of the comfort zone.

Did you read the second and third articles about this topic? They really tell the whole story. This is a good way to see the before and after math.

Once again, just sign them up for a month in a normal regular school where they go from morning to the afternoon and they get to mingle and mix with everybody, therefore they are forced to speak the language all day long.

Have a great trip!


7 Myriam Del Angel-Miranda May 1, 2014 at 5:16 pm

Hi Martina,
It was nice to see that I’m not the only one who struggles with the Spanish language with the kids. I have 3 kids ages 5, 7, 9 and I am struggling to have them speak Spanish as the only Spanish speaker in the home and no family near by. I’m going to Colombia with my mom and aunt (who live in Florida) for 2-3 weeks in the summer and am struggling to find a summer camp or school. Any recommendations would be greatly appreciated.
Thank you!


8 Marcela May 1, 2014 at 6:29 pm

Hi Myriam
I went exactly trough the same problem when trying to find a camp for my son Ian. The problem is that because of the differences in the schedules or what we call “calendario A y Calendario B” in Colombia, it is very difficult to find camps because at the time we have our long vacation in the US, people in Colombia are having their short vacation, and kids are back in school.

To find a summer camp you should travel during the month of June. Which for us in New York, is around the time when we end our public school attendance. Ask you can see, it is not a simple task unless you’re willing to travel from the beginning of June through the end of June.

They do have fabulous camps which are not inexpensive like those offered around the “parque del café” and “panaca”. Also, check out this website which talks about the YMCA camps in Colombia

I hope it helps…


9 Steve May 25, 2014 at 7:40 pm

What schools are available/do you recommend in Medellin for 7 – 9 year olds? Thank you.


10 Marcela May 26, 2014 at 10:42 am

Hi Steve–
I don’t have any one in particular. I have been in 2 the first one is Manzanares, in the neighborhood “El Poblado” and the second one is “Carlos Castro Saavedra”. A very different school located in the municipality of Sabaneta. The second one is clearly not an upper class school. However, this is exactly what we wanted Ian to experience. I also know that our son has not been the only child from a foreign country there because when we arrived another kid from Canada had finished his 1-month immersion .

Manzanares we chose because it is very flexible and we had some people we knew in the school who let us have Ian there. When I say flexible, I mean not a lot of homework and school work. You see, as we planned it, we wanted him to have full immersion and free weekends and after school time to enjoy the culture.

I recommend you to simply place your children in a school you have ties with if you or your wife have them. It maybe hard to take children at a private school for a short period like 3 weeks, therefore if you know somebody they would do it for you. The idea is to make it fun for the children. Learning and homework are really not important, what is important is the opportunity to speak, read and write at normal speed.

Attending school every day was enough for our son as he had to speak, write and read in Spanish for 8 hours. It was plenty . Then after school was over we would go to have fun, pl;ay sports. have “salpicon” or simply go out to the malls in El Poblado to enjoy food and games.

Interestingly enough, he is now at the point he asking to go back to Colombia even though the first experiences were difficult. He says he misses the food, going out in the evenings and the culture.

This year we won’t be in Colombia however, we are continuing our Spanish immersion experience in the South of Spain in the town of Málaga for 3 weeks, and we can’t wait as his immersion will be through camp half a day.


11 Steve May 26, 2014 at 5:08 pm

Thanks for helping me on this. Yes, I saw lots of schools in Spain, but we could not find one thing in Colombia. Unfortunately, I have no ties there so this is why I am googling all the possibilities for “Colombia Immersion kids”. I was hoping for something a little less intense and in medellin or bogota as we only wanted a week or two and were trying to make it more like a program in costa rica we did that had classes from 9am to 1pm and then fun activities after. Unfortunately, all these week immersion programs are for teens and older. Let me know if you have any other suggestions on finding something like this. If not, thank you for replying so quickly and helping me. I appreciate it.


12 Marcela May 29, 2014 at 10:01 am

I recommend you to get a list of schools in El Poblado and simply Skype them and ask them if they can take your children for 2 weeks. you will be surprised. they probably will say yes.
Names of schools you can try. I found this list, I attended Gimnasio Los Pinares and I can tell you all the schools listed here are very good. You don’t loose anything by asking.

I hope it helps…


13 Myriam Miranda September 10, 2015 at 6:02 pm

Hola Marcela!

I have the same issues with my 3 children, 6, 8, and 10 years old. I speak Spanish and my husband does not, though he is Latino, his family went to college and only spoke English at home. We just returned from Cartagena last week for a 9 day family vacation. My mom lives in Florida but she is from Bogota so we decided to take kids on their first trip to Colombia. I want to send my kids next summer for a month to a spanish summer camp/school. I heard they have a 2 week program in Cartagena so I am investigating as well. Are you planning on sending your son next summer? Can you send me information, I would like to start planning now 🙂



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