Immersion School: 4 Hurdles to Overcome Before Choosing One

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Immersion School: How to Choose

Marcela Hede’s son wearing his uniform and showing his work in Spanish.

This is part two in a series of posts from Marcela Hede. Read her first post How to Have a Perfect Bilingual Immersion for Your Child without Losing Your Mind for background on the following Part 2 post.

Phone calls, letters, emails, Skype sessions… You name it I did it, all to find the right language immersion school for my son Ian.  After looking for a while I realized that the exact program I was looking for didn’t exist.


Hasn’t anybody realized the importance of a language immersion school for children, specifically for foreigners?  Besides, hasn’t anybody figured out what a good business this could be?

Apparently not, at least not in Colombia.

Hurdles started to appear from the very beginning of the process of finding the right school, and I can see how knowing about these challenges in advance could have helped me find the right school for Ian faster.

Here are 4 major obstacles you will face in creating the best foreign language immersion experience for your child, along with a bit of advice about each one: 


#1:  Discrepancy of calendars

The school calendar in the U.S. is called calendar B in South America, which means the school year generally ends in the last week of June in public schools and the new school year starts the first week of September.

In Latin American countries close to the Equator the school year starts in February and goes to the beginning of June, then breaks for “Winter” vacation.  The second part of the school year starts at the end of June and goes until November. It pretty much runs with the calendar year which doesn’t match our American school calendar. To complicate matters more, In countries located far south, like Argentina, the school year starts in March and ends in December which is their summer.

Because of this discrepancy in dates you may not be able to match calendars to send your precious one to a “campamento de verano” or summer camp for their language immersion experience.  It’s too bad, because these types of camps could be the ideal way for your child to experience adventure along with language immersion in an unstructured environment.  Knowing that the calendars would not match up, we had to find a normal school for Ian to attend instead of a language school or a summer camp.

Sending Ian to a normal school made the experience a bit difficult because he felt like we were subjecting him to even more school.  It meant he had to do homework, wear a uniform, have a rigorous schedule and be in a structured environment for three weeks which made him feel a bit robbed of his summer recess.


#2:  Different teaching styles

Teaching methodologies in Latin American countries are different from those in the U.S.  Whether or not your child will be upset by the difference all depends on what your child’s school does and what he is accustomed to. For example, in Medellín our son’s school wasn’t an American type of education school, so students sat in the classroom in rows looking towards the front and there were no work stations or groups of children seated at tables like our son is accustomed to.  This is typical in Colombia where there is little personalization, dictation still exists, religious class is still very common, starting and ending day schedules are different, and a more traditional approach to teaching is widely used.

The methodology in South America can be similar to a lecture type and I think it all comes from the Catholic school model of teaching.  I remember attending Catholic school in Medellín and it was pretty much like that, with all the kids facing the blackboard in a separate desk.  Nowadays, bilingual schools in Latin America have adopted a mixture of methodologies and the classrooms resemble those in the U.S.

For Ian’s immersion we didn’t want any English spoken at the school so we opted for a non-bilingual one. The reasoning behind our decision is that any time Ian knows a person speaks English and Spanish, he chooses to communicate in English, thus defeating the purpose of the immersion.  Your child may do the same as he feels more comfortable with English.

We found that some of the differences in the methodology used in South America actually worked to our son’s benefit.  For example, the use of dictation turned out to be really helpful for Ian’s Spanish learning.  We were pleasantly surprised when we saw Ian’s writings in Spanish.  I think he wrote so well because he was forced to take dictation of different subjects like science, math and social studies.

Teachers do dictation as part of the class work to make sure all children have the same concepts in their notebooks for future reference.  Dictation also showed us what they were learning and the speed of the class.  I was very excited seeing the results every day, and I even sent a picture of his notebooks to my husband and family in the U.S. like the typical proud mama.

Immersion School: How to Choose

An example of Ian’s handwritten work in Spanish


#3:  Difference between public and private schools

Hold on tight if your child attends public school in the U.S., as public schools in Latin America are quite different from those in the U.S.  We live in New York City and our child attends public school here, granted he goes to a G&T (Gifted and Talented) program; it is pretty much our opinion that public schools impart good education in the U.S. Surely levels change depending on the school district you belong to, and we know that our real estate value is tied in general to the school district. This shows the palpable differences between various public schools in the U.S.  However, I consider them o.k. to send your child to in order to get a decent education.

In South America public schools are generally not as good as private schools.  Remember I am generalizing here, which I hate to do.  However, in Colombia to find good elementary, middle and high school education you pretty much have to go private.  The government doesn’t have the funds to provide adequate education in every neighborhood in the country.  Also, amongst private schools you have tiers depending on the type of education you want and the school you can afford.  Middle class families and up pretty much always pay for private schools.

Since we wanted Ian to speak Spanish, not to learn the curriculum we decided to sign him up at “Carlos Castro Saavedra,” a private, inexpensive and friendly school with far a less demanding academic environment than he is used to.

Another benefit of choosing private schools is that they have the flexibility to take your child without having to jump through hoops and submit all the paperwork that most public schools funded by the government require.  Why is that?  Because there is a very large demand for spots in public schools and it is bureaucratic.  Also, if your child will be arriving at a different date from that when the public school starts, forget it!


#4:  Costs

The cost of your child’s foreign language immersion can vary hugely.  It all depends on your present situation and the type of school you choose for the immersion.  Let’s start by saying that the immersion for us made sense during the summer because of a congruence of factors:

  • Ian is available without disrupting his normal school in the U.S.
  • Sending him to camp in NYC is quite expensive, about US $3,000 for a month without lunch included.
  • I could travel with him to the foreign country and stay affordably at my sister’s house.
  • It is a great opportunity to connect him with his Hispanic heritage while reinforcing Spanish.

After realizing the school schedules didn’t match and that there were no summer camps available for the dates we wanted, I started looking at costs in the foreign country for Ian to attend a regular inexpensive private school.

You may ask what to include in your budget.  Think plane tickets, tuition including lunch and snack time, an optional afterschool program (twice a week sports), supplies, morning and afternoon transportation in a van, and uniforms which accounted for about US $775 for 3 weeks.  This is a bargain when you understand the priceless incredible cultural experience your child is getting.

If this sounds too good to be true, just do your research and you will find out.  Remember costs didn’t include housing, breakfasts or dinners because we were staying at my sister’s house. I certainly helped her with all chores and expenses which made meals and lodging quite affordable, thanks sis!


Now that you know what hurdles you may be up against, go ahead and start saving and power charge your researching guru to find the dream destination for your multilingual living adventure.  It doesn’t have to be hard and it will definitely require extra strength from you.

However, it is all well worth it and you child will thank you someday.


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.

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