How Our Imperfect Spanish Immersion Experience Turned Out to Be Enlightening

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spanish immersion bilingual child

This is part three in a series of posts from Marcela Hede. Start by reading her first post How to Have a Perfect Bilingual Immersion for Your Child without Losing Your Mind and her second post Immersion School: 4 Hurdles to Overcome Before Choosing One before this third and final post.

By Marcela Hede
Photos by Marcela Hede

Yes, I know I have spoken in previous articles (here and here) about how to create your perfect Spanish immersion.  Unfortunately, I have to let you in a little secret: nothing is ever perfect!

As we discovered, going to school in Medellín, Colombia wasn’t exactly what my son, my husband and I had expected.

The first week of school I received a pretty happy boy at the bus stop.  He was excited to attend school, to have a new friend named Juan Pablo, to enjoy delicious tropical fruits like mango, pineapple, and passion fruit which were a steady diet during break time, to have sweet teachers, and to be the new kid from “La USA.”

Unfortunately the excitement wore off pretty quickly. 

Some classmates found Ian very different and gathered around him to investigate and learn more about him. Others instead saw an unusual culture and child who, even though he understood and wrote Spanish pretty well, was not quite like them in his appearance and way of speaking.

The second week of school our son came home saying he really didn’t want to go back to “el colegio” or school anymore.  I asked about his concerns and I was pretty disappointed to hear some classmates had been teasing him about his name and even spoke to him using some foul words in English.

I opted for letting him deal with rejection on his own, at least for a couple of days.  I tried to not make excuses for his classmates and kept on asking every day how things were going.

Fortunately, I knew he had made a good pal and was not alone at recess. (Some teachers assured me of this because they checked on him frequently.)  The cafeteria lady adored him because he always ate all her food, unlike the majority of the children, and she made sure to sneak some native treats like guava paste in his pocket from time to time.

Ian was doing well academically.  His writing was improving a lot with just 2 weeks in Medellín; his math class was interesting because of all the new terminology in Spanish, and his after-school basketball program was, in his own words, “awesome.”  I figured a few teases here and there would teach him how to deal with different situations and people in life and would place him a bit out of his comfort zone which meant emotional growth.

spanish immersion bilingual family

During the last week, Ian decided to take a couple of match box cars to school and I allowed him to do so, not thinking much of it.  By the end of the week, the director of the elementary school asked me if I could stop by.

When I sat down with Lucía, she informed me that 3 kids were going to be suspended because Ian’s cars disappeared on Monday from his book bag and then mysteriously reappeared when three boys “found” them on the grass.  One teacher saw the kids go directly to the cars on the grass and recoup them. Not only that, Ian had been poked with a pencil on the back and when the teacher gave the offender the opportunity to apologize he kept denying he did it and refused to say he was sorry. Other kids saw what happened and confirmed the incident.

Long story short, on the last day of school Ian had letters of apology from the whole class, some heartfelt and some really empty.

Was this the perfect school immersion experience?  Not really, however if I had to do it again I would still go through with it.

Why? Because like all beautiful things in life, this Spanish immersion experience created real growth even though it was at times painful. In other words, it was enlightening because it allowed us to see that growth can happen when you least expect it.  As parents, we were striving for language improvement in Ian, and he ended up with way more than language proficiency.

spanish immersion bilingual child

5 Gold Nuggets a Language Immersion Experience
Can Bring to Your Life

We sat down with Ian to chat about his immersion. He shared honestly, saying it wasn’t the greatest time of his life and that he felt sad at times.  He also missed his classmates in New York and said it was difficult sometimes to communicate his feelings completely in Spanish.  He also mentioned despite the difficult moments he was happy about making a new friend, and traveling and experiencing another culture for a while.

As a family we decided to make a small recount of the good things this experience brought to our lives, and we all agree on at least 5.  A foreign language immersion experience…

  • …makes you flexible because you learn how other cultures behave and how they are different from yours.  Living for a while in a foreign country stretches your tolerance and makes you grow as a person.
  • …makes you appreciate the beautiful and valuable things you have at home like your standard of living, the mixed family you come from, and the special moments when you feel you are sitting down at a United Nations table when you are having Thanksgiving!
  • …cements the importance of speaking at least a second language in making the world more accessible to you and your little ones.
  • …teaches you to handle emotional situations, especially because you can be under tremendous stress at times when your child may have to deal with emotional situations he didn’t expect.  It also requires you as a parent to let children grow by allowing them to handle emotional situations without you hovering and intervening all the time.
    Ian had to go to school by himself, with people he didn’t know, who spoke only Spanish, and deal with teachers who taught him and expected different outcomes in the classroom from those he is accustomed to.
  • …provides a solid way to improve a second language fast. Despite some difficulties, Ian had to listen, speak, read and write Spanish every day.  Either you learn fast or you won’t be able to participate in activities with classmates, family members, and people around you.  It acts as a bit of a pressure cooker, and at the end the food tastes splendid!

To sum it up: Don’t let the potential downsides of a foreign language immersion intimidate you—there are plenty of positive and rewarding aspects too.

Where might you go next year to grow outside of your comfort zone?

 

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.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Elle December 10, 2013 at 7:26 pm

I loved hearing about your experiences! Families who don’t value learning other languages, see what I do for my child to be multilingual and think I am crazy. I will send them these articles and say, If you think I am crazy, check this family out! LOL!!! Kuddos and best of luck on this, a most rewarding journey!!!

I have 3 older children, and I regret not using Spanish only from day 1. My youngest was redemption time! My nena is 6 and goes to a very small private trilingual immersion school close to our home that has been open almost 2 years. (Chinese/Spanish/English) I have spoken Spanish only with her from birth and I was militant (but loving) about it! The “CLICK OVER” happened about age 2.5 when she no longer tested me with English. I have been fortunate to never enroll her in an English-only environment, and the benefits are extraordinary! English is MY first and strongest language, YET her first and strongest language is Spanish. I have been her primary caregiver 70% of the time. (Dad speaks only English and takes her one weeknight and alternate weekends.) After realizing that it IS possible and it DID work, I decided to add a 3rd language at age 3 with a Chinese nanny 20 hours/week.

We got to know a small group of Immersion-minded families, and one couple decided to open the school. I still pay for a bit of extra tutoring in Chinese each week, because I want her to have a more emotional and cultural understanding of Chinese. Her tutor is like an awesome big sis and we love her! We have family in Puerto Rico, so we go once each year over Spring Break and stay with them. My daughter LOVES that there are people of all shades of White and Black in PR, and they all speak our Espanol! Keep the wonderful posts coming!

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2 Marcela December 16, 2013 at 12:23 pm

Elle–
I love your story and I could not agree more. Many people may think we are a bit crazy because it honestly takes a ton of work to keep our child bilingual. Every morning he reads in Spanish ONLY, and now that he is in 3rd grade he is reading the Goosebumps series in Spanish. I bought 19 Goosebumps books during our summer in Colombia through an Ebay kind of site called “Mercadolibre.”

I am starting to plan our next big adventure. We are thinking the South of Spain could be really enjoyable during the Summer of 2014, therefore I started the search for a home to rent and a camp that is ONLY taking local kids who speak only in Spanish all day.

There are many camps in Europe but they are bilingual and expensive. I would like no English at all. Yes, I know it may sound crazy but the efforts we make to raise a culturally diverse child may pay off one day. I guess for now we do it for the love of it and the opportunity to infuse a unique adventure experience in our son.

You have an excellent advantage Elle, and it is that you can count on a support group with the immersion group you have. Like minded people can create movements and change the world. Keep up the good work and thanks for sharing your experience.

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