Is it a good idea to put your child in a school where he doesn’t know the primary language spoken? In other words, is Language Immersion a good idea for early learners? How will this impact your child? Will they really learn the language well? Will they be able to adjust to the school environment or will it backfire?
I often hear parents saying that they chose to put their child in an Arabic School or a Spanish school because they wanted their child to learn the language from the start. They wanted their child to speak the language like the “native speakers”, they say. If they are immersed in the language, they will learn from the start. Is that a right thing to do?
- What is Language Immersion
- Is Language Immersion Schools a good idea for children?
- How to find a good school for Language Immersion
- Challenges parents and children face at Language Immersion school
- Do children in Language Immersion learn the language really fast?
- What my experience with Language Immersion taught me
What is Language Immersion
Language Immersion means to immerse yourself (or your child) in a environment where only one language (usually the one you don’t speak at all and want to learn) is spoken. The complete environment is focussed on learning that language.
Some of the ways in which you can immerse your child in learning a new language is to put them in a school where the medium of instruction is in that language. You can also choose to live in or travel to a country where that language is spoken and try to only be immersed in that culture.
The fastest way to teach your child to learn a new language (especially if you are a long time expat or migrant) is to put them in a school where they can have friends, teachers and the school environment focussed on that language only.
Is Language Immersion Schools a good idea for children?
As a mother of three multilingual children, I totally relate with the idea of Language Immersion. Putting your children in a public school where the language you want to focus on is the medium of instruction is a very good idea.
The children learn the language because that’s all that is spoken. It is sort of like a “swim or drown” kind of a scenario and mostly, because kids pick up language faster at a small age, they adapt quickly. But Language Immersion has it’s own pros and cons.
Our Experience with Language Immersion
We are a multilingual family. My husband and I speak six languages and my three children speak 4-5 each. That’s English, Arabic, Hindi, Urdu and French. I share my journey and tips to raising multilingual children here. You can also read further details in my interview here.
My husband and I – we both grew up here in Saudi Arabia. Although, I have lived here all my life, I still don’t consider myself a fluent Arabic speaker. I have a lot of Arabic speaking friends (who speak english with me!) and I know a lot of Saudi Culture but… we are not an Arabic speaking family.
My children speak 4-5 languages each. My children have been in a Arabic Medium School as well as Private and International Schools. We have also homeschooled two kids for three years during the pandemic.
I started my eldest (son) in an Arabic medium school in Kindergarten and for two years, he was in complete Arabic environment. We later shifted him to an International (Multicultural – Multilingual) School where Arabic speaking students and teachers were in majority. He studied in that environment for 9 years.
My daughters started at the International (Multicultural – Multilingual) School but we later shifted to homeschooling and then a Community School.
It’s important to have an education goal for your children
Our goal with our children’s education is that they should be fluent in Arabic first. We don’t want them facing the same problems we are facing – the language barrier. Also, Arabic is the language of the Quran. Of course, Quranic Arabic and Modern Arabic is different but it is still Arabic. You can understand what you’re reading in the Quran quite well if you understand any Arabic.
I also wanted that my children to grow up in a multicultural environment. It is important to me that they accept diversity of language, culture, religion and looks naturally growing up. And I wanted my children to be surrounded with all types of people and be able to make friends and converse with everyone.
And then, like every mother, I wanted to give my children world-class education. I want them to develop the skills that is needed to thrive in the modern future tomorrow. Skills like communication, responsible technology use, curiosity, inquisitiveness as well as leadership skills and the ability to work together with others is very important to me as is appreciation of art and culture.
How to find a good school for Language Immersion
We started our school hunting for the children years ago, and the best thing that we did was to go around schools speaking to them and looking around.
We knew that we had to be clear about what we wanted in the school. But we were also looking for an environment that would help the child comfortably learn and grow without it feeling like we were forcing the language and culture upon him.
There were two things that I did that really helped me in finding a good school for my children:
- Visiting the school, looking at their curriculum and books, and talking to the teachers and staff.
- Asking for reviews from parents who already had kids at that school.
Now, this was years ago and we didn’t have WhatsApp Groups then, so I had to rely on word of mouth and meet up with parents and specifically ask them.
For Language Immersion, many parents feel that the school should only teach one language and nothing else for it to be successful. My experience has been that it is good idea if the teachers and students can speak a common language with you too. For example, if there are few kids and teachers who can converse in English a little bit, it will be a very helpful for both you and your child to learn in the environment.
My children thrived more at an International school which had focus on Arabic and Islamic Studies. They had three subjects in Arabic. The teachers in the Arabic classes spoke only in Arabic. The children were Arabic speaking majority too.
For information on schools in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, please see this post.
What to look for in a school for teaching a language?
In my opinion, whether you are a migrant, expat or just a multilingual family looking to immerse your child in a language, you will still want your child to excel at other subjects and possibly, in the future have his options open to study anywhere around the world. So putting your child in a school where they don’t teach any amount of English or where English is just a language subject may be a bad idea.
And parents who want to make the switch to an English school after 4-5 years: no, even in 4-5 years your kids won’t be as fluent in Arabic as a native because of external factors such as your home language and any exposure to additional languages. Also, moving them from a completely Arabic to a completely English environment might be detrimental too. They will be average at everything. And it will be a struggle to get them to adopt a new medium of instruction from the beginning.
Let me give you an example: When they have been accustomed to Science and Math in Arabic, learning all the terms in English and rewiring their brain to new words and information while they are trying to be the same level as their peers is not going to be easy.
Challenges parents and children face at Language Immersion school
I am not a native Arabic speaker. In fact, I think I got a chance to immerse myself in the language more than my kids.
Supporting your child
One of the biggest challenges parents face is that if you don’t speak that language, you will have trouble teaching your child. Irrespective of how good your school is, we parents always need to support our children’s learning at home.
Now, it is going to be a learning opportunity for you too but there may be times when you will have trouble yourself. Like when they are talking about the Solar System, weather cycles and mathematical concepts in their language or asking you to give your thoughts about a matter! ::Ouch::
Of course you can Google Translate and surround yourself with people who can help you in translating, but many times you will be challenged. (Especially at the end of the day, when it’s past bedtime and you forgot to see that circular or your child comes to you with homework!)
Smarter or Dumb?
Also, if your school doesn’t have other multicultural children, your child may end up being the “Unicorn”. They will be the odd one out.
They may be a different culture from the other students and also, probably more or less mature than the other children their age. So the teachers are going to tell you that your kid is “unique”, “smarter”, “oh-so-intelligent” or they will call your child “slow”, “learning challenged”, “not cooperative”, “shy and quiet”. And it can be a problem in two directions. We had this problem.
When my son was in KG2 although he was the same age as other children, I found that at school, they were quite behind curriculum-wise. My son wasn’t learning much. He was just going there to while away time, chitchat with the teachers and “become their pet”.
Okay, so may be, he was smarter for his age. May be, quite possibly, he was a fast learner and the school environment wasn’t challenging enough. So we changed schools and put him in a Private International School where the majority of the students were locals and they focussed on Arabic and Islamic education.
It was a school with fusion curriculums – IGCSE, American and Saudi Board. The medium of instruction was English and they had three subjects in Arabic – Arabic, Social Studies in Arabic and Islamic Studies in Arabic. Math, Science and other subjects were all Pearson Books and they also had a third language — French.
Our experience with a private International school was much better than with the private Arabic school. My son could make friends, speak to them in both English and Arabic and still learn the language both formally and naturally.
The trouble with immersing your child in a language is that they will learn the local dialect faster than the formal language. It is natural for them to learn this way because they will be conversing with their friends in the local dialect more.
Also, depending on the students who study at that school, it is quite possible they will learn a totally different dialect than that you intended. My son, for example was learning the Levantine Arabic more than the Saudi one in the Arabic School. In the International School, it was Saudi dialect.
Friends and Bullies
Then there is the question of friendships. Kindergarten children like to play side by side more than WITH the other children. So you may not find that much of a problem with them making friends. But in primary class children, where friendships are more important and children’s confidence is built around trying to fit in, you will find that your child’s inability to converse or his being a different culture may or may not be hinder his ability to make friends.
So, bullying, mean-girls, football-politics, silent treatments, etc happen more in primary and upper grades. But that can happen in any school irrespective of whether you immerse or not. (That’s my experience.)
So, there are definite benefits to Language Immersion.
Do children in Language Immersion learn the language really fast?
Yes. My son is 16 years old now. He speaks fluent Arabic, can understand and translate the Quran while it is being read and he converses in the language like the native.
My two daughters started in the same multicultural International school from the beginning. I didn’t put them in Language Immersion from the beginning because I was happy with the Multicultural school environment my son was at.
But during the pandemic I pulled them out from the International school for Open Schooling/ Homeschooling and we didn’t send them back to the Arab International school. They speak Arabic and understand the Quran well too, but not as well as my son.
My daughters spent 2-3 years in Kindergarten and then 2-3 years in primary school, learning with Arab teachers and being around Arabic speaking friends,. They did pick up the language, accent and reading skills. But they weren’t as fast as my son who had spent the first two years of his schooling in a totally Arabic environment.
The girls had Arab friends and they spoke in Arabic with them too. My son however spent 10 years in that environment while my girls spent only 5 years. So, may be if they had spent some more time, they’d have become more fluent. I don’t know…
What my experience with Language Immersion taught me
I absolutely support the idea of Language Immersion. I have talked about all the pros and cons so far above in this post but there are certain things that nobody talks about that I want to share with you.
When you put your child in a school and language that is very different from your own culture and language, be ready to accept that your children will learn more of the other culture than your own. Now, that can be a good thing or a bad thing.
When you put your children in Language Immersion and choose to send your children in a school where the culture and language are both not their native, kids have an identity crisis. They will begin to sound like their friends quite fast but then they will to want to look and sound like “them” too. They will enjoy dressing like them, using the words they use, their body language will be like them… in short, you will be raising a Fusion Kid.
We parents will have to strive harder to teach our kids our manners, religious and cultural ways. Of course, whether you choose to raise your child in your country or in another, and whether you choose to educate them in a different language or English, this problem will still be there – more or less – but in my experience, language immersion will have more impact on your child’s identity.
In a way, it’s a parenting challenge… so you need to understand that going in. Be ready to accept that your child will be different from you.
It is not just how they look and behave but their thinking will be impacted too.
- They will understand their school’s culture better than yours.
- They will relate with their friends and the host country more than their own.
- They will speak strongly on issues that are being talked about in their circles and often it will be issues you don’t care or relate with.
This may be a generation thing… and I am sure our parents may have felt this way raising us too but it is something that I have had a chance to notice because I have raised kids in two different types of school environment.
When my kids were at the Arabic School, they had an Arabic accent to their English and Urdu (our mother tongue) and it was all fancy-shmancy Arabic Netfilx drama. (If you know you know ).
But now that they are at a community school, where they have friends who are like them, they understand our family and country’s cultures better. I don’t have to explain things as much as before because they probably already learnt that at their school.
Manners, behavior, etiquettes, family values… come easier to children who have people like them around them.
I didn’t think that my kids had trouble finding good friends at their previous schools. In fact, they didn’t know it either until they moved to a community school and saw how easier it was to talk to people who looked, talked and behaved like themselves.
They felt closer to their teachers who reminded them of their parents, aunts or grandparents. Their manners and body language was easier to understand. Do you know what I mean..?
Language Immersion is one of the best ways for anyone to learn a new language fast, but for kids, we parents need to think about a lot more than just language.
We have to remember that when we choose to put our child in a school for the first time, it is going to be the foundation you are setting, upon which they will experience a relationship to life long learning.
I hope this article helps you in choosing the right school for your child and in starting your child’s journey to loving a language. Do leave a comment and tell me your thoughts.
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