‘Learning a foreign language, and the culture that goes with it, is one of the most useful things we can do to broaden the empathy and imaginative sympathy and cultural outlook of children.’ – Michael Gove
‘There was no language barrier when it came to kids and when it came to play.’ – Connie Sellecca
Pretty much every study out there looking at brain development, academic performance, and child well-being shows that learning multiple languages is an amazing enrichment for school-aged (or really any aged) kids. Learning one (or more) foreign languages not only helps kids’ brain to achieve more (enhanced memory, creativity, problem solving skills, critical thinking skills and higher academic achievement), they also become more fluent in future new languages (including ‘languages’ like math and music), and on average, have greater societal contribution over-all than those kids who do not have multiple language fluency. Wow, right? Win, win.
It’s actually pretty amazing, when you think about it. Just by being around it, just by hearing it, and listening to it, kids learn to speak a language. This could be pig latin or Japanese, it’s all an easy absorption of tones, sounds, and patterns. The mystery of first-language acquisition is intensified when we realize that a child can and does naturally acquire more than one language at once. Kids can learn more than one language, and they will even do so naturally if surrounded by the languages. That, to me, is just astonishing. They just … do it. Kids are amazing creatures, learning things that we adults struggle profoundly with, and we should marvel at the ease with which they learn not only multiple languages, but also assimilate new cultures, customs, and environments. Do we not just plop our kids down in new countries, usually the younger ones with little to no involvement in the decision and perhaps with little warning, and expect them to just live and be and go about their way? Oh sure, we ask older kids for input, but in the end, a completely eternal entity (the employee’s hiring office) tells you where in the world you are going to live, and it’s up to you and your kids to make it work. Absorbing language and culture is part of the package. Most of the time, FS kids don’t just absorb, they thrive.
Guess who doesn’t agree? Pretty much every school system in the US, including those that regularly get FS kids coming in for registration. In fact, from Trailing Houses (on Facebook; highly recommend joining it if you’re an expat mom/dad/single/couple/pet-owner/etc), experiences range from districts insisting on revaccinating to advice from registrars to lie on the admission forms and omit any knowledge of foreign languages for ‘easier entry’. What?!
I don’t know about you, but I firmly believe that the schools where I have my kids enrolled are amongst the upper echelon of the school systems. Oh sure, some international schools are much smaller, and perhaps not as well rounded, but most are amazing educational communities offering first class education, well-rounded cultural immersion, and a top notch athletic experience regardless of the grade level. Oh sure, there are the typical range of teacher abilities, and some are better than others, but for the most part, I do believe that the international school experience is a enormously positive one, and the kids benefit greatly from the years they spend overseas. Our kids are experiencing things that their peers in the States might read a paragraph or two about during one semester of World Culture in junior high. Our weekend trips easily encompass World Heritage sights or Natural Wonders and flying somewhere for Spring Break is a regular occurrence, not just a college dream. Our kids SEE the world. Our school campus has kids speaking Arabic, French, English, Spanish, German, Dutch, Chinese, Japanese, Wolof, and more. You know, I think the only skill our kids really don’t develop well is the ability to fill out the bubble sheet from another standardized exam. Is that really such a bad thing?
Friends, I’m so confused. Why are we having to lie on our admission forms when we go back to the States? Why are we hiding our foreign language abilities like some weird personality quirk or risqué tattoo? Why is would it be a bad thing to be well-versed in multiple cultures? Isn’t knowledge of a different language a good thing? I guess that is not the message we expat are getting when trying to get our kids back in the American school system. Well, that’s okay. The call of overseas is pretty strong, so I think we – and our kids – will likely head back overseas where our acceptance of different cultures, knowledge of multiple languages, and ability to communicate with a myriad of people is applauded and embraced and lauded as a good thing.
Stick with it, friends. We’re doing right by our kids.