|Immersion: The Early Years|
I don't know how many times we've heard that statement or one very similar to it since we started this journey. Now, as a parent with five years of overseas experience, I can honestly say my kids have not learned the language faster than we have! And the idea that kids will learn the language easily is a myth that needs debunked!
I think it's safe to say that language learning is hard. As adults we have to put a lot of time and effort into learning another language. Hours of immersion, both listening and speaking, still result in many mistakes and awkward moments. Years of study still place us at a level below a native speaker with a high level of education. Why then do we assume that language learning will be so easy for our children?
I believe children can learn another language. I believe they have the ability to apply themselves and grasp the language. I also strongly believe that the personality, learning styles, desires and will of each child play a major part in how they will learn and interact in their second language.
Our first couple of years in Bolivia were not the best environment for teaching our girls Spanish. Their interaction with the language came on Sundays at our local church, Saturdays at Kids' Club (our oldest only), and throughout the week as our language helpers were in our home or we were out around town. Due to living in a city where every house is behind nine foot high walls and having a very busy schedule, we didn't have many opportunities to get the girls involved with other kids (they were nine months, two and four when we moved here). We did our best by accepting invites when they were made, inviting people into our home, and attending birthday parties and extra church events when we could.
When we made the move to the other side of the country and the compound we now live on, their opportunities for language learning changed drastically. We live with several families (sadly no kids close to their ages) and the majority of people who live here are Bolivian. In our home and with a few coworkers we speak English but otherwise our time is spent communicating in Spanish with Bolivians.
Our oldest daughter took advantage immediately. She is an extrovert and her desire to communicate is so strong that we saw a change right away. Now, after living here for three years, she is fluent for a child of nine. Her grammar is getting better all the time and her vocabulary is growing. She is a motivated language learner.
Our middle and youngest daughters have not had the same experience. Our middle daughter is an introvert. Her idea of a good time is time with her sisters and then time alone. In English she is very talkative with those she is most comfortable with, but even this has a time limit on it. In Spanish she communicates only when she absolutely has to and with very limited options. She is happy to listen to Spanish and her understanding is growing but she has no desire to communicate at a fluent level in the language. Our youngest daughter is much more like her oldest sister in most ways but she's also happy to let her big sister be her translator. She happily follows along, talking in English while her oldest sister communicates with the locals in Spanish.
Each of our girls have had the same exposure to the language. Each one has been given the same opportunity to learn. They are immersed during a large portion of each week and have the opportunity to use a formal study of the language (Rosetta Stone) or a more informal study of the language (with me) multiple times each week. But only one of our children is fluent.
Why is this an issue? To be honest, the biggest problem I see with the myth that all kids will learn another language quickly (or at all!) is the pressure it places on both the parents and the child involved. As parents we have questioned whether we're doing things wrong, we've had high expectations and we've placed expectations on our kids. I have had encounters with people asking me why my child still will not or cannot communicate with them. As a parent I can only do so much, my child then has to make the choice to communicate. There is also an assumption that the children will learn the local language. Now, I'm not an advocate of isolating my children that way (we really do desire that our girls speak Spanish!) but I have heard from multiple couples whose children, now older, never learned the local language even when they were encouraged by their parents. It's not a guarantee that your child will learn the language if you live overseas and are immersed in the language.
As a family we will continue to pursue Spanish. As parents and as my daughters' teacher, we will continue to teach and encourage our daughters to understand and speak the local language. But we will also be taking into consideration each of our daughters' personalities, learning styles, desires and will to learn and praying for guidance along the path so we don't push our children to the point of bitterness or hatred towards their host language and culture. In the end, each child has to choose how much they want to communicate in the local language.
Let's be honest, language learning takes work!