Taking Kids Abroad to Improve Their Language Skills
Have you ever thought about taking your kids abroad, and putting them in a local school to improve their language skills? Karin, a mother of 8 year old twins who speak German and English did just that and says it was one of the best decisions she has ever made.
5 Things I learned from 2 months abroad
In mid-March, I dropped my eight-year-old twins off for their first day of school in New Zealand, which was also their first day at an English-speaking school.
We live in the German-speaking part of Switzerland, so the kids’ school language is German. As I’m a New Zealander, it’s important to me that my children learn English well. Living on the other side of the world means that we can’t just hop over for a long weekend every now and then. So, we decided last year that the kids and I would take a long trip to New Zealand and put the kids in school there.
They were, naturally, pretty nervous. As was I. Having had no experience of NZ primary schools since I was a child, I didn’t really know what to expect.
After settling them in and staying for a few minutes to observe, I walked back to my parents’ house and hung around inside the whole morning in case of a teary phone call. When the phone eventually rang, it was the school secretary just letting me know that they were settling in well. Phew.
Over the next few weeks I learnt a few important lessons (along with getting to grips with the NZ education system).
1. Kids really are resilient
You hear a lot about the resilience of children but, to be honest, my children’s resilience had never really been tested. It’s not easy to walk into a classroom of twenty or so other kids and try to make friends, especially not in your normal ‘socialising’ language.
After the first day there was no more hesitation about going to school and after the first week, despite big differences between the two school systems, it was clearly their new ‘normal’.
2. Our priorities are very different from our children’s
I was so keen to hear stories about their day, to know what went on in the classroom, how different the teaching was, how different the subjects were etc. I got practically nothing out of them. Zilch. What I did hear, was these little nuggets.
“Kids here say ‘eh’ a lot.”
“We get to use iPads!”
“We don’t have to wear house shoes and lots of kids play on the playground in bare feet.”
“More kids play rugby here than soccer.”
These little insights showed me just how much they were observing and mentally filing away about school and life in New Zealand. It taught me that these are the things that really count, not the different ways they learn to add and subtract.
3. They live the language
Both their teachers told me that the children spoke English the whole time, with only a few minor mis-translations and a lack of synonyms showing that English isn’t their majority language. They told me that they ‘think in English’ at school in NZ.
4. Reading and writing was easier than I thought
Both children could read and write a little in English before coming to NZ, but those eight weeks in an English-speaking environment was hugely beneficial for their reading, comprehension and spelling.
They were exposed to so many words that I just don’t use in everyday life, so their vocabulary expanded and they found reading got easier. Spelling in English is never easy but it definitely improved. I love this example:
“Mummy, did you know that ‘once’ doesn’t have a w in it?”
5. Teachers are amazing
I was so impressed at how the teachers in NZ welcomed our children into their classrooms, helped them settle in, found work that was challenging but not too difficult for them and really set them up for success in a new environment.
In Switzerland, the teachers supported the kids being out of class for a long time, created a workbook for them to do in NZ and helped them see the experience as an exciting adventure. We are so grateful.
The children have finished up their time in NZ with a much deeper understanding of the people and culture. They even picked up some of the Māori language, which they’re very proud of.
If you can do it, it is worth it
I know that we are very lucky to have been able to have this experience. To make it work financially, my husband stayed in Switzerland and just came over for the last couple of weeks. The kids and I were able to stay with my parents, which was of course a huge saving.
If you have the chance to do something like this, take it – it’s definitely worth it.
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Inspiring story of summer language & culture adventure. Summer 2018 we too did something similar. My wife and 3 children for the first time flew from California to Germany for 8 weeks. We were able to find a school to accept our seven year old son in the 1st grade as a visiting student the last month of school. And we enrolled him in the after school program “Hort” for six weeks. We enrolled our six year old twin girls in the preschool “Kita”. After the third day our children were having so much fun they didn’t want to go home. With us too I had to stay home and work. I flew out at the end to travel for 2 weeks to visit our relatives in Southern Germany and Viena Austria. Our relatives were very impressed by our children’s ability to express themselves. One of the many reasons we went on this adventure was because my cousin’s daughter was getting married and our children were asked to be flower girls and our son the ring bearer. Our children made lot’s of memories for all of us. A year out and they have German in there bones. We continue to speak everyday at home and we go to Saturday German school. I don’t want to step over that we saved for years to make this happen. The airline tickets are expensive, unfortunately our relatives could not give us accommodations because the house was full of guests are they were super busy with planning for the wedding. They invited us to stay with them afterwards but we had to return for work and school. Interesting the expensive costs were airline tickets and the Airbnb. Everything else was very affordable. The school was free, the Hort and Kita cost 10 Euros per day, per child. The reason was the children were fed lunch and a snack. We didn’t rent a car and Local transportation was very affordable. Food shopping for good food was very affordable and when we went out to eat it was much more affordable than California. All-in-all spending the summer in the country of our target language was a well worth time, effort and expense.
Sounds amazing! What a great experience. I’m a bit jealous of the kita and hort costs – where we live in Switzerland it’s much, much more expensive.
Wow! We have just been talking about doing this too, and then I by chance read your article. I am a NZer and live in Holland with my Dutch partner and 2 kids. We would like to go to NZ next year. Did you have to try many schools before finding one that would accept them?
Wow, that’s awesome. How did you convince the Nz school to take them on for a short time?
Hi Natalie, it actually wasn’t a problem. They’re NZ citizens, so there wasn’t a question of eligibility. The school was really welcoming. It probably helped that we were in a small rural town, meaning there wasn’t competition for places.