How to Make the Best Choice for Your Children
The biggest decision you will face regarding schooling abroad in a country where English is not the native tongue is whether to go the full immersion route and put your kids in private or public schools taught completely in another language, or whether to take the bilingual approach—where a portion of each day is taught in another language and a portion is taught in English. (Home schooling is certainly another option, but this rather drastically limits your family's exposure to the local culture.)
You may also find a variety of language classes, private tutors, and tiny private schools willing to educate your children any way you see fit. Often there are so many choices it's hard to know where to begin.
Immersion or Bilingual?
If you want your kids to achieve fluency in another language, the immersion route is the best way to go. But immersion frequently backfires for two reasons. First, the kids are ill-prepared for the experience and, second, they don't spend enough time in the school to move beyond an initial transition period to actual language learning. The immersion experience can be spectacularly unsuccessful if not approached with a great deal of flexibility and an appreciation for how difficult it is to learn a second language and to adjust to a new culture.
I suggest that you not choose an immersion experience unless your kids are going to stay in the school for a period of six months or longer. Even six months is really too short and your kids will most likely only be starting to learn the language at this point. A year is much better and two is best to have your children reach true fluency.
Despite the difficulties of the immersion experience, it is certainly the best way for your children to become fluent in another language as well as to experience the richness and complexity of another culture. If they stick it out, they will ultimately be welcomed into a foreign school community and allowed to cross cultural boundaries that outsiders simply aren't. They will make potentially lifelong friendships with their classmates and teachers. And they will learn more about themselves and their strengths than they ever imagined possible.
Before You Leave
If at all possible, expose your kids to the language and culture of the country you'll be visiting before you leave. Language classes, tutors, camps, CD-ROMs, bilingual books, movies, restaurants—whatever you can find to give your kids some idea of where they're headed and what they might encounter will help a lot. Even a few months of after-school or weekend language classes can give kids a few phrases to begin with and start to develop their ear for the language they'll be hearing all around them in the months to come.
If you can afford it, consider moving to your overseas destination a month or so before the school year begins to acclimate your kids to their new home and to find a private tutor or to enroll them in language classes. Another thing that's very important to your child's success is a commitment on the part of the entire family to learning the language. The success or failure of an immersion language experience simply comes down to one thing: practice.
Tutoring Makes the Difference
No matter what kind of education experience you choose for your children, private tutors, at least initially, are a good idea (for yourselves as well unless you're already fluent). Language tutors can help your children learn a new language and work through their homework assignments, and they can also help you navigate the potentially rocky terrain of a new school culture. A language tutor can become an invaluable ally for your family, a friend to your kids and someone who eventually invites you into his or her own life as well.
You can find language tutors abroad by word of mouth, looking at ads in newspapers, on bulletin boards around town, at the local high schools and universities, through a teacher at your child's school, etc. Ask other expat families for suggestions and check the Internet as well. Don't be afraid to try different tutors, different hours, and different approaches. Not every tutor is a good teacher and certain tutors' personalities and styles will mesh better with those of your children. Language classes and camps both here and abroad can be located in a similar fashion. Depending on your children's ages and learning styles, a mixture of language classes back home or abroad before school starts and then one-on-one tutoring once school begins can help keep your child's interest and confidence level high.
Bilingual schools are a good option if you want your kids to be exposed to a new language and culture and you aren't going to be living in one place for longer than six months. They can also be a springboard to an immersion experience if you are going to be in a place for longer than six months and your child has no previous exposure to the language.
Starting your child in a bilingual school and then moving into an immersion situation (as we did on a recent 18-month sabbatical in Mexico) can often be successful if you're going to be somewhere long enough. It can give your child the necessary foundation in a new language and the self-confidence necessary to make the immersion experience truly successful. You can meet both foreign and native kids and parents and give yourselves a leg up in socializing.
Limitations of Bilingual Schools
A bilingual school can work well as a transition to an immersion experience on a variety of levels. It can improve the child's ear for learning a new language and can teach basic classroom language skills. It can introduce cultural differences and help your child develop socialization skills gradually, and all within the familiar framework of English. By using tutors regularly your child's language skills will improve after several months.
But it's also important to keep in mind the limitations of a bilingual school. Bilingual schools abroad are aimed at teaching English to speakers of another language. They are not aimed at teaching another language to English speakers. This is a critical difference and it's why bilingual schools typically do not succeed in teaching English-speaking children fluency in another language. If both English and another language is being spoken in your child's classroom, which language do you think your child will choose to speak? If there are gringos and native speakers in your child's classroom, whom will your children gravitate toward on the playground? Who can blame kids for wanting to hang out with people who speak their language and share their culture? If you don't mind that your children will only slowly pick up phrases and words in another language, then this is a good option. They'll have fun meeting other kids from around the world and they'll learn the basics in another language.
A Language Immersion Success Story
We were lucky because we had the luxury of time on our side. After six months in a bilingual school our daughter finished second grade and seemed (finally) truly interested in speaking Spanish. It was obvious to us that an immersion experience was the only way Cleome would learn to speak more or less fluent Spanish in the year that remained of our time abroad.
Let me caution you that as excited as you may be to enroll your child in a local school abroad, you may find school officials a bit cool to the idea. Compared to American schools, classrooms abroad are often quieter, more subdued places. Teachers frown on pupils who question their superior experience and knowledge.
We told Cleome right from the start that we would help her all we could and that we didn't care how she did academically. The priority was language learning, and if she failed every subject we didn't care. Our goals for the kids were learning about Mexican culture and learning Spanish. Everything else was secondary. We added more time with our daughter's tutor so that she could help Cleome with homework three times a week for an hour after school, and then we prepared Cleome the best we could for what lay ahead.
Despite a few hurdles, Cleome made great friends, loved her teacher, and by the third month at her new school (nine months after we arrived in Mexico) she was on her way to serious fluency and was scoring at the top of her class on exams in every subject. There was more rote memorization than in her classroom back home, and we continued to have her do an hour of American homework each day to track her U.S. classmates, but she never seemed to find it too onerous.
Which Route to Take?
If this whole process feels a bit hit and miss, that's because it is. There are no right or wrong ways to do it. All you can do is consider your child's interest, motivation, and ability to learn another language, the length of your stay, and the various options available to you in your sabbatical destination. Then pick something and go for it.
One of the best things about living abroad is that the whole experience is educational. A specific school or academic experience is just one out of the many learning experiences your child will have during his or her time abroad. Staying flexible and keeping things in perspective will help you eventually find the school or educational situation that feels right for your child and your family.