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Bilingual Travelers: Language Immersion and Lessons Learned in Mexico

May 18, 2016

This article continues a series of guest posts at Bilingual Monkeys called “Bilingual Travelers.” What sort of impact does travel to a location where the minority language is spoken widely have on a child’s bilingual development and bicultural upbringing? In this series we join other families as they make trips to destinations around the world and report back on their experiences.

If you’d like to contribute an article to the “Bilingual Travelers” series—or the series Thank You Letter From a Bilingual Child—please contact me to express your interest in guest posting at Bilingual Monkeys.

Christine Gilbert is a writer, photographer, and documentary filmmaker. She writes the popular blog, which chronicles her journey from a software project manager living in Boston to full-time traveler, writer, and creative—all while traveling around the world with her growing family. In 2014, they were named National Geographic Travelers of the Year. Christine and her family are currently living in Oaxaca, Mexico, and expecting a third child. She is the author of the new book about her family’s adventures, MOTHER TONGUE.

Author Christine Gilbert and friends

When we moved to Mexico in 2012, I was seven months pregnant, and just coming off a long stretch of travel that included learning Mandarin in Beijing and Arabic in Beirut. My husband and I were beyond excited to have some comforts of home as we prepared for the birth of our second child. The experience would later make its way into my book Mother Tongue, but at the time we were still trying to figure out what languages to raise our child with—should it be Mandarin for business, Arabic for politics, or Spanish for practical reasons?

Early success in Mexico

After our daughter was born, we enrolled our 3-year-old son Cole in a bilingual preschool. In Beijing we had used a full-time nanny and housekeeper known as an Ayi. In Beirut, Cole picked up Arabic by playing with other kids at the park. This was the first time he had been in a formal school and the result was immediate. Perhaps in part because of his age, the ease of learning Spanish, or just the timing, he started using the language a lot more than any other time in our travels. In Beijing he seemed to understand everything the Ayi said to him, but only verbalized a few words like milk (nuinai). Now he was telling us he had two novias. And he wanted some more agua. Within weeks he was answering strangers’ questions, “Como estas?” with “Bien.”

Early language learning

The experience of seeing Cole’s language skills change so rapidly from school shifted my entire perspective on how to raise bilingual children. Until that point I had focused entirely on “one parent, one language” and as a native-English monolingual, to accomplish that I knew I’d have to learn whatever language we chose to proficiency. So I had been reading children’s books in the target language, and speaking it around the house, but with the changes from preschool I saw another way. I still wanted to be proficient in whatever language we chose, but there was something about the school environment that was doing a much better job than I ever could. Ultimately we decided that, at three, he was still very young to be in school, so when he started asking to stay home, we relented. However, our plans had been set: We would definitely be enrolling our kids in a non-English school in the future.

Next stop: Europe

The next summer, we set off with our now 4 and 1 year olds to begin traveling again—biking across Europe from France to Romania with stops in Croatia, and Serbia. Afterwards we started eyeing Barcelona as a home base, renting an apartment and getting settled in. The draw was simple: It’s a beautiful city, has an excellent education system, and it’s naturally bilingual. Our children would be de facto trilinguals just from growing up there, and we’d have an easy time as self-employed Americans getting a residency visa.

Biking in Europe

Of course, what’s best hypothetically is not always what’s best in reality. While I loved the city, my husband was overwhelmed by the casual switching between Catalán and Spanish. It was similar enough to trip him up—“good day” is either “bon dia” or “buen dia”—and Drew began interchanging Catalan and Spanish regularly. If we were to do it again, I think he would have benefited from immediate Catalan lessons, rather than trying to use a smattering of both. It was also a big city, somewhat overwhelming to my Vermonter husband. I had a heavy heart because I loved it there so much but eventually we decided it was time to go.

Returning to Mexico

This time, in an effort to avoid the constant churning of friends, we decided to avoid the more popular tourist areas, where people stay for a season then leave. Oaxaca had a reputation for great food and art, plus we had a few friends living there already so we decided to make the leap. We enrolled both children in a private bilingual preschool. From our tours of different schools, we had come to understand the finer points of “bilingual education.” Sometimes it meant a Spanish dominant school with a few teachers who spoke some English and other times it meant an English-dominant school with lessons translated in Spanish.

In Oaxaca, there didn’t seem to be what I’d call dual immersion programs. So we went with the more Mexican school and I participated in the enrollment period, sign-up, and teacher conferences in Spanish. It was immersion for me too. After school we’d pick up the kids and I’d get an impromptu Spanish lesson as they told me the day’s events, and gave me lists of supplies for upcoming events (there were near-weekly festivals, dances, parades, and costumes to prepare). A single typo on one list sent me searching high and low for something called “pulmoncitos” (little lungs) when they really meant “plumoncitos” (the Mexican name for skinny magic markers).

Off to school

Both children thrived. Every week they brought home new vocabulary. I was learning so much, too, just by virtue of getting endless messages en español from the other mothers on Whatsapp. By the end of the first month, we were getting the sense that the children understood what they were being told, and responding appropriately to questions they were asked. At home I especially noticed my two year old spontaneously using Spanish as she played, saying “Arriba, Abajo, Arriba, Abajo” (up, down, up, down) as she painted, or pointing out things, “Mira!” (look) or telling me, “Esta mio” (that’s mine).

Of course, there are some cultural adjustments, too. The other girls in her class were all very well groomed and my daughter’s teacher would always send her home with her hair braided more neatly than I had sent her to school with. Plus I had to quickly catch up on Mexican history and traditions, the same way someone new to America might not understand the significance of children’s school plays around Thanksgiving. Here’s an example of my daughter’s class singing the classic Marieta, No Seas Coqueta (Marieta, Don’t Be A Flirt). The name itself made me do a double take, but it’s referring to the Adelitas, women who took up arms and fought in the revolutionary war.

A mistake is made

We started to be bothered by what felt like too many rules and restrictions at the school, such as our two year old being assigned homework. During one end-of-day discussion, Stella’s teacher told Drew, “Sometimes she doesn’t like to stop playing and do her school work.” To which my husband replied, “Um, okay. I will talk to her about it. Also, she is two years old.”

We had friends with children attending a small Montessori school in town. Somewhat impulsively, we made the choice to change schools. The new school was run by an American woman and her Mexican husband, along with Spanish speaking assistants. It was explained to us that lessons would be given to the child in their native tongue first, and then immediately given again in their second language.

A few weeks later and we noticed that their Spanish usage around the house had dropped. In hindsight it was clear: The approach was all wrong. First, there were too many foreign children at the school so the “playground language” was often English. At the other school, my children were in the language minority. Also, the bilingual approach they used removed the need to comprehend Spanish. If the teacher gave the lesson in English first, then repeated it in Spanish, the drive to focus on the Spanish was completely removed. I suspect my children were tuning her out.

It was a hard lesson but an important one. Children learn so incredibly quickly but only if they have an incentive. I think that’s why “one parent, one language” didn’t work for me, because they could speak to me in English and I would understand. I didn’t have the heart to force them to use Spanish and they knew I understood English. In our first school the complete lack of English meant that no matter what they tried, or how they pleaded, if they wanted to be understood they had to use the language. It’s a powerful thing.

Our future plans

In the fall, we will enroll them in another Spanish speaking private school here in Oaxaca. They teach English, but I was somewhat thrilled to hear the teacher’s broken English. I am specifically looking for a place that will give my children that Spanish immersion experience. Then this summer, we’re camping in Canada and I’ve purchased some local school supplies in Spanish to continue their home education, and make sure they don’t forget everything! I am an imperfect instructor, but at last we’ve gotten to the point where we can all communicate comfortably in Spanish together.

Fun with limes

I’m not sure we’ll stay in Mexico forever, simply because of the overall state of the education system here. I’ve struggled with the rote memorization style at the nicer private schools and I have concerns about the lack of funding and frequent teacher protests at the public schools. We’ve begun planning for the future but to me, the ideal situation seems to be to find a school that offers dual immersion, where some courses are taught entirely in one language, and others are taught in another. My children are still quite young but I’d like them to not only be conversational in both languages but to also be able to read and write in both, which is something I think we might sacrifice at the schools I’ve seen so far. (I’m sure their Spanish would be wonderful, but I want my children to be strong writers in English as well.)

What I’ve learned along this journey is that it’s more about learning how to learn, and navigating what’s important to you as a parent, both culturally and academically, as you go. We’re not there yet, but it feels closer.

How about you? Please share your impressions of this post with Christine by making a comment below!

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