Thanks to all who participated in this discussion on the value of exposing kids to languages and cultures. I offer this final cheat sheet of ideas and resources you can use to inspire more conversation and spark new ideas to help your kids go global.
1) Earlier is better, frequent is best. Yes, exposure to foreign languages can be remarkably beneficial at very early ages—beginning in infancy! But don’t start buying DVDs for every baby you know—research shows that it’s only face-to-face interaction with a speaker of another language that gives infants and toddlers the powerful exposure that hard-wires the sounds of non-native languages in the brain.
And though CDs and DVDs can be helpful in learning a language later in childhood and beyond, it’s extremely important to give your kids a chance to try to communicate with others who speak a foreign language. No need to spend a lot of money doing this—instead, leverage every opportunity you have to expose your child to other languages and cultures right in your own town.
Find people in your community who are native speakers of other languages and look for ways to see them socially (it’s always nice to have new friends!) Look for a community center that offers English language classes to non-native speakers and volunteer to teach or help with activities there.
Fill your home with items and music (radio stations work best!) and food from other places. Visit ethnic restaurants with your kids and have them meet the owners/waitstaff from other countries. If you have young children, check out my friend Homa Tavangar’s book, Growing Up Global for ideas on how to boost your child’s awareness of the world.
2) Send your preschooler or elementary school student to a 100 percent immersion school. Kids learn languages so easily as preschoolers! If you have the chance—and especially if your child is gifted—give them the added challenge and richness of spending time in an immersion environment early on. Being bilingual—or trilingual or multilingual—is a tremendous gift and, in addition to other benefits, has been shown to increase one’s ability to pay attention despite distractions. This is a very important skill in our chaotic world!
3) Be a host family to a high school student from abroad or rent a room to a foreign college student studying at a nearby university. I’m convinced that the early exposure to other languages our kids had due to the foreign students in our home gave them a huge advantage when they later studied other languages. Most people don’t think about hosting a student until their own kids are in high school, but having a beginning English learner in your home when you have preschoolers or elementary school students can really give your kids a wonderful sense of another place and another language. Don’t worry about trying to speak only English to the foreign student—it is natural to translate and use gestures at this level of learning and this is good for your family AND for the student. (It’s also great fun!) Our lives were enriched greatly by the relationships we had with the many students who lived in our home over the course of nearly 12 years and we continue to stay in contact and swap visits.
4) Go abroad as a family. Whether it’s a two-week vacation, a language immersion camp or an extended globe-trotting adventure, giving your children a chance to experience other places firsthand will open their eyes to the wonders of the world and their own possibilities within it.
5) Send your son or daughter on a high school exchange. This can absolutely transform your child’s life and the way they see themselves. It’s not for everyone, but it’s the BEST way to launch an adolescent into young adulthood and give them room to grow, explore, and discover their own talents separate from their habits and friends back home. There are a lot of great programs out there, but I highly recommend Rotary International as a highly-organized and affordable option with great planning, support and follow up. Contact the local Rotary Club in your community for details.
6) Consider a gap year abroad. Though 18 is at the tail end of the span for quick and easy foreign language learning, it’s still possible to become fluent and to open one’s eyes to new opportunities for education and career options. Volunteer, work or study—it doesn’t matter what your son or daughter does while abroad. What matters most is having a chance for an immersion experience (separate from a group of other Americans or English speakers) and spending a significant time abroad—a minimum of six months.
7) Attend a university abroad. The tried-and-true junior year abroad can shift a student’s perspective, but keep in mind that the language learning that’s likely to happen at this age is dramatically reduced when compared to a high school year abroad. Also, juniors in college tend to see a stint abroad as part of their long-term path to graduation and a job and are generally less likely to be open to the experiences that might truly spark their passion.
Spending two or more years attending a college in a foreign country is another option. It’s not as daunting as you might think—my second daughter took classes at six universities in four countries in three languages and still managed to graduate by the age of 20! (She wrote the how-to-transfer-credits bit in my book.) And the total price? Less than a typical year at a private university in the U.S.—travel included!
8) Connect with others who have spent time abroad. There will be plenty of people who express concern or even criticize you for considering sending your son or daughter abroad no matter what the circumstances might be. Rather than get bogged down by their fear, seek out those who are encouraging and have actually been abroad!
This is extremely important. Many, many families have told me that they just never thought they could pull it off and really gave up trying until they happened to meet someone who had done something similar to what they were considering. Being able to talk to those who have overcome their own fears and gone on to have a great experience is the best way to move forward if you’re sitting on the fence.
9) Read books and blogs on the subject of going abroad. Do a blog search on countries you are interested in. You’ll find plenty of people who are studying, volunteering, working and carving out whole new lives in new places!
And don’t think you have to pay for a pricey package in order to spend time in another country. There are a lot of inexpensive ways (and reasonably-priced destinations) to get the experiences your son or daughter needs to gain intercultural fluency.
If you need more information on how to handle the details (choosing a location or program, transferring credits, preparing for college admissions, finding work), I offer this shameless plug for my book! It includes a lot of useful tips and some very honest stories from students and parents about spending time abroad in various ways. You can order a copy of The New Global Student.
Thank you so much for being a bold and loving parent! All kids need an informed advocate and wise mentor, and I applaud you for taking the time to learn about the many options for a thrilling, fulfilling and outrageously relevant global education.
Best wishes and happy trails!
This article is provided as a service of the Davidson Institute for Talent Development, a 501(c)3 nonprofit dedicated to supporting profoundly gifted young people 18 and under. To learn more about the Davidson Institute’s programs, please visit www.DavidsonGifted.org.
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