Updated: Jan 9, 2020
When we moved to Switzerland with our eight-year-old daughter, putting her into an international school was not a financial option nor something we even considered. Our philosophy is that because we live in a country which has good quality and safe schools, why wouldn’t we utilize that option? When expats ask me, with a concerned look on their face, why don’t you send your daughter to one of the international schools? I reply that she attends the “Free International School” because there are at least 10 different nationalities represented in her classroom alone! The question is usually followed up with, “But wasn’t it difficult for her to learn German?” Sure, but learning German at eight-years-old is a heck of a lot easier than learning at 40! Believe me!
But this decision was not fraught with worry. How will she learn the US states, presidents, history? I asked many mothers that had paved the way before me: How did you handle your child attending a Swiss school and maintain your child’s mother tongue as well as American academic knowledge? I avoided the internet because I knew it was possible to find every possible point of view on the topic.
In the end, I went with some advice from other mothers and my own mother and teacher intuition. This is, by all means, not an exhaustive list of suggestions nor anything based in research. These are simply some tried and true practices used by friends and myself.
Tips to help maintain your child’s mother tongue while living abroad:
1. Speak your mother tongue at home. Don’t be concerned if second language words creep into sentences. In our home, we have realized that some words simply fit better in German than English. For example, in our apartment, there are no built-in closets. We needed to purchase stand-alone closets for every bedroom, which lead to our love/hate relationship with IKEA. In German, the word for closet is Schrank. Because these stand-alone closets are different than what we picture when using the word closet, Schrank simple seems to fit better. It doesn’t mean we are losing our English vocabulary, it just makes more sense.
2. Use media to your advantage to keep up or learn new vocabulary. Allow your children to watch programs or movies in their mother tongue. Not only will it help them keep up with and build their vocabulary, but it will keep them connected to the culture as well. Have your children listen to audiobooks in your mother tongue. It’s especially fun to listen to a book as a family while on a road trip!
3. Plan regular trips home. Heading home regularly will keep the connection with the home country alive. One silly worry I had when we left the US was that our daughter wasn’t going to get to try typical American candy bars. Candy bars were not part of our regular diet while living in the US, but for some reason, when we moved, I felt candy bars were part of cultural knowledge that I didn’t want her to miss. Therefore, every summer when we visited, we made a game out of finding a new candy bar that she hadn’t tried: Peppermint Patties, Heath Bars, etc.
4. Consider having your children attend a summer camp. Sending your child to summer camp in their native country is another connection to local culture with age-appropriate peers. Every summer, our daughter attends the same camp that my husband attended when he was a boy. During camp, the campers are encouraged to keep a camp journal. This journal has gone back and forth to camp many years with our daughter and she always journals in her mother tongue. Vacation journaling is a great medium for practicing mother tongue writing skills!
Camp has been an incredible experience for her where she has developed life-long friends. It also gives her something to look forward to all year long. She has stayed in touch with many of the friends from camp which provides an opportunity for texting in English as well!
5. Don’t worry about academics. I know this is a loaded statement because this is what we do as parents: Worry. If you were moving from one location to another within the same country, there would still be differences in education. Try to take the point of view that you are giving your children the opportunity to learn concepts they wouldn’t in their home country. Unless high school curriculum is coming into play, don’t make this a large concern.
6. Try to not get frustrated and over correct. Make speaking their mother tongue an enjoyable and comfortable experience. When we correct mistakes, we are telling our children that they aren’t meeting our expectations and they will be nervous to speak freely.
In the end, your child’s mother tongue will wax and wane. Do not fret, it will prevail and they will benefit from all your efforts to keep up their mother tongue. Children's abilities to learn multiple and simultaneous languages is unbelievable. Trust in the process and do as much as you can, but don’t worry too much. Raising them with multiple languages is one of the biggest gifts we can give our children. Own it! You are doing a good thing for them!
April Remfrey is an American special needs consultant living and loving life in Switzerland. Please feel free to share this blog post by giving credit to the author and the website link: www.remfreyeducationalconsulting.com