When children adapt to a new culture and language

My husband and I lived this experience with our two daughters when we moved from Canada to Switzerland. Both our daughters, ages 5 and 3, were immersed in the French speaking Geneva school system. The only language they knew was North American English. Though they didn’t experience any bullying, it was stressful. Luckily, my husband and I speak French (the Québécois way) and were able to help them through some difficult challenges. Today, we are grateful for this experience. Our daughters are fluent in both French and English. They are open to other cultures and willing to learn new languages.

When children are immersed in a foreign culture and language, they experience a sense of loss. Different kids adapt differently, but for many, their social, emotional and physical health are at risk. Parents also struggle as they search for ways to help their children cope. In her post, Margo highlights some universal tips that can help make the transition easier for both parents and children. 

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Margo Koniuszewski

This is a guest post by Margo KoniuszewskiMargo is a doctorate student at the University of Warsaw. Her pedagogical work is on Resilience and the Emotional Development of Children and Youth. She has developed the term “circular pedagogy”: the social, emotional and behavioural well-being of young people and adults who care for them. She publishes and coaches on this approach. Margo’s blog, aboutusforus.com, focuses on relationships that help children and adolescents reach their full potential.

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 I can’t speak the language! I need some help to navigate!

by Margo Koniuszewski

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Parents across the world are increasingly faced with situations where their kid is suddenly immersed in a language that is not his/her own. There can be many reasons for this and every situation has its own unique circumstances. But the questions and concerns that confront them at that moment are the same.

There is no doubt that exposure to a different language (bilingual and multilingual) helps one become more tolerant, broadens horizons and brings about new opportunities. But before our child adapts to these new conditions and picks up the basics of the new language and culture she/he can face difficulties, including being bullied by peers in kindergarten or in school.

Let me share with you the true story of my husband Adam. His parents emigrated from Poland for political reasons in the early 70’s when he was just two years old. After several months in Spain, France and Belgium they moved to Canada and settled in Montreal. Adam did not speak French (let alone Québécois!) and was picked-on by other children because he could not communicate. To this day he recalls having fights in the park and in kindergarten to defend his turf.

Let’s put ourselves in the shoes of a 4 year-old that wants to socialise with a crowd of “age mates” but can’t communicate in their language. What an easy target for teasing! Not an easy situation, right? How would you feel? Young children are particularly sensitive to changes in their environment and can feel insecure in a new and unfamiliar setting.

How can we make it easier on them?

Ideally we could prepare the transition well in advance and start giving them the language basics gradually. But the reality is often quite different. Changes can be forced on us leaving no time to prepare.

A few tips to ease the shock and help in the transition:

  • arrange for a talk with their teacher to explain the situation and establish a privileged parent-teacher relationship
  • try to learn the simple everyday instructions that the teacher uses with the group, these can be practiced at home in a non-threatening environment, sometimes the child may be reluctant to play-along but this can be overcome with a little patience
  • teach your kids:
 how to spell their name in the local alphabet and pronunciation;
 the basics that will allow simple interactions with other kids: Hi, my name is George/What is your name?, I am from Poland/Where are you from?, I am four years old/How old are you?;
 how to name their favourite toys; and simple expressions to use when asking for help
  • watch with them their favourite fairytales in the local language & memorize with them their title (Cinderella/Cendrillon/Kopciuszek)

It is worth remembering that at this age children learn naturally, they are like sponges! These suggestions may sound straightforward and yet are so powerful in facilitating the integration process. The possibility of living abroad and being exposed to a new language and culture can be very beneficial for kids of any age. Studies have shown marked advantages with various nonverbal cognitive tasks and with attention control. Bilinguals and multi-linguals perform better than monolinguals on exercises that require blocking out distractions and when switching between two or more tasks, especially when they can master several languages from their early years.

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Julie Zimmer

Julie has extensive experience in nursing practice and education in a wide range of fields from intensive/coronary care, to medical-surgical to community and public health. Julie has Bachelor Degrees in Psychology and Nursing, and a Master’s Degree in Community Health Nursing Education. She has taught in faculties of nursing and in various communities in Toronto, Canada and in Geneva, Switzerland, and is a consultant to the International Council of Nurses (ICN). Julie also has years of experience teaching English as a foreign language (EFL) in addition to coordinating an English department in a Swiss private school.

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