Our family relocated to Switzerland this summer, and I worried about the impact of our move on our children. Specifically, we decided to enroll them in the local Swiss public school. My oldest child would start first grade (3P in Switzerland), and my middle child would begin kindergarten (2P).
All of my children are resilient, flexible, persistent, and compassionate. Still, each of their personalities left me wondering about the ease or difficulty of transitioning to school.
I was most worried about my oldest. She does not like to be wrong, and regularly uses large vocabulary words like “perplexed.” This afternoon, she recounted her plans for adulthood, which remain largely unchanged from one moment to the next. “I would like to be an entomologist and work in a jungle looking for bugs, then a zoologist and work in a zoo, then a herpetologist and work at the Vivarium [a local reptile zoo].” She has an insatiable passion for learning, and we spend our free time scouring books about the human body or looking for lizards.
I have lost many hours of sleep over the last months worried about what this transition to Switzerland mean for her. Would she have the courage to persist when everything was completely unfamiliar? Would she flounder without the vocabulary she uses to communicate her thoughts and feelings? How would she make friends? I am confident that the benefits of this experience will last with her for her lifetime, and yet, in the short-term, what would this mean for day-to-day life?
I am proud to report that she is thriving. Her teachers speak a little bit of English and she has found a friend who is bilingual (French and English). Lausanne is a very diverse city, and lots of the people who live here were born elsewhere. The children at her school have parents who speak different languages, and her peers have had the experience of learning a second language themselves. Everyone can empathize with this difficult process and everyone has been warm and friendly.
On our way home today, she told me about her day, and what she said surprised me. Our conversation revealed a level of self-reflection about her process of learning that that I didn’t know was possible for a young child. I was so excited to hear her discoveries, that I asked her permission to interview her, and post her responses on my blog. I said that many other parents and teachers would probably love to hear what it’s like to go to school in another country.
ME: What is it like to go to school in French?
Very difficult, but I’m starting to understand. I just watch the kids around me and they give me clues. But sometimes – and this is the hardest part – the kids might get something wrong. One time, our teachers told us to take out a book. I was watching the kids around me, and they got the wrong book. I took out the same book as them because I didn’t know it was the wrong book. I held it in the air, and oh my. It was the wrong book.
ME: How is it to make friends with kids who don’t speak English?
It’s no problem. I just use my hands. It’s not a problem – you can still make relationships, even if you don’t speak French. My friend at my desk and I make faces to each other. It’s so much fun.
ME: What things happened today?
Oh my. Something really wonderful happened. I was sitting at my desk, and all of the sudden, the teacher came around. And she had sticky notes that were shaped as hearts. She gave one to everyone, and I got a green heart. She asked, ‘What do you like to listen to?’ ‘Like what?” I asked her. ‘Stories, music, things like that.’ Right away I said, ‘Stories.’
I saw that kids were writing on their hearts, so I asked my teacher how to spell ‘stories’ but she didn’t hear me. So then, I sounded it out with my mouth. ST-OR-EES. But then, I looked around at other kids, and they were drawing pictures! So I erased what I wrote, and drew two books.
I looked around and saw that other kids were raising their hands to go up to the front of the classroom and talk about what was on their hearts. I was feeling courageous, so I raised my hand, too. I rose my hand a little bit up into the air. The teacher never picked me! Finally, I saw the kids raising their hands higher than me. So I raised my hand as high as I could stretch my little arm. She picked me!
It was time for me to go up! I looked down at the floor and I had a big smile on my face. When I got up to the front, I asked my teacher, “Can I speak in English?” “Yes, and I can translate to French.” Everybody looked at me. I was feeling nervous, but I was also really brave. I told them in English, “I like when people read me books and I listen.” And then it was over. So I walked back to my desk feeling very proud.
Of course, I still worry about the day to day, but I am beyond relieved when I hear things like this. She is thriving. Thanks for allowing me a moment to share a very personal post!
Do you have experience raising second-language learners? What did you find most challenging/rewarding?