About a year ago, my family and I geared up for a two-month trip to Mérida, Mexico. I had been planning the trip in my mind for about two years, and on paper for about a year before that. As a non-native Spanish speaker, I knew that I wanted travel and language immersion experiences to be a part of our family plan for raising multilingual children. We spent two months in Mérida, enrolled my son in half-day school, and made side trips to Progresso, Tulum, Uxmal, and Chunkanán.
I visited Mérida 13 years ago and have dreamed of going back ever since. A part of me being a good parent to my kids includes doing things that bring me joy. Travel brings me joy and so my kids are along for the ride! While there are certainly challenges (see below), there are also lots and lots of benefits (keep reading…).
The Benefits of Language Immersion for Children
The benefits of language immersion are well documented. According to the Center for Applied Linguistics in Washington, D.C., learning a language at an early age enhances children’s brain development, expands their cultural awareness, helps them think more flexibly, and increases job opportunities later in life.
You don’t need to travel to provide an immersion learning experience for your child, though. Immersion can happen in many different ways. Several communities have immersion language schools (where students are immersed in the target language for a full or half-day). My oldest sister was cared for by my grandmother in the summers. My grandmother only speaks Spanish and since there was no one else around to translate, my sister learned Spanish pretty quickly!
Language immersion can be found in any situation, near or far, that surrounds your child with the target language for sustained periods of time. This type of language exposure helps your child to view the target language as useful, relevant, and interesting. Remember, creating a functional need for a language creates a major motivator for language learning. If there is no need for the language, why learn it?
The Benefits of Travel for Children
The benefits of travel with young children are also well documented. My dear friend and global education specialist, Dr. Robin Hancok, shared with Travel and Leisure Magazine that travel can expand a kid’s world, making them more empathetic toward cultural differences and helping them adapt to changing situations. She states, “Travel and educating children about their roles as citizens of the world when they’re young ensures they will retain that message into their adult years,” she said.
When we travel as a family, I get to see my children’s global consciousness develop in real-time. I get to see my children meet new people, develop new relationships, make new connections, try new food, and experience new sensations.
The Challenges of Language Immersion and Travel with Young Children
Traveling with young children is daunting. Our trip from Copenhagen to Mérida included three flights, a major shift in time zones, and significant delays. Our first (and longest) flight started off with my then three-year-old son having a complete meltdown because we were seated in the middle of the plane and not by a window. Thank goodness we boarded early because it took us an entire 20 minutes to calm him down.
Traveling with children is not impossible, though, and there are several little changes you can employ to make the process a lot smoother for you and them. Our Language Immersion Travel Guide outlines a step-by-step process for planning an immersive travel experience with your family and our top “must-knows” for traveling with young kids. You can download it for free here.
Over the past four years, we’ve taken over 20 flights to destinations near and far with our young children (not counting the long pause due to the pandemic). While I have to travel a lot due to work and family commitments, I never forget the privilege of being able to move freely and easily across borders – something not afforded to my family just a few generations ago.
Language immersion can also be challenging for young children, especially if they are not fully fluent in the target language or if they have difficulty adapting to new situations. One of the things we did to prepare our very shy son for two months in a new school in a new country was lots and lots of discussion around transition. We helped build excitement, process emotions, and talk through expectations several months before our trip. We had the same level of communication with the school in Mérida; the educators were incredibly supportive and welcoming. For more guidance on how to prepare your child for a language immersion travel experience, download our free guide here.
We picked up our son from his first day of school in Mérida with a whole lot of anticipation and a little bit of fear. To our delight, he jumped into our arms and said his first day was “genial” and that he couldn’t wait to go back. A wave of relief passed over us and we lived to see another day.
How To Plan A Language Immersion Trip
The level of planning needed for a language immersion trip depends on a lot of factors, including the type and length of the trip you want to take. There is no right way of planning a language immersion trip, but there are certainly some processes and guidelines that can help you along the way. Our Language Immersion Travel Guide includes an eight-step process for planning your trip, six “must-knows” for traveling with young kids, and our top tips for making the most of your language immersion trip.
I hope the guide is helpful and provides practical information for planning a meaningful trip for your family. I also hope it helps you to reflect on ways to be a good guest in the community you are visiting. Not everyone who plans a language immersion trip will be a guest (some people will be returning home), but we certainly were guests in Mérida. We thought a lot about reciprocal relationships and our roles as citizens of the world.
Excited about the idea of language immersion travel for your family, but not sure where to start? Download our Language Immersion Travel Guide today!