Bilingual is Better

Editor’s note: We continue our week-long series about immersion travel. The following post was written by Amy Conroy — creator of habla, blah, blah — who spent six months in San Miguel de Allende with her three children and wrote all about their experiences for SpanglishBaby back in 2011-2012. She was also one of our guests on our SpanglishBaby LIVE Google+ Hangout on immersion travel.

That is really my biggest worry – what if we never have another trip like that?!? What if that was the best we ever have? What if that was The Biggest Adventure of our Lives? I cannot explain how rewarding and glorious our last six months in Mexico were. Our time there changed our lives and our perspectives forever. There’s no going back (to who we were) and on my darkest days, I am prone to fits of melancholy at the thought of no future immersion travel/living.

But with our experience does come perspective, and there are things I would do differently and things I would do more.

Basics: food, water, shelter

Food is easy — you eat local, which luckily for us was pretty delectable. Water is a whole other issue, but one that I love. The scarcity of potable water in the world is an unfathomed concept to most Americans, but the global reality of its dearth reminds me of how lucky I am and has started a dialogue for us to explore further.

But then you have shelter. Here is where I would do it differently: stay in a place where you feel good and comfortable. During our last long immersion, I tried to save $$ in our accommodations. While that might have suited us fine for a shorter term, six months was too long for us to live ‘normally’ in sub par conditions. My advice would be to spend what is needed so that you and your family enjoy where you rest. You will need a place to recharge when you are immersed in a new language and culture — it’s tiring! Honor that need, and you will have more energy to channel into your immersion experience.

Luxuries: transportation, communication, and emergencies

These are not the essential items for living, but they are key to calmer living while immersed in a new place. First of all, always know where the hospital is for an emergency. Stitches at 10 p.m. was inevitable for at least one of my three children, but peace of mind rather than petrified panic in knowing where to go was helpful. Which is why I argue that, at a certain point, I highly recommend having access to private transportation like a car. Sure, there may be buses and taxis available, but will that suit you in an emergency? It’s easy to bum rides from friends when you are one or two persons, but squeezing an extra five into someone’s car ride to the country quickly becomes cramped.

My last bit of practical advice is to secure an easy way to communicate with home. It’s simple these days (via cell phones or Vonage) and well worth the cost so that you don’t feel estranged from loved ones at home.

Academic life: go immersive, go local, and try to steer clear of other travelers

If you want your child to learn another language, there is no better motivation for them than peer interaction. If they don’t have the option of communicating in their native tongue, they will quickly figure out how to join a game of tag in whatever language is spoken. Though we had spent a great deal of time vacationing in Mexico prior to living there for six months, they learned ten times more Spanish attending a private Mexican school than they ever did during leisure time. I was one proud mama when my eldest read a poem aloud to the parents of the school community, and a friend commented on his lack of accent! I’m not saying it was easy – it was painful to watch them struggle. We knew nobody and were the only Americans in a small, tight-knit local school. It was like Ground Hog Day for the first day of Kindergarten (when your child doesn’t want to go) for six months!! Hard times.

But, worth it.  They are (near) fluent and, eventually, made friends. “Nothing worth gaining was ever gained without effort,” so said Theodore Roosevelt.

Social life: volunteer or work

Immersion for adults is hard, too. It’s easy to connect with others with similar backgrounds, e.g. other Americans, so that is one pathway. However my most rewarding relationships grew from working together on a project when I volunteered with a non-profit. It was an incredible way to meet locals who shared a similar interest – I found “my peops”!

Overall, I’d do it all again, but the next time I’d do it with my husband. Our circumstances didn’t permit him a leave of absence from his job, so it was the four of us (me + 3 kids) most of the time. We rationalized that a temporary six months apart was manageable, since we plan to live the rest of our lives together. But truthfully, that was the hardest aspect of our adventure – not living together as a family unit. We survived it, but I’d be lying to omit that his absence was a major distraction to us all. I don’t want to leave without him again for that long, but two? Three? Four months? Count me in!  I can’t say no… there’s too much at stake.

{Photos courtesy of Amy Conroy}

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