Shasvinth was a small boy for 2nd grade. He entered the classroom behind the smiling faces of his eager parents. It was his first day of school in America. I greeted the family at my classroom door, having already been alerted that my new student would be starting 2nd grade today. He was from India, as are many of my 2nd graders. Shasvinth had a new backpack, lunchbox, school supplies, and a very limited knowledge of the English language. The school office informed me that his mother spoke Telugu, a language of southern India, but his father spoke Telugu and English. The family moved to the Detroit area as a result of a job transfer, and Shasvinth had to be enrolled in school. His father had taught him a smattering of English words that he thought were necessary to begin school: bathroom, please, thank you, yes, and no. It was now my job to help Shasvinth make a good transition to his new life.
Having Shasvinth in my class reminded me of my experience living in Orsay, France, when my daughter was 4. I enrolled Katie in a French preschool so she could learn the language and make neighborhood friends. I was not yet a teacher, but a concerned mom who was worried about her child’s adjustment to our new home. Like Shasvinth’s father, I instructed Katie in a few key French words that would help her communicate with her teacher and the children in class. Each day I dropped her off at school, I worried that she wouldn’t be able to communicate with her teacher, or would be ridiculed by other children.
Shasvinth made excellent progress his 2nd grade year. A fine artist, he drew pictures of dragons and monsters that he shared with his classmates. With his radiant smile, he made friends quickly. My Katie, too, made big strides in her French preschool. Her thoughtful teacher introduced her to 2 bilingual children who understood English, and translated for her things she didn’t understand.
In our mobile culture, oftentimes we are faced with the very difficult decision to move our families abroad. Here are several ways to make the transition easier that I recommend to expatriate families of my students.
Find a native language speaker to help you locate a doctor, hospital, and dentist. In Orsay, I joined a mother’s group with expats from Britain, America, and Canada who provided much needed assistance in locating doctors and dentists who spoke English. Such assistance can be found in community centers, faith or school groups, or women’s clubs.
Keep to familiar routines and rituals. Add new rituals from your host country as your stay progresses. Celebrate familiar holidays, but explore the celebrations of your new country. We celebrated both Independence Day on July 4th as well as Bastille Day on July 14 during our stay in France.
Help your child explore the new community. Find parks, pools, or playgrounds where you can meet other families. Explore bike paths, recreational opportunities, and other places where families gather.
Prepare familiar foods, and also try new foods from your host country. In Orsay, I planned a traditional Thanksgiving dinner, but was unable to find a turkey. Fortunately, an American-run store (appropriately named Thanksgiving), could order one for me. They also had foods that I had been craving (Miracle Whip, Doritos, and root beer!). Katie surprised us by discovering her love of escargot and pain au chocolat.
Try new things. Attend museums, sporting events, concerts, and really get to know your surroundings.
Preserve your memories of this time with videos, souvenirs, and pictures. Help your child keep a scrapbook.
I had the pleasure to teach Shasvinth another year, as we both moved up to 3rd grade. I’ve seen him become an enthusiastic student who made many friends. His language skills skyrocketed, along with his academic achievement.
Katie learned to speak French quicker and better than we did by daily exposure to the language in school. Her bravery helped us become more confident as we explored our new country and tried to make the best of our transition. Children have much to gain with exposure to new languages, cultures, food and friends. They gain a wider lens through with to view the world, and feel strong in their ability to master the challenges of life in a new country.