I was 44, and it was my first day of school. I had a sharp pencil. A banana for a snack. And I was there to learn.
But before I even set foot in a classroom, I had to take a test.
No, this wasn’t an anxiety dream. This was my first day at Intercultura School in the beach town of Samara, Costa Rica, where my kids and I enrolled for three weeks last summer. The placement exam was customary — a simple Q&A to see which level was right for us. (A simple Q&A in Spanish, of course.)
Anyway, I floundered through it and was placed (ahem) appropriately. But with some hard work, so much Spanish I was dreaming in it, and a pile of homework — yes, I even had homework — I moved my way up through several levels. By the time I graduated, I was able to give a bastante bueno speech in Spanish.
(Let’s be real, I wasn’t valedictorian or anything. Everyone at Intercultura gives a speech on their graduation day. But I do think my teacher, Carmen, looked awfully proud.)
My kids learned a lot too. In the classroom, with the kids on the beach playing soccer, and buying “un coco, por favor” from a traveling vendor. Actually, it was a pretty transformative experience for all of us.
And really, learning a new language, however you do it, is transformative. It opens up a whole new portal. Whether you’re 4 or 44 years old.
So even if you can’t get away for this kind of immersion, consider other ways to learn a language as a family:
Sign up for an online course
Take an in-person class together
Check out your local library. Many offer language classes or story hours. If you’re a beginner, sitting in with your child will be worthwhile for you, too. Community colleges and community centers or education programs also offer free or reasonably priced classes.
Practice at home
If you have younger kids, make an effort to play in the language you’re learning together. How many times have you played the part of the patient to your little doctor? Or diner to your little restaurant server? Try that make believe in another language.
Games and books in other languages will also reinforce your new skills. Reading familiar picture books in another language is an exciting way to make connections!
And if you have older kids, plan a fun dinner — think rigatoni and panna cotta if you’re learning Italian, fried rice and dumplings if you’re learning Chinese — where you all speak only the language you’re learning. Yes, there will undoubtedly be some pantomiming, but it’s sure to be fun.
My sister’s family is currently watching a nightly episode of “The Big Bang Theory” in Spanish to keep their language skills from rusting. I wondered what else Netflix offers — apparently, you can binge your favorite series in all kinds of different languages, from Italian to Hindi!
Join a conversation group
Once you’re past the basics, your family might be ready for a group chat. Try Meetup to see if there are individuals or families who speak the language you’re learning and are looking to improve their English. You could also create your own meetup or even put an ad in your school newsletter.
And if you are able to get away? Consider a language immersion program like Intercultura, TLCdenia in Spain, or Coeur de France in Sancerre, France. Or take a family trip to a spot in the world that speaks the language you’re learning. Go ahead and practice with the locals. Don’t be shy.
After all, you’re a student — armed with a sharpened pencil and a snack — and you’re here to learn.