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Unschooling Language

20 February 2010 656 views 9 Comments

When we moved to Costa Rica, Arp and I felt we had to eventually learn to speak Spanish. As adults, we had our own language goals almost immediately. We wanted to speak the local language, connect with locals, and begin to establish a sense of community here.  Arp plunged right in and started speaking to the locals (he learns language well in an aural fashion). I took my time and started using Rosetta Stone (I learn much more visually). But the kids took a different path, one that many expats choose to not respect.

It was clear from the moment we arrived in Costa Rica that my son M (age 6 at arrival) did not want to learn Spanish, at least not immediately. He told us that on several occasions.  He was happy to learn a word here and there, but he seemed to have no plans to actually use the language and speak to the locals. When this came up in front of other expat families, most other parents recommended that I immediately put M into kindergarten in the local school system. When I frowned at the idea, they assured me that I could just put M in school for a few months, “just to learn the language”. They told me that he’d be speaking Spanish in just a few months, and then I could “pull him out” if I wanted to. The whole idea was to send my child to school “just for the language”, whether he liked it or not.

These conversations horrified me. Some people thought, because we are unschoolers, that it was the idea of school enrollment that upset me the most. But that wasn’t the problem. I was mostly upset by the assumption that children should have no choices when it comes to what and when they learn things. I guess it says something about how long I’ve been an unschooler that I was completely shocked by the idea of “putting my child in school” without asking him first. Frankly, I have trouble understanding how it is that a parent can do that to a child.

I met one expat family here that forced their two kids to attend school, even when both siblings cried and felt sad that they would miss seeing each other for those hours every day. Giving the fact that international moves are so stressful, I’d call what those parents did borderline abuse. When we (adults) take our family across the world, we are asking them to undergo a whole lot of stress. It is our job to support our children in that stressful adjustment. In the situation above, the idea of ripping siblings away from each other and putting kids in a situation where they will have no idea what people are saying sounds horrifying. Makes me wonder if parents ever imagine themselves in their child’s place.

Now that we’ve been in Costa Rica for a year, it’s become even more clear that we have all followed our own paths with regard to language. Arp has increased his knowledge of Spanish to the point that he feels comfortable and confident in most circumstances. I haven’t done quite as well, and I’m a little disappointed. Much of the reason that I haven’t done as well as I wanted to is that I haven’t been able to dedicate the time I wanted to doing some visual learning, through books and Rosetta Stone. I sort of forgot how much having a baby tends to throw a wrench into all the plans you make. Funny how that fact is so central in the first year of your baby’s life, and yet you forget about that once your children get a little bit older.

The kids have increased their use of Spanish at their own pace. After a year here, M has just begun to start feeling comfortable using short Spanish phrases with local children at the beach, or when buying things in local businesses. Seeing him do this happily, on his own initiative, makes me smile. It makes him smile, too. Regarding language, we never had to deal with stress and tears with M. He has eased into it gradually, as he does most things.

J has taken a different route to learning language, and it has been fairly gradual also. She seems to just pick up Spanish spontaneously, and suddenly she’s using a few news words here and there. I have a feeling she learns  language by hearing it, more like how Arp learns, although she can’t articulate that yet. J isn’t resistant to learning Spanish at all, and tends to learn new phrases as it becomes necessary and through regular interactions with kids at the beach. Even if she can’t speak to the children she plays with, she seems to have no trouble getting along and having fun. When she needs someone to translate, she never hesitates to pull Arp or I over for a quick translation session.

Even though our entire family is not fluent in Spanish, I feel glad that we have all taking the path to learning language that is pleasing to each of us. No crying, no forcing, and with joy.

[Photo by Shawn Econo]


  • uberVU - social comments said:

    Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by hippytrish: Blogging: “Unschooling Language” http://bit.ly/aci496 How we respected our kids’ choices in language acquisition #unschooling #costarica…

  • ~Tara said:

    Loved reading this. Language has always intrigued me. Glad you didn't listen to anyone regarding the school thing. ;)

  • hippytrish (author) said:

    I think our kids were glad, too!

  • Mary Green said:

    Another great post. I love hearing about your life, moving around the world is amazing and so adventurous. I remember a couple months back, I thought you said you were going to leave costa rica, and maybe head to florida. Well, no matter where you end up I hope you keep writing. I love following along.

  • Arp said:

    I just noticed that J sometimes babbles and makes up songs with Spanish words. She's creative and really cute too :-)

  • Roblynn said:

    Hola, I just stumbled on your blog from the expat blog site. We moved to CR about three and a half years ago. We have been un/homeschooling for 30 years and I love to see other people getting into it. We still have two daughters at home and they are very bilingual now. The oldest chose to attend a private school here in Heredia for the first three months we were here, bad idea.She hated it and we all went back to homeschooling pretty quickly. The baby really wanted to attend school, much to my chagrin. We put her in the public kinder last year and she had a blast.The younger grades here do nothing but play all day, and of course cut and glue, she was in heaven. She is in first grade this year and will be going for a few months until we go on vacation. I am actually trying to talk her into staying home, and I think she is getting there. Like you said it should be their choice and be something they are comfortable with. Thanks for sharing.

  • Lauren @ Hobo Mama said:

    I agree with you. When I lived in Berlin, I had friends who were thrown into the deep end of a German school and had to sink or swim. I was able to transition gradually from an American school into a German-American school. It was at that point I wish someone had gently nudged me a little further along the path to language immersion, because I think I just needed some encouragement to be a little uncomfortable and put myself into more German-speaking situations. I was somewhat older than your kids and could have handled it at that point. But I guess parents/friends/teachers can’t be all-knowing and all-seeing and I wasn’t willing to articulate what I needed/wanted. Oh, well! At least learning doesn’t end with childhood, and I still have a chance to keep progressing even now. I’m glad you’re all finding your own pace.
    .-= Lauren @ Hobo Mama´s last blog ..Supermom: A children’s book about attachment parenting animals =-.

  • Narue said:

    It is all well as nice to homeschool but I do not understand unschooling. Don’t children need guidance from their parents. Letting them “do as they want” what kind of adults will they be? The world is not so nice and flowery and do-what -you want.

  • Trish (author) said:

    By letting them “do as they want”(kind of misleading, but I’ll go with that), they are going to be very used to making decisions, some of which are easy and some of which are hard. So when they are adults, they will feel prepared to make decisions, and know where to go when they need some help making them. I’d say that’s a good thing.

    Believe me, life is hard enough with us having to purposely make our kid’s lives more difficult. Some of the things my children have struggled with (and I’ve helped them through) include:

    choosing friends, and ending relationships that aren’t working
    fighting with friends, and how to make compromises
    dealing with food allergies, and how to choose foods that make their bodies feel good inside
    exploring interests and finding their passions

    This is just a short list of examples. Life can sometimes be tough, and sometimes be wonderful. It’s our job as family members to help each other through things, just like we’d do with fellow adults that we love. Unschooling helps us to keep our relationship strong, so that the kids feel comfortable coming to us when they need help. I think that’s a good thing!