Going to Extremes With Education

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Having a little toddler running around is witnessing one of the finest examples of the brain at work. Hearing the little ideas and terms that come out of their mouths, the things they retain and ponder … it’s phenomenal. And watching that develop has they do, month by month (daily, even), is a grand and almost magical treat.

I was thinking about all of this — how kids learn — while driving home after dropping my son off at preschool. As life often works, I happened to tune into the end of a program on NPR’s “Morning Edition” on the car radio about education and children. It was actually New York Times foreign correspondent Clifford Levy talking about his “family’s experiment with extreme schooling.” After Levy was sent to Moscow for the paper five years ago, he and his wife decided that instead of sending their three Park Slope, Brooklyn-raised kids to the local international school where instruction was in English, they would plop them into a Russian-language-only school. Full immersion, baby!

Hearing the couple talk about the consternation and flat-out fear they faced around this big, bold decision made me want to read more, about the family and their experiment. Thankfully, Levy wrote all about it in the NYT Sunday Magazine last month.

The fantasy of creating bilingual prodigies immediately collided with reality. My children — Danya (fifth grade), Arden (third grade) and Emmett (kindergarten) — were among the first foreigners to attend Novaya Gumanitarnaya Shkola, the New Humanitarian School. All instruction was in Russian. No translators, no hand-holding. And so on that morning, as on so many days that autumn of 2007, I feared that I was subjecting them to a cross-cultural experiment that would scar them forever.”

It’s a really good piece. And it immediately made me wonder if I would entertain doing anything similar with The Youngster. If the stars aligned and we ended up jetting off to Morocco, Milan or Bordeaux to live for seven years, would we go the way of the extreme experiment? I can’t say I’m nodding … at least not right away. There’s so much to factor into the decision, not to mention all of the recent studies about bilingualism and “how babies sort out language.”

What about you? If you — and your younger children — had to move to a different country for a good set of years, would you opt for full immersion? Leave your comment below (or as my 2.5-year-old son says after reading through one of his books, “Should we talk about it?”)

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    Kristin says:

    English was not my first language, and I went to Kindergarten only knowing the English that my next-door neighbor had taught me (which explains why I had a Michigan accent and not a Boston accent for the first few years…) I remember being terrified, but I learned.

    In my kids’ preschool, a pre-k student came from Korea knowing NO English. She’d never seen a blonde person, and now most of her teachers were blonde or African-American. After two weeks of sobbing, she learned to trust the teachers and now she speaks better English than her older sister and her mother (both of whom have excellent English skills).

    So, would I do it? I think so. Would I be scared for them? Absolutely. Would they learn the language and culture better than once a week lessons could possibly hope to teach them?

    Respecting the culture (not necessarily losing oneself in it) in which you live is important to me. I believe that for US citizens going to other countries and for people from other countries living here. It’s a great question. Especially for people who do not believe in bi-lingual education. (Which, by the way, I do believe in – especially for older than elementary age students.) Would *they* send their child to a school that didn’t have any hand-holding and didn’t have the resources to treat their child with extra attention?

    • 1.1
      Kristin says:

      Sorry about the mega-comment. I didn’t realize that paragraphs don’t come out in the comments!