As a high school Spanish teacher, I often used to get comments from friends: “I took 3 years of Spanish in high school and don’t remember a thing!” Obviously some methods are much more efficient that others (even within a classroom!).
I would argue that the best way to learn a new language is to immersing yourself completely. This works exceptionally well with kids, who have less inhibitions, more brain plasticity, and are still learning their first language. Spending time with kids in an area where the language is spoken has been hugely successful for our family, and we’ve been able to spend several fun summers in Mexico and Peru in complete language immersion settings. What a boost to my kids’ language learning and cultural understanding!
Since we first had kids, I knew we’d want to immerse our kids in Spanish. Mexico was our first language immersion experience. We spent several summers staying with my in-laws in Mexico City, with the kids going to a summer camp. The summer camp was phenomenal: from swimming to crafts to field trips, the kids interacted with the camp counselors in Spanish, learned silly songs, and made new friends. We have incredible memories of visiting the market with their grandma, climbing the Teotihuacán pyramids at age 4, and playing with cousins in the garden. After a couple of summers in this “safe zone” we decided to be more adventurous.
We decided on Merida, Mexico, a colonial city in the Yucatan Peninsula that is bursting with Mayan culture, decadent cuisine, hot summers, and friendly inhabitants. We found an inexpensive rental house on VRBO.com (but also checked out AirBnB.com, HomeAway.com). I am able to work remotely, but my husband was only able to come the first and last week. Luckily, we were walking distance to markets and the historic downtown, and the buses and taxis are easy to use for excursions. Renting a house is decidedly cheaper ($20-$50/night for the whole house) than staying in a hotel, and you can negotiate with the owner for a discount with longer stays! Especially with a large family (at the time we had 4 kids, plus each set of grandparents came to visit), a house with a kitchen and space to play is the way to go.
We contacted two local language schools and asked if they could recommend a private tutor. We explained that our kids understand spoken Spanish, but we wanted to improve their reading and writing; ideally the teacher would play games and have fun with them. Not knowing what to expect, we were ecstatic that we found Lulu!!! She would teach the kids in the mornings for a couple of hours (with tons of games, songs, reading, etc) and then often in the afternoons we would go on field trips. She knew the best juice bars and was friends with people in the market, introducing our kids to so many people and experiences. We had a BLAST! Private tutors for small groups at the time ran from $5-$10 per hour. I have heard of some tutors (especially university students) exchanging lessons for free (so you teach them English, they teach you Spanish).
After our summer in Merida, we were feeling even more adventurous; we began planning for a language immersion summer in Arequipa, Peru. This colonial city in the Andes is a wonderful base for families to explore the region, or to stay put and just enjoy the local culture.
Again, we rented a house we found on-line, and found a tutor. Leonilda was AMAZING: she had just graduated with a degree in Anthropology, and taught our kids both Spanish, and gave lessons on her native Quechua culture (tutoring runs between $2-$8/ hour). Because my kids were older (this time 2, 7, 7, 11, 11), we were able to move around more. My boys joined a soccer team, the kids took hip-hop, we all took a chocolate class, and enjoyed many cultural excursions to learn about weaving, folkloric dancing, and the Incas. Everything we did was in Spanish! This was such pure language immersion, my kids began thinking and dreaming in Spanish, automatically speaking Spanish in the house with me and on the phone with my husband.
The best part about our summer in Peru was watching the kids make friends, form relationships, and really have fun in Spanish. I remember waking up one morning when we had traveled to the Sacred Valley, and were staying at a tiny B&B. I heard quiet voices whispering, and when I peeked out, my son was teaching the owner’s daughter to play chess (in Spanish!). Here’s my son: adopted from China at age 3.5, he had to learn English and then Spanish… and here he is in Peru teaching a little girl a new game!? He sounded so natural: giving tú commands, mixing his instructions with jokes, and giggling with his new friend. These unforgettable moments have convinced me that language immersion is one of the best tools for language learning.