Relocating to a foreign country often brings the professional benefits of increased competitiveness, especially for those who learn the language of the country they are relocating to. However, many do not realize that if the family does not adjust well to the new language and culture, it can be an enormous risk to the assignment.
Relocating to a new country is an opportunity that only a few families get to experience. Although such a move can be complex and in some ways even frustrating, the professional and personal gains can be numerous. The relocation experience often leads to more personal flexibility as well as the professional benefits of increased competitiveness, especially for the moving professional who learns the language of the relocation country.
What about the accompanying family and children? Adults can more often see the advantage of moving to a new location as an expatriate. They get to learn about a new culture and a new language, as well as create new opportunities in their career. To many children, however, adjusting to a new environment can be challenging. In fact, children can be set to gain the most in this experience if they are encouraged and helped to seize the opportunity to learn a new language and culture.
Linguistically, younger children have the potential to develop near native proficiency with pronunciation and intonation in a new language. They also develop a cognitive advantage over children who do not learn a subsequent language as second language acquisition helps to develop critical thinking skills, creativity, and elasticity of mind. In the case of the expatriate children, one of the greatest advantages is that they have the ability to mimic closely the native pronunciation and intonation of a new language through their interaction with teachers and peers. In addition, literacy skills that have been developed in the native language transfer to the learning of the new language. In the long-term, these children will be better suited to work in a global workplace due to their first-hand understanding of the language and culture of another country.
Comprehensible input is needed to learn a language
So, how do children acquire a foreign language? Immersion into the foreign language offers the learners ample opportunities to practice and exposes them to real language and culture. But learning the language itself needs more than that. When we are born, acquiring a first or second language is inevitable. An infant is aware of the speech in their environment, and will make sense of any language being spoken at least 30 percent of the time. This is not the case for a child who has already fully acquired their first language by around age six.
In order to acquire a subsequent language, a child needs to be engaged in meaningful interactions with the new language through natural communication. So, contrary to the common belief that simply living in the foreign environment is enough to learn the language, no child or adult will learn merely by constant exposure alone to a foreign language. Learning a language is an active learning process that requires a conscious process of accumulating knowledge of the features of the language – for example, vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation. This process is optimized and accelerated in a formal learning environment, whether it be face to face learning, virtual learning, or both simultaneously.
Imagine being a foreigner in a French café. If you sit there all day, you will probably not pick up much French. Actual learning depends on how actively you are engaged with the language speakers and how much you can make meaning of what is being spoken around you. You will miss a lot of meaning unless you have access to the full context and support. The reason for this is that comprehensible input is needed to learn a language, i.e., what is heard has to make sense in order for one to learn. This is not to say that one couldn’t pick up on certain high frequency words and phrases like hello, good bye, thank you, etc. However, with this approach, one wouldn’t be able to have a meaningful conversation anytime soon, and these conversations are necessary to build relationships and adjust to the new culture.
A positive family experience is imperative to the success of a relocation. With an average 3-year international assignment cost averaging $1,000,000 and 33% of all expat assignments ending prematurely, many do not realize that if the family does not adjust well to the new language and culture, it can be an enormous risk to the assignment. This is why it’s so important to consider the children of an assignee and the benefits they would receive with language and culture training both before and after departure. Whether in a small group or one-to-one learning situation, children will be more confident and likely to communicate as a result of effective learning. This confidence will lead to more interaction with their peers in the new culture, which will potentially create a more positive experience in the new destination.
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