Updated: Feb 24
Working with families relocating internationally, we Bennett consultants regularly see situations when relocating children are enrolled in schools where the language of instruction is foreign to them. It’s remarkably common all over the world, and in the U.S., for example, every district is required by law to provide English language support; according the Pew Research Center, in the fall of 2015, there were over 5 million ELLs (English Language Learners) in U.S. public schools.
Over the years, I’ve often wondered and imagined what it would be like to have to attend school in a foreign language and how it must really feel for kids in that situation. As a kid, I was a good student and a “high-achiever,” but it was a lot of work, and I had the luxury of learning in my own language. Even so, those good grades were often hard won and the result of much study and dedication. What if I’d had to accomplish the same tasks in a different language? Could I have done it? How much more time would my nightly homework have required of me? Would I ever have been admitted to the college I was lucky enough to attend? And the social scene in high school was sometimes uncomfortable and difficult to navigate; what if I’d been doing it in a foreign language?
When I was in college, I was lucky enough to study in Paris for a year, and it was an exhilarating and challenging experience; not only did I have to adapt to the completely different teaching style and expectations of French professors, I also had to listen really hard in class and then complete my nightly reading and frequent papers in French. It was demanding, and the first time I had to write a paper in French for my political science class, I was terrified.
Likewise, there were times when it was lonesome on the social front. I lived in a French dorm and every night when I would self-consciously enter the cafeteria for dinner, I hoped that Catherine would be there so that I could sit with her. She was a gentle and kind girl who made me feel comfortable and chatted to me amiably without asking too much in response. Otherwise, I was intimidated by the gorgeous Parisian girls who bantered so easily and self-confidently in French while I tried to look engaged and as though I understood all their jokes and witticisms. It was tiring, and I was always aware that, as nice as they might be to me, I wasn’t one of them.
Even so, I had chosen this experience, consciously opting for the difficulty and the adventure it offered, and I could feel a certain strength growing in me every day—in my French, in my ability to do well in my classes, in my familiarity with my dorm and with Paris. I chose the experience, I owned it, and I was rising to the challenges it presented.
It’s different for the children of many of the assignees we support—they are younger and are swept along in the happenings of assignments and relocation, and they have less say about landing in schools where they don’t speak the language. For some kids, this will turn out to the be opportunity of a lifetime—a moment that opens the world for them and speaks of endless future possibilities; for other kids, it will be a defining moment in another way—a time when they turn inward because they don’t have the words to do otherwise; a moment when they lose, rather than gain, self-confidence and when they suffer significant isolation. I’ve often wondered, after working with a family moving into the U.S., for example, whose son or daughter will enter 10th grade without a word of English, how that youngster will manage, how she will make friends, develop a social life, and fare on tests and exams. And how she will look back on this moment and describe it years later—as a wonderful adventure or too-hard an “ask” by her parents and the corporation they worked for.
A Bennett consultant just sent me a very moving essay entitled Geneva 1959, written by the Turkish author Orhan Pamuk and published in The New Yorker this summer. In it, he describes his brief tenure as a child in a Swiss elementary school after his family moved to Geneva from Istanbul when his father took a post with IBM. Specifically, he describes the horror that gripped him as he realized that he couldn’t communicate with his peers or teachers, and how the situation affected him.
His first day of school, he watches the teacher and the other children. “Sometimes she wrote a word on the blackboard,” he recalls, “but I couldn’t work out how that word might sound.” Of his second day of school, he writes, “I felt the same loneliness again. I couldn’t seem to get hold of the language that everyone else was using so casually, and this made me feel foolish and inadequate. It was like being trapped in a maelstrom. I could find no center to hold on to, no beginning to start from…Sometimes I thought that I was someone else, someplace else.”
Pamuk’s portrait of himself as that little boy whose desperate attempts to decipher a foreign language eventually give way to withdrawal and a refusal to attend school is a revealing and worthwhile read.
It made me think of all those kids I’ve supported and found schools for over the years, and the seeming blitheness with which it’s been expected that they will quickly pick up and fully live in a new language. I’ve always thought how brave they must be, even if not by choice, and I’ve always hoped that their schools would reassure them and that they would find in their classes a cohort of kids just like them, in the same situation. I hope it’s been easier for them than it was for Orhan Pamuk.
With best wishes & warm regards,