Preparing to move overseas is an involved process for anyone. But when you have kids, there’s even more to think about. Based on our work with scores of families during their global relocations, we have some tips to share for expat parents and kids.
What Kids Gain from Living Overseas
Your kids might be one of the reasons inspiring your international move. After all, they’re going to work in a world that’s even more globally connected than ours is now, and living abroad is great preparation for that. According to the Expat Explorer survey by HSBC, parents who have moved their families overseas say their kids experience benefits like these:
· Gaining fluency in more than one language; improving their communication ability overall.
· Becoming more adaptable to change.
· Learning about different cultures.
· Forming friendships that span the globe.
· Becoming more open-minded, tolerant and flexible.
· Showing more initiative.
The Challenges of Moving Overseas with Children
But while moving internationally with kids can be a great adventure, it also brings its own set of challenges. Altair Global studied the factors that impact employees’ productivity during international moves. One of the most significant ones was getting kids enrolled in school in their new country. More than one-third of respondents to Atlair Global’s survey said this was a high-impact factor on their productivity during their move, which means that it caused three or more days (combined) of lost productivity. Additionally, just under a third said deciding if the move was right for their family was a high-impact event.
It’s also easy to see the role of kids in other high-impact events, such as finding a new home (cited by 66% of survey respondents) and settling into their new community (cited by 32%).
Kids Need Language Classes, Too?
So how can you maximize the benefits of an international move for your kids while minimizing the challenges?
You may already be thinking about language training for yourself and your spouse ahead of your move — at least we hope you are! But most parents are focused on how the kids will adjust to this new life, culture, and of course, language!
Becoming fluent in the language of your new country will help all of you feel at home faster and to make new friends. That’s especially important for kids who are feeling sad about being away from their old friends back home.
In our experience, parents are overly worried about their childrens’ language barriers. Take this story as an example: we had a Korean couple hire us to work with their 4-year-old in reading and overall fluency. They were worried that he didn’t speak English like a native speaker and this would cause him to struggle in the upcoming kindergarten year. The child had already attended preschool in the US for 2 years. What they didn’t realize was that their son was 100% fluent, just like any other American kid. He had been in ‘English lessons’ for the past 2 years at preschool. Basically, he was getting 20+ hours a week of English classes over the past 2 years. That’s over 2000 hours of speaking English, which is more than enough to be fluent. They were also worried that he would have an accent when speaking English, like they do. I assured them, after meeting with the child, that he was a native speaker in English, just like all his peers. He was simply fluent in Korean as well. How awesome!
But if you’re moving your child at an older age, that is a different story, although most studies show that no accent can be detected if the child moves before the age of 16 and (and this is very crucial), they assimilated into the community by making friends that speak English, and did activities with native English speakers on weekends. Those children who stayed in their first language in the evenings and on the weekends, typically still had an accent, because they were not practicing English enough, soon enough, to retain the native accent. We are not saying that a native accent is needed at all, but this is one of the most-asked questions when parents call us for advice about their kids getting fluent in English.
This is what we highly suggest when moving here with any child: sign them up for as many activities as possible, especially if you move at the beginning of the summer and have 2-3 months before school starts. This will give them a head start! If your child likes sports, sign him or her up for as many summer teams as possible. If your child simply wants to play, go to the playground for a couple of hours a day and make friends with the other parents there. After you’ve made some friends, set up playdates so your child can get extra talk time each day. Focus on getting 500 hours of playtime in before school starts (and when we say playtime, what we’re referring to is talk time and exposure to the language being spoken). One mother called us mid-July, worried that her 9-year-old son would not be ready for 4th grade by September. She had done the right thing by signing him up for a lot of sports right away, and when we asked her about how he was following the rules of the game, she repeated that he does exactly what the coaches say. Sounds like he’s already catching on quite well, I told her. Games are a great way to get exposure, make friends, and have a lot of fun, since there are a lot of hand motions and gestures when playing sports, which help the kids catch on quickly.
DO NOT, and I repeat, DO NOT stop speaking to your child in your native tongue. Most parents think that this will help the child. I assure you, it will not. They will be fluent within 1 year of starting school, and all you’re doing is taking away their 2nd language. I urge you to keep your household a ‘native language only’ zone. This means that when your children cross the threshold of your home, you only speak in the parents native tongue. So many parents tell us that they speak English in the home to help their children adjust, but what’s really happening (and we see it every day), is that you’re taking away your childrens’ second language, which is a huge asset for their future. Also, push hard not to put your child in the ESL class at school. Or, if the school insists, sign them up for many activities after school and on weekends to make sure they are around native speakers that can give them fast progress with fluency.
It often takes children twice as long to assimilate if they are with tons of other children that do not know what’s going on. Yes, it’s hard to be in a class where they don’t understand the new language, but they will learn very fast. Talk to them each day, support them, get a tutor to help with homework, and love on them constantly, communicating how proud you are of them for being so brave to start this new journey as a family.
Another idea to give your child further exposure to English is to set up neighborhood pool parties or get togethers. Make fun invitations together, and walk around the neighborhood delivering the invites. This will literally open the door to more invitations from other neighbors when they have a kids party in the future.
Further ideas are swimming lessons at the local YMCA, daycare at the gym while you destress, reading time at the local library, meetup groups with other parents in the area,
If your relocation package offers language and cultural training for you and your family, take advantage of it. Unfortunately, though, such training is often left out of relocation benefits packages. More than half (53%) of respondents to Altair Global’s survey said language training was not provided for their accompanying family members. And 46% said cultural training was not provided. If you can’t negotiate with your company to provide language and culture classes, consider investing in them on your own.
Additional Resources for Moving Internationally with Kids
· FIDI’s guide to moving abroad with kids.
· Tips for moving overseas with children from International Sea & Air Shipping.
· HSBC’s advice for helping children settle into life abroad.
· If you have a child with a mental health condition, check out our blog post “Let’s Get Real About Expats & Mental Health” before your move.
· Expat Child (especially their advice about helping kids acquire a new language).
If you have more questions or concerns about how to help your kids through an international relocation, contact us for a free consultation: email@example.com or (800) 401-3159.