#27. Spend some time in a place where English (or whatever your native language might be) is not in common use

IDEA #27. Spend some time in a place where English (or whatever your native language might be) is not in common use.

This may be a suggestion for older (probably high school-age) children, but family vacations and even group service trips or tours could involve younger children.

Although this suggestion may sound as though it involves exotic and expensive international travel, it might also be possible to accomplish this through low- or no-cost domestic service or service-learning programs into the Southwest, into immigrant communities, or even onto Native American reservations. And Canada has several regions in which English is not residents’ usual first language.

A fact of North American life is that in many areas—some large, some small—English is spoken only as a second language. Whole communities of Spanish speakers abound in New Mexico, Arizona, California, and Texas, while in a few Native American Indian communities indigenous languages are making a strong stand or even in resurgence. Particularly in urban areas, growing populations of recently arrived immigrants maintain their own languages as a barrier against cultural loss. Even if it may be difficult to find residential experiences in the non-English-speaking U.S.A., there may be abundant local opportunities to spend significant amounts of time among communities that function with little or no use of English. Some volunteer experiences in such communities involve teaching English, but others focus on even more elemental needs; many such programs are faith-based. Family experiences in culturally novel regions of one’s home country can be of great value.

If finances allow and interests inspire ways to seek non-English-speaking experiences outside the country, a number of programs—some focusing on language instruction, others on service, and some on cultural exchange—exist. In addition, family travel is a great and supportive introduction to unfamiliar cultures, and it may be that the younger family members adapt to linguistic and cultural challenges more readily than adults, providing a shot of confidence in addition to the learning. Let language not be seen as a barrier but rather as an opportunity; some basics can be acquired via on-line or media-based programs, but one of the exciting aspects of travel is to learn to communicate across language barriers. (And do not forget that virtually the entire province of Quebec in easily accessible eastern Canada is aggressively involved in maintaining its heritage as a French-speaking region.)

Formal cross-cultural experiential programs that serve high-school students are growing in number, including even a few that involve the student living away for a full school term or year. Of course, any program should be thoroughly investigated, and no student should ever be enrolled in any program about which any unanswered questions exist. Reputable programs like the American Field Service, School Year Abroad, and the Experiment in International Living have been engaged in this work for decades, but about less well-known operators the family will need to do research, perhaps with the help of a school counselor or language teacher. The most established programs, incidentally, offer some financial aid.

The point of cross-cultural experience is to be intellectually challenged and inspired and not merely to have one’s ticket punched as part of a résumé-building experience. If the prospect of such an experience is truly exciting to the student, then find it and do it, and the results will be far more profound than a line-item on a college application.

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