Schooling in a foreign language; Immersive learning for expats

Schooling in a foreign language | Expat Life | OurGlobetrotters.Com

A pleaseure to introduce you today to  Guest Blogger Tony Fitzpatrick, who has taken a road slightly less travelled by many expats in having his kids schooled in a foreign language.

Get set as Tony takes us along on their intriguing journey – then we’d love to hear your thoughts on immersive learning at the end

Our Experience of Foreign Schooling

One of the most perplexing questions for many expats with children is where to send their kids to school.   Often the easiest option is just to find an International School within your budget and send them there.  

This may seem on the surface to be the best option for your kids, as they get to study in their native language (or at least one they understand).  Often these schools are backed up by some international qualification regime such as IB which is considered advantageous when it comes to tertiary study.  

There are however downsides such as the distance of these schools from your home – meaning a long commute every day and your kids not having many of their school friends living nearby. Then, of course, there’s the cost of enrollment.   Here is our experience of taking the path less travelled.

Private Schooling in Moscow

When we left New Zealand in September 2012 our daughter was in year 4 and our son had spent about 1 year at school, as we start school at the age of 5 there.   As this was our first experience as expats and something that we hadn’t really planned for, in a city where no one spoke any English (Moscow, Russian Federation) we found ourselves with very few options.

We were going to have to find an International School of some sort, but most of them were well beyond our budget.  Luckily my wife’s boss had put us onto The International School of Tomorrow which was both affordable and offered education in English.  

Unlike the other large corporate style International Schools which tended to employ foreign English speaking teachers this school had English speaking Russian teachers which did provide some challenging situations for both kids at times; their kiwi accent resulted in them being told their answer was wrong despite the fact it was correct but didn’t sound American enough to be recognised!  

The school was located approximately 90 minutes drive away from our apartment so meant for some early starts waiting for the school provided transport which could be a car one day and a van or bus the next.  This period was quite challenging for the kids.  

We were settling into a completely new lifestyle of living in an apartment after having lived on a small farm as well as adjusting to a new school and not having so many family and friends around.  On top of this, we were experiencing the worst winter in Moscow for 100 years.  

Jimmy (5) found settling in the easiest as he was able to learn the language pretty quickly (while they were taught in English, they also studied Russian) while Molly (10) took a little longer, mainly due to being a little more introverted than her younger brother.  

The first 4-5 months here were quite hard going with Molly often missing school due to being sick, usually complaining of stomach pains.  After a few days away at a school camp in the Russian countryside where she bonded with one of her classmates, her whole demeanour changed and she started enjoying school and missing less days through sickness.  Unfortunately, due to circumstances beyond our control, our time in Russia ended about a month after she had found her place here.

Turning Japanese

After Russia we moved on to Tokyo, Japan where we decided to enrol the kids in a public school so that they could assimilate with the locals and could really experience the Japanese culture.  

In a large part this was a financial decision as the cost of private schooling here was well beyond our reach but there was also the philosophical decision to truly experience life in Japan by immersion rather than viewing it as an outsider.

School safety day in Tokyo
Taking part in school safety day in Tokyo

While we knew it was going to be a challenge, we probably weren’t expecting just how difficult it would be.   The kids were put in their respective classes (for Jimmy it was his third year as a first grader due to the school starting age in Japan being 7).  

They were given a few specialist Japanese language lessons a week and left to learn the language while at the same time trying to learn the standard school subjects.  

Luckily, Jimmy had a number of kids in a similar position to him in his class, although they generally at least had one Japanese parent.  Molly, on the other hand, was the only English speaker in her class. Within a month we were in regular meetings with the one teacher who spoke English telling us that our kids were struggling and not learning the language quick enough (compared to the Chinese girl in the same class who was able to pick up the language a lot quicker…).

We persisted though, telling the teachers that we were confident the kids were actually making good progress but were just not confident enough yet to be using it in class (and crossing our fingers hoping like hell that was the case…).  

Fortunately, in the end, we were proved right and after 6 months the kids had finally cracked the language barrier.  They were now able to understand the lessons and could communicate with their peers.  

Again like Russia, this progress wasn’t without its challenges.  Molly would still miss many days due to stomach pains and the like. Luckily our local doctor was a wise man who had also grown up in a foreign environment and after assessing Molly told her that she was stressed about not having many friends.

He told her that the only way to fix it was for her to start making the first move and extending the hand of friendship rather than waiting to be befriended by her classmates; they were equally as afraid of making the first step with her as she was with them.

These turned out to be extremely wise words indeed as after that and with her newfound confidence with the language she quickly made friends and was soon arranging get-togethers, movies and shopping trips with her Japanese friends.

I am glad we made the decision we did and persisted with it as it gave the kids such a rich experience of the Japanese culture which I am sure they wouldn’t have got by attending an International School.  Not only did they come to master the language but they got to experience the whole gamut of Japanese school life, including such things as Undokai (the annual school sports day) and elementary school graduation both of which were extravaganza events the likes of which we never really see in New Zealand.

One of the most amazing memories I have of that experience is walking down the road behind Jimmy and one of his Japanese mates and listening to them having a fluent conversation in their own languages without even as much as a hesitation to translate what the other was saying, just replying as though they were speaking the same language.

Fancy Some Finnish

After 2 years in Japan, Jimmy and I relocated to Helsinki, Finland, where it was initially planned to enrol him in the local English language public school.  However, due to the fact that he had never actually studied in English to any great extent, he failed to pass the entry test. This left us with no option but to place him in a Finnish school.  

The Finnish system is a bit more structured with regards to foreign students than Japan.  Rather than being allowed to join a class and learn by immersion he needed to attend a preparatory class for the first year.

This class was solely dedicated to mastering the language before you were able to be integrated into a regular school classroom.  This saw him in a classroom with about 5-6 kids (across all ages) at any time and 2-3 teachers so I couldn’t complain about the quality of teaching he was receiving.  

Again I faced the same issues as in Japan and soon enough I was being called into regular meetings with his teacher to discuss the same things; that his language skills weren’t progressing at a fast enough pace among others.

However, I asked for their persistence and stressed that I was sure that once he was confident enough in the language that he would start using it.  Again at around 6 months he found the confidence to start using the language and was away.  


Now, 1 year later he is enrolled in a regular public school closer to our home and thoroughly enjoying it.  Interestingly enough he is now learning French in Finnish as part of his 4th Grade curriculum.

If you are looking to relocate to a foreign country and are not sure which is the best option for your child, believe me when I say that all of the kids I saw in the similar situation were actually thriving both educationally and as people.  

After all the true purpose of education is not to fill our kids’ heads with useless facts that only serve the purpose of measuring them against their peers. Education is about equipping them with the skills to survive in a rapidly changing world, to be teaching them about compassion and understanding and to increase their world view.

By becoming immersed in another culture and having to first learn how to communicate in order to be able to learn the regular school work really does equip a child for the future with critical problem-solving skills that will become invaluable.  

Westerners tend to have the view that all foreigners who immigrate to our countries should assimilate and speak our language or we are quickly questioning their validity in our countries.  Yet when we travel to other countries we are very quick to find International institutions that enable us to speak our language so we don’t have to assimilate into the other culture and in the process we miss out on so much.

Even though my son has had very little formal education in his native language (maybe 10 months over 5 years of schooling), he has managed to maintain a good level of English literacy, even reading me books which I thought he might struggle with.  

He may try and spell English words using the same logic as Japanese or Finnish (which both make complete sense mind you…) but is now getting weekly mother tongue classes as part of the Finnish school system, so hopefully, soon he will be able to master the completely confusing rules of English.

Molly on graduation day with her teacher

Free Education

Did I also mention that in both Japan and Finland, public schooling is completely free? Not just “free” in name like we have in New Zealand, where they then hound you for endless donations and contributions, but as in it doesn’t cost anything to send your kids to school.  

In Japan, we had to pay a little for some necessities like art kits, musical instruments and the odd class outing as well as paying for daily cooked lunches, but the basic costs of schooling and general resources were provided free of charge.  

In Finland it gets even better, not only is the schooling and stationery provided at no cost, but the kids also get a daily cooked lunch, most excursions are free and because Jimmy’s preparatory class was at a school across the city from where we lived they even provided a bus pass so he could make the bus and tram trip to and from school free every day.

If you are still unsure of whether you should send your child to a foreign public school and would like to ask more questions please don’t hesitate to contact me through my blog at Around Rock 3 , I will be happy to help

– Tony Fitzpatrick

Thanks ever so much to Tony for sharing his family experience – I am not sure it is something I could ever do with the Globetrotters but I highly commend those that try immersive learning.

Schooling our children in Arabic in the UAE was never an option as public schools are only available to Emirati’s. We talked about our experience getting the kids enrolled in British International Schooling with AngloInfo.  

If you’d like to know more about expat schooling, also check out the real families series on Kid World Citizen.

Have you schooled your children in a foreign language? Did your children enjoy the experience? We’d love to hear more in the comments below of you can email Keri at we may also be able to feature your story. 


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2 thoughts on “Schooling in a foreign language; Immersive learning for expats

  1. Lyn says:

    Very interesting… and I’m amazed how his kids learn all these languages in 6 months! I’ve been living in Dubai for more than a decade and I only know no more than 10 words 🙂

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