During our time in Switzerland, the children attended public school. An important goal for us was that they would learn the language, and the public school system supported this. The school the children were assigned to was 1.5 km from our home, and we generally walked or took the bus (sometimes the children went the whole way on their own toward the end).
My son was placed in a class for second language speakers. His class had an ever-changing group of about eight children, and two main teachers. The class curriculum was ungraded and tailored to the children, who were moved into mainstream classes as they learned german (if they were staying in Switzerland longer-term). These were all grade-school children, so in addition to main lesson, they had handwork, music, and swimming classes with other teachers, along with special times for gym, art, language and mathematics.
My daughter was placed into a Kindergarten class where a mixture of swiss german and german was spoken. Her main teacher, who had taught at a Steiner school for 22 years before switching to a public Kindergarten, was a warm hearted and loving woman who connected well with my daughter and supported her love of creative play as well as craft work. One day a week was spent in the woods (the entire morning) playing and cooking over a campfire. Other days were spent in the classroom and back yard. One afternoon a week, my daughter had German class along with other older students who were new to German.
School included a 1.5 hour lunch break, and ended at noon two days a week for my son. My daughter was done at noon three days a week and had the same lunch break. If parents worked during those hours, children could attend “Hort” — a sort of daycare with a kitchen (hot food is an expected part of a healthy lunch). We were skeptical about Hort at first, but my son in particular grew to love the free play and delicious food it provided, and both children often came home with crafts or stories from Hort.
Some things that stood out about the childrens’ experience in school, besides the overall quality of the education, were:
Dedicated teachers who educated in a way we loved (the principal, one of my son’s teachers, and my daughter’s teacher all had experience with Steiner education for example, one of my son’s teachers was also trained in art therapy)
Very high quality facilities (the school had its own swimming pool, for example, with a moveable floor!)
Quality was important throughout. At the end of year picnic, there was a small concert. The school had arranged for a world-class Block-Flöte player to perform in a fairy tale retelling. The music was incredible, and the children ate up every note (and every word).
School in switzerland is clearly organized on the principal that education isn’t just about getting as much information into children as possible as quickly as possible. There seemed to be 1-2 short weeks (or whole weeks) free of school every month we were there. Overall, the Swiss do not seem to worry about the children spending hours learning each day. Between half days (every week) and frequent vacations, it is also set up for families with a parent who works part time or not at all.
The children learned German incredibly fast (I was reading and retelling portions of Harry Potter to my son all in german within six weeks).
Upshot? I can highly recommend public school as an option for visiting families in Switzerland.
I’ve mentioned before that one of my sabbatical goals was to learn a new language (Hindi). I am not fluent, but I think I came a fair way with it, and I want to comment on the role of different technologies and approaches in our successes (and failures) as a family to learn the three languages that we tackled on this trip.
One of the most useful technologies we employed was the Rosetta Stone software. The kids loved Rosetta Stone, which we started using almost as soon as the sabbatical was approved to get them familiar with Hindi. They spent about 30 minutes at a time on it at the beginning. At our peak, this happened almost daily (after we left Pittsburgh but before we were settled in India. Eventually we hired a tutor (a wonderful friend now) to come for about an hour most days instead. The kids were far more resistant to being tutored than they were to using the software, but I feel we covered much more ground in those hours. We made up all sorts of games, retold fairy tales, played shop, and generally did our best to make it child friendly.
Hindi was a relatively hard language to learn (new alphabet, different sentence structures, and so on). Once we got past the vocabulary phase, progress was slowish. Still, by the end of the fall we could have whole conversations in Hindi as a family. The kids were not alone in learning the language: Anind and I were trying very hard to learn it as well and we tried to speak it at meals, with our Indian driver, and so on. So between the tutoring and the daily practice opportunities, they used Rosetta Stone less and less.
The Rosetta Stone was not a pure success. It required the right context to be used — enough motivation, and not too much other support. We almost never used the German Rosetta Stone I bought, and of course the kids are far more fluent (they are immersed, unlike with Hindi, and it is a much easier language for them to learn). Use of Rosetta Stone is rare at this point, and mostly me.
You get free tutoring through the online package with Rosetta Stone, along with access to online games. The games are a fun way to practice but slow. When possible, I sign up and have a session with an online tutor. It is based on the material I’m currently covering in the software. However, they only let the kids do it when there’s no other remote participants, which is sometimes hard to find at popular times in the early stages of learning a language.
As a computer scientist, I cannot help but be impressed by the software. It is dedicated to learning language through immersion, and the authors have done an excellent job of maintaining that throughout the software and the tutoring sessions. It uses speech recognition to check pronunciation, and provides multi-media support for learning. And it works, if you put the time in with it, you learn. To my mind, it’s a success as an educational tool and an interactive tool. It supposedly has a social side as well, though as a Hindi learner I was one of few and could not take advantage of it. I’d be curious to see what it’s like.
It has always seemed such a shame to me, that learning multiple languages is not a norm in the United States. During our travels we met 10 year olds who spoke 5 or 6 languages, all with fluent ease. They never needed to touch a piece of software or a tutor. The world has become so small, yet so many of us in the United States fail to give our children the gift of understanding and the mastery of complexity that comes with learning multiple languages. Most of my swiss cousins have raised children who are bi- or tri- lingual, and without the errors that plague even my immersed children. There is no substitute for that level of early exposure.