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TL;DR

Our son is starting daycare in a country where the language is (almost) completely alien to him. Can we do anything to help him settling in this new environment? (full story below)

Original story

Our son, who is 26 months old, was born in the foreign country that we're living in at the moment (UK - but the question should be universal), but so far he had little exposure to its language. At home our native language (Hungarian) is spoken all the times as this is the most convenient (both parents are from there), and he only occasionally hears English when we meet friends or the neighbours, or on the playground. He is starting in a day nursery very soon where only English is spoken and we're concerned that he might have a hard time settling in.

The existing questions I found here are mostly focusing on the language development in these situations, however we're not concerned too much about that directly, as many suggests that children at this age can adapt to new languages very easily. Our concerns are more about the initial shock of the new situation and the emotional consequences of settling in to daycare.

Not only he will be left without his parents, which is quite a new concept to him (he never had been left to the care of someone else for more than half an hour and even those were rare occasions), but also in an environment where no one understands him. To make it more difficult, this happens in the age when he had just recently started to speak (he can form some two-three word sentences now, but this is only a very recent achievement, so far he seemed a bit on the late side of the language development) and when he seemingly enjoys that he is able to communicate his desires and can reflect to the world he sees. On the positive side - due to our working hours - for the first half-year he only need to be in day care for two days a week.

The nursery suggested we come to the first sessions with a mini-dictionary of his most commonly used words, so the teachers in his group can memorise them. However I'm not convinced that this is a good idea. Due to the vastly different pronunciation between the two languages there is a chance that they won't be able to use it anyway, and even if they do, I'm concerned this would just confuse him even more, as some of his words will be understood but most won't be. I feel that it would be less confusing if we kept clear boundaries between the languages and the places where they are spoken.

So the question is, if this dictionary sounds like a good idea and is there anything more we can do to help him settling in under these circumstances?

Update

Thanks for the great answers so far. A month has passed since his first sessions and unfortunately he couldn't settle in yet. He is usually crying from the morning till he is picked up, refusing to eat or drink or do anything in the nursery.

Of course this struggle cannot be solely attributed to the language barrier, I'd think at best it's only some addition to the emotional stress caused by the separation from the parents. However the caregivers told us that our son often seems to be completely lost, not understanding what's going on over his head. Other children try to play with him in his better moments but sooner or later they start to talk to him and when he doesn't answer they leave him alone. We noticed he became unusually shy amongst other children when we're out on the playground too.

So beyond the well-discussed general settling-in advices I'd be still interested in ideas on how to address the language barrier issue.

We changed a few things in a hope these will help:

  • started teaching him the language at home by playing some role-plays in English
  • printed a set of pictures of the toys they are playing in the nursery and ask him what they are in English
  • trying to spend more time in play groups which are similar to the daycare environment but with parent's supervision
  • Are you planning on staying in this country for a long time? While learning multiple language is always a good thing, and plenty of questions here show that toddlers can learn 2 languages just fine, if you don't plan on staying there long, or on going back to your home country, you might want to just force yourself to use only one language. – 0xFF Aug 31 '16 at 15:53
  • We most probably will stay for long (and have been living here for a quite a while), but the question is really not about how a toddler can learn a different language, but more about settling in childcare and how to help him overcome this initial obstacle in an already emotionally challenging situation. – pangabiMC Aug 31 '16 at 16:15
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    As someone who was put in an English language day care at about that age when, apparently, I only knew Chinese, I don't think it will be an issue. I'd consider the dictionary superfluous but probably not harmful; the kid will likely start speaking English words within a few weeks at which point the day care personnel will give up the Hungarian in relief. – Warren Dew Sep 8 '16 at 15:41
  • What is the ratio of care givers to children? – hkBst Sep 27 '16 at 11:44
  • @hkBst About 4:1 which I think is pretty good. – pangabiMC Sep 27 '16 at 13:15
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I wouldn't worry too much:

  • At 2 years old, children are basically professional, full time language learners. Your son will pick up any language as easily as he picked up Hungarian.
  • At that age, many children can barely speak their native language, so social expectations on him to speak and understand the language are still very low.

In Switzerland, it's not uncommon to see first generation immigrants bring their children along for complex interactions in the local language, because children are just so much quicker to learn a new language.

  • Thanks for the answer, unfortunately he does have an issue with the language. Even though children of his age can barely speak they understand a lot, so other children follow orders and play with each others without problem. Our son however seems to be completely lost in this new environment - as told by the caregivers. I'm sure this will eventually change, but his first experiences from daycare is quite bad. – pangabiMC Sep 25 '16 at 20:50
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You seem to be worried about two things. That your child might not understand the care-givers at day-care and that the care-givers might not understand your child.

The care-givers being adults will manage to find ways to make your child understand, and besides that there will be other children whose example your child will be able to copy.

The child will likely try to use its knowledge of Hungarian to express itself to the care-givers and they are not likely to understand. Your child will not like not being able to make itself understood. To ameliorate this it is a very good idea to teach the care-givers the most important words your child might use, say to express that it is thirsty, hungry, needs to use the potty, or needs a clean diaper. Perhaps there are other things that are important for your child, but only a handful of things are really important. That is few enough things that the care-givers can learn them quickly if you teach them. You should speak those words the way your child says them and optionally have the care-givers write them down phonetically.

In my experience the language barrier is insignificant compared to the child being without its parents for the first time, so your situation is not really much different from that of other parents, except that your child gets to learn a second language for free.

  • Thanks, eventually this is what we tried first, the caregivers are fantastic and went the extra mile to learn these things. However it doesn't seem to be enough, see my update. I'm pretty sure that you're right when saying that the language barrier is not the biggest hurdle in this situation, the web is full of advices for helping the little ones to settle in, but I couldn't find anything which addresses this issue – pangabiMC Sep 25 '16 at 20:57

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