Imagine travelling to a foreign country where you cannot speak the language – but your child can. Brooke Hayne and her husband, Mark, are based in Singapore with their daughter Emilia (6) who attends a Mandarin immersion school program. As a result, Emilia can speak Chinese while Brooke and Mark can only comprehend a few words. To encourage Emilia’s language development, the family travelled to Taiwan in December to let Emilia practice what she has been learning in school. Brooke tells suitcases&strollers her family’s experience learning a foreign language through travel.

Why did you choose Taiwan for your family holiday destination?

So Emilia could immerse herself in the language. And when you look outside Taipei there is so much beautiful nature. The promise of Japanese food was the third reason but that didn’t really come true.

[For more travel tips on how to do Taipei with kids, see the suitcases&strollers story Taipei Insider.]

Did Emilia get a chance to actually practice much of her Mandarin?

If it was one-on-one, such as in a cooking class or with kids in playground, she was very comfortable in communicating.

How much could a 6-year-old really communicate with just school-taught Chinese?

The further we got away from Taipei, we really relied on her to order lunch, buy train tickets and give taxi drivers instructions. When we were under pressure, a couple of times it was Emilia who really saved us. [The first time w]e were lost in a taxi trying to get back to Yangmingshan National Park from the night market in Taipei and she took charge and got us home. The second time I realised I had left the iPad in the apartment when we were already in the taxi. I got out and ran back to get it and the taxi driver wanted to drive away. Emilia shouted something and stopped the taxi driver. When she was in her comfort zone she did really well and was a big help.

For example, we would get a better price on the taxis when Emilia did the communicating. She would ask us the price list in the guidebooks, then would go in and started negotiating rather than asking how much the fare was!

What was the response from the Taiwanese locals when they saw a little blonde girl speaking Mandarin?

People switched and spoke very proper Chinese to her rather than Taiwanese. The fact that she was making an effort [to speak their language meant that] the response [from the locals] was phenomenal. At one of the train stations I had tried to buy ticket, but couldn’t communicate what I wanted so I called in reinforcements. I sat Emilia up on the bench and when she ordered the tickets the conductor looked at her and laughed with amazement. He turned and called everyone over to listen to her.

People were incredibly willing to interact with Emilia. A security guard in Yangmingshan offered to take us out for dinner. A student walked us 10 blocks in the opposite direction to where he was going to take us to a Japanese restaurant. [The friendliness of the Taiwanese people is] beyond what I’ve experienced anywhere else.

You deliberately chose to stay in hostels and backpack rather than travel in hotels with suitcases. How did this enhance Emilia’s language immersion?

It increased our chances of interacting with the locals. We used public transport and on the buses there were often other kids. Emilia would take that opportunity to talk and play. Being independent and not fixed to a tour group meant we could have locals recommend places to us. Instead of a manufactured or fabricated experience we were able to peel away everything and have a very raw experience.

[For more travel tips on backpacking with kids, see the suitcases&strollers story here.

Wasn’t it overwhelming for Emilia in a foreign country trying to speak only a foreign language?

By about 7 days in Emilia had had enough and went on strike. She didn’t want to speak any more Chinese. People were always touching her hair and would focus on her as the next tourist attraction so she just shut down.

What was unique about travelling through a foreign country where only your child speaks the language (not you)?

Being able to interact in the local language brings an added dimension. I haven’t had that much local contact before. My Spanish is very basic so in Majorca and South America I was able to get by but I couldn’t really participate in the conversations. Emilia was able to really interact and make friends on a much deeper level.

Were there any negatives to travelling in a country where you child could speak a language that you couldn’t understand?

It makes you very vulnerable as the parent because when you get stuck, it’s no longer just a fun project. You are relying on a 6-year-old. For that reason Taiwan was a safe bet because it doesn’t have any safety concerns. I certainly wouldn’t take an Arab-speaking child to Middle East and expect him or her to take me around.

Also, you don’t know what people are saying to your child. I’m always watching body language, tone and behaviour to see if Emilia is comfortable or if I get that instinct to trust the person or not. I can’t understand the words but I still have protective instinct to look out for her. The more fluent Emilia gets, the less I can help protect her.

These are the same kinds of issues that we as parents have to apply to internet safety and stranger danger – we need to teach our kids what to do if you feel uncomfortable. That transcends language. I thought Emilia would be much older before she would be making these decisions on her own. The fact that she is speaking Chinese means she is making these decisions on her own much sooner.

To read the suitcases&strollers interview with Emilia about her perspective on learning a foreign language through travel, click here.

To read more real life stories of the travel experiences of suitcases&strollers families see the Voices section here