There are many ways to teach your child about different cultures and foreign countries. One of the most effective one is traveling and really getting into a new culture by actually living there. If your kid is begging you to go for an exchange or you are thinking yourself about this possibility, don’t reject it. I went for a High School exchange myself at the age of 17 and I am still feeding upon it.

Living in Japan for one year was definitively not a piece of cake but I would do it all over again, if I could. This year as an exchange student was probably one of the most formatives of my life and even after that year I have learnings from it. If you are asking yourself whether you should send your kid on an exchange, my following reflections on why YOU DEFINITIVELY SHOULD ENABLE YOUR CHILD TO DO AN EXCHANGE might help you in your decision.

1. Learning a new language

The most obvious reason for an exchange is of course to learn the language of the host country. Your child might already know some of the foreign language or just start learning it by setting foot on the new land. In either way it will be quite challenging to communicate at the beginning. But learning a language during an exchange is the fastest and most authentically way. As your kid is still young his/her brain can absorb the new language better and might even gain a native level. This opportunity might come never again in such a relatively easy way when your kid is an adult.

2. Experiencing a new reality

As a family you will have your ways to do things. You will have your customs, your believes, your hobbies, your internal rules and manners. For your kid this is all totally normal and probably out of question. Getting into a new family will show your child that there are other ways to do things, different believes and habits, other styles of life. Don’t be afraid that your kid might learn new things (you might not support). This is rather an opportunity for your child to understand that there is more than just the one reality.

3. Gaining siblings

As an only child it was an amazing experience for me to have host siblings. It’s just so different to live in a family of 6 than in a family of only 3. I didn’t know for example what kind of intense fights siblings could have amongst each other and although I never participated in those fights, it clearly widened my understanding of the world (on my job for instance I realise the difference between the way colleagues who grew up with siblings fight within a discussion and colleagues who didn’t). Of course, the same works the other way around. If your child has siblings and comes into a family without kids (or older kids that don’t live with the family anymore), your child might on the one hand learn to worship being a sibling and on the other hand can enjoy the experience of being a single child for a while.

4. Getting closer to knowing yourself

“Knowing yourself”, that’s a very challenging and ambitious goal in life. Probably one never ever knows oneself entirely (and I personally believe this is a good thing because otherwise we would stop learning and being curious). But being part of a totally new culture and an unknown surrounding does’t only teach your child new things but also forces him/her to listen more on his/her inner voice. Also, it makes him/her understand better his/her own culture and background. Being “stuck” your entire life in a familiar setting, it’s more difficult to realise what of yourself is really “you” and what is the influence of others.

5. Get more self-confident

Probably it comes without saying that by knowing yourself better you also get more self-confident. But it’s so much more. Your kid will have to defend him/herself in a new language, at a new place, at a new school, family, culture and so on. There will be times when your kid will suffer and will want to go home to his/her familiar surroundings. But passing through this, learning how to deal with homesickness, trusting in your self, trusting others and breaking through the inner barrier of “my culture versus your culture” will form your child a lot. For me, the year in Japan taught me that I CAN DO it and this confidence accompanies me in my entire life.

6. Getting to know a new country

Beside learning a new language, getting to know the host country is another obvious thing. Living every day in the host country and adapting to its daily customs gives your child the opportunity to look beyond his/her own nose and widens his/her understanding of the world. This can be regarding family traditions, culture, language, traffic, politics, geographically, the temperature and many, many more.

7. Learning to travel

Possibly it won’t be the first time that you child travels but it might be quite realistic that it will be the first time s/he travels alone. Although this might frighten you (and your child), this is just an amazing learning! Think of your own first journey alone. You planed it. You understood it. You went for it. Suddenly you are alone among strangers. Maybe you have a problem and need to ask someone. You manage your way through. You live an adventure. And then, finally, you arrive. Everything is fine. You did it. You, all alone! That’s an experience that is unique in life and that will foster your child so much.

8. Becoming more creative

Let’s be honest, living abroad is just DIFFERENT and often it’s not really easy. Nothing is like it’s used to be. Everything is different. Your kid needs to learn new ways and styles how to do things. Often, this is accompanied by the “disadvantage” of being a foreigner.

For example finding friends at school. Your child will be the “new one” and also “the strange one”. So s/he will need to be more creative to find new friends. Also, speaking the new language will be challenging at first. Your child will definitively need to learn how to speak with the hands and picturing things with a limited vocabulary. This all will help your child to become more creative which will help him/her during the rest of his/her life.

9. Being more tolerant

Last but not least, living in a foreign country will help your child to become more tolerant to different cultures but also to different people in general. The experience of being a foreigner yourself who has his difficulties to become integrated will enable your child to be more tolerant with others, in particular foreigners at your home country. This understanding is a very effective weapon against racism and xenophobia. It will help your kid to become a true citizen of the world!

I hope, the latter motivated you to enabling your child to do an exchange abroad. Of course, an exchange is not always possible to everyone as costs, health and other reasons play into this decision. Also, not every child wants to do an exchange (and this must be respected!). Nevertheless, there are lots of different ways of doing an exchange that vary from length, participation and costs. Do your research and you will find the best programme for your child (a related article about different exchange organisations is coming soon).

By the way, if you want to know about my High School year in Japan I recommend my travel book “Pitiless Japanese – A high school year between modernity, tradition, host family and manga“. Here I describe in a novel-like manner how High School in Japan works, how it is to live in a Japanese family (I lived in 3 families and each of them was very different) and just how life as a teenager is in Japan.

Related links you might be interested in:

Thraen, Mona: “Schonungslos Japanisch: Ein High School-Jahr zwischen Moderne, Tradition, Gastfamilie und Manga”, published in 2012 by traveldiary.de

AFS Interkulturelle Begegnungen e.V.

EF Education First

Student Exchange Australia New Zeeland

GIVE – Gesellschaft für internationale Verständigung mbH

GLS Sprachenzentrum Berlin