This article continues a series of guest posts at Bilingual Monkeys called “Bilingual Travelers.” What sort of impact does travel to a location where the minority language is spoken widely have on a child’s bilingual development and bicultural upbringing? In this series we join other families as they make trips to destinations around the world and report back on their experiences.
If you’d like to contribute an article to the “Bilingual Travelers” series—or the series Thank You Letter From a Bilingual Child—please contact me to express your interest in guest posting at Bilingual Monkeys.
Here in Oregon we have just a handful of French-speaking friends, so my husband and I planned a trip to France this past summer so our children could be immersed in the language and make some French friends. We initially planned to stay for six weeks because my husband gets a six-week stretch of summer vacation each year. However, while reading Be Bilingual by Annika Bourgogne, I got the idea that the children and I could stay a month or so longer so that they could attend a few weeks of school in France. My husband was on board with this idea, but it still took a leap of faith for us to purchase the plane tickets allowing me to stay in France five weeks longer with our three young children to care for while my husband returned to the U.S.
Stopover in Iceland
We left for France on the last day of June, but we stopped over in Iceland for a few days on the way. (When flying between North America and Europe, Iceland Air offers a free stopover in Reykjavik, so we decided to take advantage of this to visit an Icelandic exchange student whom we hosted a few years ago.) Our time in Iceland was truly fantastic, partially because we exchanged homes and cars with those belonging to an Icelandic family. In other words, we stayed in their home for free and they stayed in ours back in the U.S. (I organized this opportunity through homeexchange.com several months prior to our trip.) Home exchange is a fantastic way to make international family travel affordable!
First weeks in France
Continuing on to France, we stayed in a Paris apartment rented through Airbnb for two weeks (since I hadn’t been able to find a home exchange there). My six-year-old daughter began replying to me in French almost as soon as we landed in France, I think. Magnifique! She seemed to love France from the start and it was wonderful to hold her hand and walk the streets of Paris together.
Our days in Paris were a whirlwind of activity, or at least it seemed busy with all of the walking we did. Along with my daughter, my boys (a three year old and a six month old) were game for the adventure, but still, my three year old seemed as resistant to French as ever, continuing to reply to me in English as he had back in Oregon. Twice during those two weeks (at the end of a long day) my son protested that he wanted to go back to Oregon. Thankfully, that was the only part of our trip when he seemed to struggle with the cultural changes, and I’m sure our busy pace in the big city was the cause.
To make the trip more child-friendly, we spent a good portion of each day in child-friendly parks. It was heartwarming to see our children playing with children from around the world behind Notre Dame de Paris, and with French children in the neighborhood parks further from the main sites. My three year old mostly played alone rather than finding a playmate as his sister often did, but at least he heard plenty of French around him. One time when he was playing with a group of children, I heard a nine-year-old French boy say to him, “In FRENCH!” This made me chuckle because I knew that nothing I said could ever be as convincing as that older boy demanding him to speak in French instead of English! I’m sure he made at least an attempt to speak in French after that.
Homestay to the west
After our two weeks in Paris, we took a train to the Western coast to stay one week with my adopted French grandparents. Thankfully, they’d also invited their French grandchildren, who were a year or two older than my children. It was during this one week homestay that my daughter made enormous strides in her vocabulary and fluency, adopting the speaking habits of her playmates with comical accuracy. “Ben, oui!” she’d say, shrugging her shoulders, adopting the filler word ben like a true French child. She also learned to swear in French, or at least to use new euphemisms. “Mince!” she’d say, like their oldest boy, more frequently than necessary. My son didn’t make such visible language progress since he played alongside the other children far more often than he played with them, but I knew we had six weeks left in our trip for him to continue progressing.
Moving on to Lyon
In late July we sadly said goodbye to our adopted grandparents and their grandchildren and we moved on to Lyon, our final destination and France’s third largest city. There we stayed in a borrowed apartment while my husband competed in the World Masters’ Track and Field competition, and it was intriguing to be surrounded by adult athletes from all parts of the world as our family traveled to the stadium by bus each day. The meet spanned more than two weeks; my husband didn’t place as high as he had hoped but we all enjoyed the international camaraderie and the inspiring show (envision fit women in their 80s running the 400 meter dash, for example!).
Then there were three
When it was done, our family parted: My children and I headed to the Alps with my former host parents, and my husband flew back to Oregon for work reasons. Our children once again got some good language interaction through speaking with my host parents that week at their chalet, and my son began to use a few French words thanks to my host dad’s humor and lack of English comprehension—or perhaps due to the length of time of time we’d now been in France (around six weeks) and the fact that my English-speaking husband was no longer present. All of these factors played a role in my son’s language progress, I think.
Last month in France
Our final month in France, September, was a powerful catalyst for my children’s language growth. They started school, my son spending mornings at the local public preschool where there was room for him, and my daughter attending the nearby Catholic school until 4:30 p.m. My daughter made friends immediately but found the language immersion rather challenging. My son didn’t seem to make any friends, or even speak much at all while at school, but his comprehension seemed to grow quite a bit.
I should mention, however, that this French immersion was followed by playtime with our neighbors’ children in English, because our neighbors turned out to be two American families with little to no French speaking ability. This was God’s planning, not mine, but I chose to embrace their friendship instead of avoiding it. We quickly bonded over shared dinners where we discussed the nuances of everyday life in Lyon.
In any case, during this month in France, my son’s resistance to French melted away, and while he never switched into French completely, he began to echo my phrases. I didn’t mind if he parroted what I said as long as he repeated the French!
He’d also use phrases at home that he heard at school. “N’importe quoi!” he once said indignantly to his sister, and she and I just looked at each other and laughed in wonder over his sudden use of a phrase that means, “Whatever!” It must have helped that my son had a male teacher with whom he could interact during this time that my husband was overseas.
Even at the end of our trip, my baby boy (now eight months old) was still too young to show any obvious language development, but he was a great icebreaker as people would stop me in the street to compliment him. I think he particularly enjoyed the opportunity to begin eating solid foods in France, from cooked carrots at Mamie’s house in Western France to yellow Mirabelle plums from the outdoor market in Lyon.
Heading home to the U.S.
Packing up and returning to Oregon after nearly three months in France was emotionally difficult, especially since we had established a school routine and made good friends with our neighbors, but since my husband was waiting for us in Oregon, we couldn’t really postpone our return. My daughter was the only one who voiced her reluctance to leave, but when she did, I knew how she felt. In the past, I’ve cried every time I’ve left France, but now I know the secret to being content to leave: send your spouse home ahead, and make sure he or she is waiting for you when you land.
We’ve only been back in the U.S. for a month, but my daughter is still replying to me in French, my son is still parroting my phrases, and he’s even replying in French sentences at unexpected times. I never dreamed that my son would continue to make progress here based on our time there, but this bilingual family journey is always a surprising one, and I’m excited to live out the next chapters.
Read more posts in this series…