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How a Globe-Trotting Alligator Helped One Family Find Greater Fun and Success on Their Bilingual Journey

Alfonzo the Alligator

Along with our persistent efforts each day to provide exposure in the minority language, another way to boost input and engagement is through the use of short-term projects.

For example, my kids and I created a series of silly interviews that I’ve shared at this site: video of my son, video of my daughter, and video of me.

Other examples might include activities like making a short film; creating a picture book or comic book; writing and performing a short play; singing and recording a favorite song (even making up your own, like our Christmas carol); inventing a new game and playing it together; compiling a photo album and adding captions; pursuing crafts or a building task; or researching and reporting on some subject of interest.

One standout of such project work is Serina, a “keeper” at The Bilingual Zoo. Serina lives in France and has been actively pursuing projects with her two multilingual children. For a big blast of ideas and inspiration in this vein, see her introduction there.

Alfonzo Around the World

Another “keeper” at The Bilingual Zoo, Nellie, has carried out a wonderful year-long project that I’d like to share with you in this post. Nellie is originally from Hungary and now lives in the United States with her American husband and two bilingual kids. You may recall the guest post she wrote about a trip to Hungary in the “Bilingual Travelers” series: Bilingual Travelers: Spring in Hungary Brings Blooming Language Ability.

Well, from late 2014 to late 2015, Nellie orchestrated the travels of a stuffed alligator named Alfonzo to seven different countries and blogged about his adventures—in both English and Hungarian—alongside her kids. Alfonzo enjoyed homestays with families in Japan (us!), France, Sweden, Scotland, Austria, Hungary, and Australia, who shared their activities with him in notes and photos. The creative fruits of the project, called “Alfonzo Around the World,” can be seen in full at their website:

Now that Alfonzo is safely back home with Nellie’s family, I was able to interview them, via email, to learn more about their experience of the project. I hope the example they offer will inspire other families to pursue imaginative projects, too, for greater fun and success on the bilingual journey!

Interview with Nellie and Alfonzo

First, Nellie, could you tell us a little about your family?

We live in the U.S., near a small town called Canton in Missouri. There’s four of us in the immediate family: Mom, Dad, Blair (7), and Eddie (he’s 4, but wishes he was 5 so he could stop taking naps). [Adam’s note: These are pseudonyms for her children.] Many of our relatives live in Hungary, some in other European countries, and the rest all over the U.S.

We have one dog, and also living with us are a large herd of stuffed animals—the current favorites are Mickey, the frog; Big Cheek, the penguin; and Rusty, a German Shepherd.

Nellie and her kids
Nellie and her kids

Alfonzo, when were you adopted by Nellie’s family?

I’m afraid alligators aren’t very good at remembering time, but I think Blair had just turned 6 when I arrived, and it was getting colder. So it must have been the late fall or winter of 2014.

Here I am, happy with my new friends Blair and Eddie!
Here I am, happy with my new friends Blair and Eddie!
I'm ready for adventures!
I’m ready for worldwide adventures!

Nellie, could you describe the basic idea of the project? What inspired you to pursue it?

The Alfonzo project started as a practical (but admittedly cold-hearted) solution to end sibling quarrels: Blair and Eddie couldn’t agree on who would get to hold, play with, and sleep with Alfonzo, the newest and most cherished stuffed animal of their collection. By sending Alfonzo on a trip, neither of them was able to play with him for a year, but now that he’s back, they’re a lot better at working out disagreements!

At the same time, Alfonzo was getting restless, too: He was “born” in South Carolina on my friend Paul’s swamp, traveled with him to Japan, then explored some of the Mississippi valley with us. Alfonzo had been bitten by the “travel bug” early in his life, and it was time to go.

So we asked Lulu and Roy (from here at Bilingual Monkeys) whether they would be willing to host Alfonzo in Japan. They were a great host family, and even helped Alfonzo move on with his journey around the world, sending him to visit other bilingual and trilingual kids.

[Adam’s note: As my kids are getting older now, we’re no longer the most suitable family for similar travels by other stuffed animals. To find potential host families, I recommend putting out your appeal directly to members of The Bilingual Zoo.]

JAPAN: I spent Christmas 2014 with Adam and his family!
JAPAN: I spent Christmas 2014 with Adam and his family!
JAPAN: Look! I got a toothbrush!
JAPAN: Look! I got a toothbrush!
JAPAN: I helped Lulu do her homework!
JAPAN: I helped Lulu with her homework!

Alfonzo, how did you feel about this? I mean, you must have been a little nervous about traveling abroad by yourself in a cardboard box.

Oh, it’s no big deal. The folks at Japan Post were always very polite and made sure not to throw me around too much. Later, from Sweden to Scotland, I had really cool books to read that one host family was sending to the other along with me, so it wasn’t so bad. Then, from Scotland, I got to fly upstairs in Economy with all the other travelers, not in a box! But even when I stayed in that box for weeks (it’s a long way to Australia!), I instantly felt better after getting unpacked and hugged and fed delicious treats by the new host family.

FRANCE: Wow! The Eiffel Tower! I want to bite it!
FRANCE: Wow! The Eiffel Tower! I want to bite it!
FRANCE: I love the metro! It's green like me!
FRANCE: I love the metro! It’s green like me!
FRANCE: I love crepes!
FRANCE: I love crepes, too! (Even if they’re not green.)

Nellie, tell us about how you set up the project. What preparations did you make for Alfonzo’s travels?

First we showed Alfonzo a little bit of our lives here: We visited a corn maze, an apple orchard, had fun at the local dance and tumbling studio. Then I created a very basic website and posted stories about his time with us—these stories served as templates or examples for the host families later. We also set some basic rules for the kids and adults in the host families, to make sure Alfonzo stayed safe and we could keep track of his whereabouts.

SWEDEN: I made lots of friends at this house!
SWEDEN: I made lots of friends at this house!
SWEDEN: I like books in any language!
SWEDEN: I like books in any language!
SWEDEN: I like cake in any language, too!
SWEDEN: I like cake in any language, too!

Alfonzo, how many different places did you go to? What were the highlights for you?

Let me see… I started in Japan, then France and Sweden and Scotland. From there, we went on a skiing trip in the Austrian Alps. I loved Austria so much—I stayed in Vienna with lots of wonderful people. I think I’ll retire there some day. Then I hopped over to Hungary and visited some places Blair and Eddie had also been to before. Finally, there was the long journey to Australia. Did you know that it’s winter in Australia when it’s summer in Hungary? It was a whole different world down under! From there, I went back to see Paul in Japan, then Paul and I made the return trip to Missouri. Whew!

SCOTLAND: My new friend and I smiling for the camera!
SCOTLAND: My new friend and I smiling for the camera!
AUSTRIA: And they took me skiing with them, too!
AUSTRIA: They took me skiing with them, too!

Did you experience any troubles or mishaps?

I did get in trouble once for trying to eat Legos for breakfast…and there was a cranky cat who didn’t want to share her wonderfully soft and sunny bed, but we became good friends in the end, cuddling up together by the heater. Oh, and I met a purple Bunyip in Australia: I was really scared at first, but he turned out to be a happy one.

HUNGARY: How do we look?
HUNGARY: How do we look?
HUNGARY: I got big hugs everywhere I went!
HUNGARY: I got big hugs everywhere I went!

Nellie, how long was Alfonzo gone? How often were you and your kids in touch with him?

Alfonzo was gone for about a year, and we had weekly, sometimes daily, contact with him through emails from the host families. On a few occasions, especially when we knew he was traveling to a new family, we were a little worried as we didn’t want him to get lost along the way. But everything worked out in the end, and he’s safely back with us.

AUSTRALIA: Here's that Bunyip I was talking about!
AUSTRALIA: Here’s that Bunyip I was talking about!
AUSTRALIA: Why can't you eat Legos?
AUSTRALIA: Why can’t you eat Legos?

What sort of impact did the project have on Blair and Eddie and their language development? What was most satisfying about this project?

Their world opened up and got smaller at the same time. Alfonzo’s travels provided opportunities to talk about other countries, to become familiar with the map of the world. They now have a good understanding of how big the world is, the seasons, the distances, different cultures of developed countries. At the same time, they were always able to relate to the stories the host families were sending us: Kids all over the world enjoy similar activities, spending their days just like they do here—this brought them closer to the world.

It was also great for their language development. Blair and Eddie are bilingual, they speak Hungarian and English, so for their sake and so that my family in Hungary could enjoy the project as well, we posted every letter from Alfonzo in both English and Hungarian. The kids responded to Alfonzo in one of the languages, then together we translated it to the other one—this was good practice and made for fun times together. From the host families, we even learned some new words in other languages!

AUSTRALIA: This cat didn't like me at first!
AUSTRALIA: This cat didn’t like me at first!
AUSTRALIA: But we became good pals! (We still keep in touch by email!)
AUSTRALIA: But we became good pals! (We still keep in touch by email!)

What difficulties did you run into? Looking back, would you have done anything differently?

I wish I knew more about website building and sending out newsletters. Because I don’t, the technical side of the project took up more time and energy than it should have, sometimes making it difficult to keep up with the writing. I’d like to figure out a better way to communicate with the host families. We used email and Facebook, but maybe a platform on the website itself would be easier for everyone. At the same time, we’ve proven that a free website and email can get us in touch with kids all over the world.

AUSTRALIA: What? You can't eat tennis balls, either?
AUSTRALIA: What? You can’t eat tennis balls, either?
AUSTRALIA: I recommend any book with sharp teeth in it.
AUSTRALIA: I recommend any book with sharp teeth in it.

Any other advice for parents who might like to try something similar?

Go for it! It’s very likely that we won’t be able to travel to all the countries Alfonzo visited, but through the project, we’ve created memories that will last forever.

How about you, Alfonzo? What advice would you have for other stuffed animals traveling abroad?

First of all, be nice to cats! That space by the heater can be very valuable on a cold, rainy day. It’s helpful to know a lot of languages, too, so don’t sleep through Spanish class. Also, if you have big, sharp teeth like I do, you’ll have to learn not to nibble on everything…and keep smiling! There’s nothing better than hugs from kids all over the world!

Again, to view the bilingual English-Hungarian website that followed Alfonzo’s travels, see Alfonzo Around the World.

How about you? If you have questions or comments for Nellie (and Alfonzo), please share them below!

5 Responses

  1. Having hosted Alfonzo with my family exactly a year ago, I have a suggestion for anyone who wants to do a similar project: Use a slightly smaller animal. Alfonzo is really big, and while that’s fun when taking him out and about, it makes shipping expensive. (But my thanks to Nellie, who provided a sturdy box that could be reused.)

    It was a great project, and I worried along with Alfonzo’s family whenever he was in transit. My daughter still asks when she can get him back.

    1. Hello Mayken!!! Thank you for pointing out his size and the shipping costs, I should have checked into that before setting up the project (and next time I’ll know better).

      And of course thank you again for hosting – my kids still won’t let me make crêpes any other way but using “Flora’s secret recipe”!

      1. Hello Nellie!!!
        It’s great that Flora’s crêpes are so popular with your kids! We’ll be making them again soon, it’s almost a year since Alfonzo stayed with us.

  2. Hello Nellie!
    What a wonderful project! I wish I knew about it before! Anyways… I am a Brazilian, from Rio de Janeiro. I live in Virginia. I have a son who is 8 months old. We will travel to Brazil next January to celebrate my son’s first birthday…I wonder if Alfonzo would like to go with us!
    All my best,

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Welcome to Bilingual Monkeys!

I’m Adam Beck, the founder of this blog and The Bilingual Zoo, a lively worldwide forum for parents raising bilingual or multilingual kids. I’m also the author of the popular books Maximize Your Child’s Bilingual Ability and Bilingual Success Stories Around the World. I’ve been an educator and writer in this field for 25 years as well as the parent of two bilingual children, now 19 and 16. I hope my work can help empower the success of your bilingual journey.

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