Wednesday, June 12, 2013

for when you're not leaving on a jet plane

When told to put a couple of toys for the plane in his carry-on bag, Griffin, age 3, filled his suitcase with stuffed animals.
French playgroup always empties out over the summer: many of the families spend as long as two or three months back in Europe once their kids are out on vacation.  Some of the kids can even enroll in summer school over there, very inexpensively, and they all come back with renewed fluency in French, new books, new music, new favorite foods, new slang, new friends.  Those weeks or months of 24/7 immersion and attention from the extended family seem to make the challenges of traveling overseas with young children--and paying for it--entirely worthwhile.

But my husband and I don't have relatives in France whose homes we can visit.  Without French citizenship, our kids wouldn't be allowed in the state-supported daycare or schools.  And even if we did, we don't have enough vacation days to go to Europe for weeks at a time!

But while I'm certainly envious of those who can, we've managed so far to help our son hang onto his bilingualism without ever having visited a francophone country.  Maybe next summer, when I'll be celebrating a milestone birthday and our younger child, Gwyneth, will be almost three and (hopefully) more independent and less shrieky....

But in the meantime, here are some ideas of what those of us who can't travel abroad regularly can do to help keep our kids in the target language at home:

1.  Regular video chats (such as Skype) with families whose children are approximately the same age as yours.  As long as they speak the target language, it doesn't matter what country they call home!

(We don't do this yet, because Griffin can only Skype for two minutes without getting antsy and wanting to go play.  Soon, perhaps.)

2.  Hosting a foreign exchange student from a country where the language is spoken.

(We haven't done this yet, as most of the agencies that organize exchange programs prefer that the visiting student stay with a family whose child is around the visitor's age.  No one sends toddlers and preschoolers overseas to stay with strangers!)  (Not to say that we haven't been tempted....)

Or, if a commitment of a semester or more is too big--and your home isn't too small--why not invite another family to visit for a week or two?  For example, if your American friend's French husband's cousin and her kids are touring the US, but your friend lives in a one-bedroom apartment, maybe they could stay with you.

Or, if you can afford it, how about hiring a nanny who is a native speaker of the target language?

I have also been tempted by "home exchange" programs, especially since traditional hotel rooms tend to be awful for young children--constantly squeezing past the crib which takes up most of the available floor space, nothing is babyproofed, the indoor pool (when there is one) is always too cold for the youngest child (and also my husband), you can't cook anything for your picky eaters, and you have to turn out the lights and go to bed when the kids do (or else hang out in the bathroom or hope the baby monitor works in the lobby bar).

When told to unpack his suitcase on a trip earlier this year, Griffin laid out his five books, one pair of shoes, and Pooh Bear.  He doesn't care about the clothes.
How great would it be to take a toddler to another country and stay in a house with age-appropriate toys, dishes, and books, whose upholstery is stained enough that no one can prove that it was your kid who was fingerpainting with pureed carrots, whose mattresses boast waterproof covers in case a child wets the bed, whose vehicles already have car seats installed?!  Now that sounds like a low-stress vacation to me.

Has anyone with young children ever tried home swapping?  I'd love to hear more about it.  (Here's an article about a retiree's positive experience in Paris, by the way.)

3.  Attend a residential immersion camp, like the phenomenal Concordia Language Villages in Minnesota.  I'm a proud alumna of Sjolunden (spent two weeks at the Swedish village) and Lac du Bois (a month at French camp allowed me to skip the entire year of French 2 at my high school).

Concordia has also recently started offering day camps for children as young as six (Griffin could attend next summer!), plus week-long and weekend camps for the entire family!  In fact, the latter would actually be possible for us, especially since my parents live within a day's drive of the French camp sites.  I could see us flying to Minneapolis, renting a car, doing a camp, driving to spend time with the family, and then flying back out of Minneapolis.  If we could coordinate it with time off work and during school vacations, that is!

Oooh, and Griffin could do Spanish camp, too, to reinforce what he's learning at his immersion school....

Renowned school Middlebury College (Vermont) also offers summer programs for children: day camps in three languages for 5th-8th graders and residential camps in five languages for 8th-12th graders.

I imagine that other similar programs exist in the US and abroad--recommendations?

4.  And, of course, don't forget about all the things that we do on a (semi) regular basis in hopes of raising multilingual children:  target-language songs, books, interactive computer games and apps, movies and TV, and other materials, plus playgroups, playdates, storytimes, classes, and babysitters who speak (or are studying) the language, along with (of course, and most importantly) input from you!

Would it be ideal for our would-be bilingual kiddos to spend lots of time in a country where people speak the target language?  Sure.  Is that an impossibility for some families?  Yes.  Should they despair if they can't get there?  Mais non!

Your thoughts and advice?


  1. Hello Sarah, I found your blog while looking for news and material about teaching languages to children and I find it very interesting!
    I am myself a former editor for an educational publisher in the foreign languages field (we did books for learning languages at primary and secondary school) and, after some years spent as a full-time mummy, I specialized in teaching languages to children by storytelling, which is by reading stories to them (I have a website,
    I try to do here in France what you do in the USA: storytime in english or italian for french children, while, if I understand, you do storytime in french for english speaking children!
    It's amazing that you succeed in teaching french to your children even if you are not a native speaker and you live so far away from french speaking countries!
    It is surely more difficult for american people to visit a foreign country where people speak another language as you are so distant. It is much easier in Europe, as we have so many languages in such a small continent!
    My children, for example are what I call really bilingual, as they understand and speak french and italian perfectly well with no accent (it's really amazing) but they can spend all their school holidays with my italian family, so it is easier for them to get bilingual.
    I hope to hear from you soon

    1. Michela! I love your website and links and recommendations and your mission of sharing languages with children through books for them! The combination of your experience as a trilingual parent and an editor makes you the perfect person to lead such a project. I look forward to reading more about your book choices and storytimes.

      How lucky your children are! May I ask how old they are?

    2. Hello Sarah, thank you for visiting my website! My children are 9 and 6 years old and both perfectly bilingual; they learned both french and italian since they were born, then they learned to read and write in french at school but once they understood how it works in french, they could read in italian too. I wish it could be so simple for us!
      See you online

  2. Hi Sarah! I was just wondering if you'd be so kind as to tell your readers more about Griffins Spanish abilities? I know that he's been in the PreK program for some months now? Don't they let out for the summer soon?

    Could you write a little about that?

    1. Yes, a post about Griffin's experience in the Spanish immersion preschool is overdue! Quick preview: he had a thoroughly positive experience. He can read and comprehend very simple books in Spanish, understand what goes on in Spanish in a preschool classroom, and sing a few songs. He doesn't start conversations in Spanish, but his replies in English show that he knows what was said to him. Thanks for asking!

  3. Hello Sarah! I've been following your blog for a while but I think I have never commented... About the time! :) We are raising a trilingual (if that's even a word) kid in Norway and we've been traveling with her a lot. We've started to rent apartments and that has been a brilliant way to stay abroad, as you always have your own kitchen and some of the places have even had baby equipment available. We've used and, but there are some others too. I've been quite interested in home swapping programs as well but we haven't tried, would definitely be interested to hear of your experiences if you do!

    1. Hi Satu and thank you for "de-lurking"! Your blog is beautiful and makes me want to drop everything and visit Scandinavia. (My husband, on the other hand, does not thank you for that!)

      I'm glad to hear that renting apartments with a toddler has been working out for you. Please keep in touch!

  4. Great ideas Sarah! As you probably saw on our series about raising multilingual kids, we've tried most of these and also found going to a Spanish only Sunday school was fabulous.

    I know folks too who get an au pair to help with language learning.

    Being fluent in reading and writing is harder, but still possible for monolingual parents...we did it with a trilingual ( soon to be quadrilingual). My daughter now at 12 is fully fluent in Mandarin. Spanish and English. She just won the Mandarin elocution contest at her Chinese school in Asia ( first time in 63 years that a Caucasian won it!!) and she wants to learn French next.

    One fun and cheap way to add French in France is through kids clubs while camping in places like Provence.

    Travel to France doesn't have to break the budget! We are planning a trip now on the Transiberian Railway from Beiing to Paris and then more of these kids clubs and other immersion opportunities.

    My child also just got her first job at 12, teaching Spanish to a Danish kid in Asia. ;) So hang in there parents with younger is worth the effort!!

    Funny, how things are now going full circle, as we also use to hire fluent babysitters for her when we lived in USA and she was young.

    You don't need to have a full time nanny to get the benefits and one can create an immersion environment where ever you are!

    1. Hello Jeanne d'Arc and congratulations on your daughter's many accomplishments and your family's choice to travel the world!

      Thank you so much for sharing your post about the kids' club at the French campground--I love, love, love this idea! Stay tuned....

      And in the meantime, bon voyage for your summer adventures!

  5. Great tips! So true, travel is not practical for many families, especially with young children. These are great ways to expose kids to the language without having to travel! I especially love the tip about immersion camps in the US - I will definitely be looking into that!

    1. Yes, I just wish there were more immersion camps all over--having to take a couple of flights and stay in a hotel kind of defeats the purpose of avoiding travel with little kids, right?!

  6. I think the big problem is always going to be how to carry on with what they have learnt. As with a lot of things if don't use what you learn you tend to forget.