Our family of four started to form 17 years ago when future daddy from France and future mommy from Finland met in Helsinki. During the following summer spent apart they decided that against the odds they were made for each other and got married two years later. Emma was born in 2001 and Sara in 2005, and the bilingual adventure began. Since the beginning it has been our aim to help our children become as comfortable as possible with their two languages and cultures. The idea behind this blog is to share with others what this actually means in our daily life (hoping that it might be interesting or useful to others), meet like-minded people and learn from their experience too.
Summer is high season for many things, also for bilingualism in our family. Since it’s the only time of the year when our children can spend several weeks in France, a lot of planning, a great deal of which involves finances, is done throughout the year to make sure that this actually happens. I have great money saving tips for travelling, but we’ll get to that in another post later. Today, though, I want to write about another kind of engineering which takes place when we actually get to France, and that’s trying to find opportunities for our girls to meet other children their own age. This year the plan was for them to spend seven weeks in France and that’s a long time to play only with the grandparents (for both parties, I might add!). The previous years the grandparents have taken our girls camping with them in Lozère and that has been an excellent way to meet other children (I highly recommend camping for this!). For many reasons this won’t be possible this year, so we needed to look into ways the girls can meet other children in their grandparents’ village since there aren’t any kids their age in the family.
I’ve always felt that meeting others their own age is a great way for children to integrate and to learn the language of their peers. Over the years we’ve tried many things. Going to places like playgrounds, swimming pools, workshops and similar places where one finds families with children. These have worked well to create interaction in French for an afternoon or so, but never for much longer than that. This time of the year we knew that we wouldn’t meet children anywhere during the day – they were all still at school. So thinking in the lines of “if the mountain won’t come to you…” we asked to enroll our children in the local village school for two weeks, knowing that at this time there wouldn’t be any hard school work on the agenda, but instead a lot of time playing outside and trips to the swimming pool.
The school accepted and the girls, knowing that no actual performance was expected of them, were perhaps not overjoyed about going to school during summer, but at least okay with it. The resistance came from an unexpected source. The French grandfather was doubtful of the idea and didn’t keep this to himself. My husband was still working in Finland so I was alone to face the music: I was pushing too much, he said. The girls were on vacation already. There was no reason for them to go to school. Emma of course caught his mood and here I was, with an idea I really believed in – and feeling like the bad guy!
Long story short, I didn’t give in and the girls went to school. A little nervous, all three of us (body language in the photo above says it all!) At the end of the first school day, Sara had found a new “bestest friend” and Emma had met a girl in her class that lived just two doors down from her grandparents’ house (but whom we had never met!). Two weeks went by very fast and here is the outcome in a nutshell:
– The girls were accepted by their peers better and faster than we expected. Emma had friends over to play and we kept running into her schoolmates in the village and at the super market. Plans have been made for her to go to the village party with some friends. Her social life in France is better than ours now.
– Both girls were clearly happy to go to school everyday. Since it was the end of the school year they had 45-minute breaks outside several times per day. Both went on excursions and Emma’s class went to the swimming pool for a few hours every other day.
– Emma’s teacher told us that Emma read and wrote French way above her age-level…It would seem that it pays to be a bookworm!
So for Emma, 11, the experience was clearly a success. For Sara, 6, it was very good too, even if not to the same extent. At her age she has only attended a very relaxed preschool in Finland and the school-like atmosphere in a French school was new to her. A few times she got tired and irritated in class and the teacher wanted to meet with us. Turns out Sara had responded to her “dryly”. The worst part, however, was that she had told another little kid (“well he didn’t stop tickling me” she told me later) to, translated freelly, get out of her face (= dégage was the exact term in case French speakers are wondering…). We, embarrassed, apologised on her behalf and discussed good behavior with her daily. Grandma, however, couldn’t stop laughing about it. At some point during the two weeks I also understood why grandpa was so reluctant about the whole experience. Looking at it all from his perspective , I could see that he probably felt like he was losing the kids. Until now, he and grandma had been all that the children needed when they came to France. The fact that they were growing up and enlarging their social circles was probably threatening to him. I felt it was the contrary: with friends in the village they would want to come back even as teenagers.
We also found another great way for Emma to integrate into the village life : soccer! It’s one of her favorite things in the world, and the local team was happy to let her train with them and participate in the last tournament of the year. The teamspirit was great and many of her schoolmates were there to cheer her on. She scored three goals, but I must admit that I didn’t see all of them. Exhausted by my efforts to help my kids integrate, I was by the drink stand, finding out the advantage that French soccer moms have over the Finnish ones:
P.S Lest you get the wrong impression, I only had a small glass together with a Finnish friend who was visiting us. It really hit the spot, though! 🙂