January marked a milestone for us – six months that we have now spent in France. It seemed like a good amount of time to reflect on what we have learned and experienced so far, but to avoid going on and on I’ve decided to split this blog into three key areas where we get lots of questions, or have learned a lot – language, school and social, and food! Here’s part one – language
Last week, I finished a work meeting at 11pm and came upstairs to find Tom curled up a tangle of sheets, his blonde curls damp against his forehead, waiting for me to finish. I know this won’t happen much longer, so I decided to let him sleep there for the night.
I lay awake a while, thankful that my kindle allows me to read without switching on the light. And then it happened:
‘Je travail… non non, ton travail…’
I wonder what Tom is dreaming about as he rolls back and forth in the sheets. It seems to be something to do with his school work, but just like sleep talking in one’s native tongue, it doesn’t make a lot of sense. Dreams rarely do, right?
This is not the first time he has sleep talked in French, nor is he the only one of our kids to do so, but it’s always thrilling to hear. Somewhere in there, his brain is integrating all that he has learned, finding new ways of processing and sorting language, and forming new neural pathways.
Or something like that. I don’t profess to understand how it works, but watching my babies navigate life in a second language is almost as miraculous and joyful as when they first learned to talk.
Observing each child take tentative steps into this new language has been fascinating and surprising. Each time Tom chats to someone on the télécabine, or Louis translates for his father when out and about (‘Desolé, mon Père ne parle pas Français’), or I catch Lily chatting with her friends outside the school gate, I feel a buzz in my chest and an involuntary smile curling at the edges of my mouth.
While ‘kids learn fast’ at least compared to adults, personality and learning style plays a huge role too. Where one is excelling in written work but finding conversation hard, another is thriving in the playground but less inspired in the classroom. We’ve learned so much about their individual learning styles that will help us to help them thrive in their future learning.
As to how far they have progressed, that’s difficult to gauge. For these first six months I haven’t pushed them to work on their French after hours (except when skipping school for that specific purpose). I reasoned that their brains are exhausted after 8 hours of school, and while yes, it would be good if they only watched TV in French, they also need a little downtime.
They resist speaking French with me, but I’ve heard enough to know their accents are spot on, and when I read to them in French or we play French board games, they need less and less translation. By term 2, both boys had given presentations to their classes in French, which I find pretty impressive. And this week, when a friend’s boy came skiing with us, we all spoke French in the car there and back, to be more sociable. As expected, they understand far more than they can express.
Still, I’m skeptical as to whether we can achieve true fluency in 12 months. The boys love to hang out with the two English speaking kids at school and I know we’re going to have to make more of a concentrated effort to support their language learning over the next six months.
The same goes for me. I used to think the only way to achieve true fluency was to move to France, but I’ve realised that in itself is not enough. My French has progressed a lot; I’m no longer scared of the telephone and I can understand 95% of what my ski instructor says, but I can’t speak 95% of it back to him. This week I managed to successfully navigate the formalities of a minor car accident (not my fault!) with a Spanish driver and Spanish accident form. I’ve also ended up as secretary of the school PTA (how I ask? How?) so that’s forcing me to write minutes and emails, but I still get my work checked, just in case.
In truth, I’ve hit a plateau. I’m going to need to do more than just shop at the marché, watch French films and TV shows, and show up to my irregular conversation group if I want to reach the level I desire. From next month I’ll be picking up with my iTalki tutor for conversation practice again, and like it or not, I need to start studying some grammar and actually working on it.
So six months in, we’re all entering a bedding down phase, trying to cement what we have learned and hoping that it will stick!