My fourteen-year-old son called from France today. He has been there for over two weeks without showing signs of homesickness. His French ‘family’ has taken him to climb canyons, visit chateaux near Paris, and to swim at a beach near Biarritz. He says he has learned enough French to communicate with other kids and his exchange partner. The two of them get along well, despite differences in age and fashion sense. My son’s fifteen-year-old exchange buddy plans to take him shopping and outfit him for his high school debut in September!
His French partner is a cool rugby player who “runs through girlfriends.” My son is a sweet kid whose clothes are très ordinaire, partly because he lacks patience for shopping. This is the surprise enrichment of exchanges. Parents send their offspring to learn a language, but the lessons of living with a new family are what stick. Exchange students discover a new world of music, sights, youth culture, ideas, folklore, geography and history.
I have done two long-term exchanges in France and was billeted for weeks with a French Canadian family. All three experiences were overwhelmingly positive. I graduated at a time when entrance to faculties of education was extremely competitive. French gave me an edge, and ever since I’ve enjoyed teaching it to kids, with an extra dose of cultural comparison and anecdote.
My first exchange was three months of immersion in a French technical high school. Starting out with limited vocabulary and grammar, taking subjects like math, natural sciences and typing was tough. At first I was exhausted daily from struggling to follow teacher’s lectures and teen’s conversations, but it got easier.
Struggling to communicate is good preparation to teach English as a Second Language. If you have tried to make a joke or ask for help without knowing the right words, you can empathize with new language learners. And all that miming is good practice for introducing new vocabulary.
Not every child is ready for immersion, and nobody can expect months of all-good days, but there is a secret to making success more likely. To get the most enjoyment out of an exchange, students should start with the attitude that they are there for learning, not entertainment. That way they are primed to look up words they don’t understand, and to push themselves to speak a bit more every day. The benefits are exponential.
Learning French by immersion is like making a snowball. You are surrounded by the white stuff, but at first you only understand a flake here or there. By the end of the first week you might scrape together fistfuls of meaning. But once you start to catch on, you find yourself rolling a runaway snowball of knowledge. It’s dizzying fun.
With only traditional grammar instruction, I doubt I’d speak French today; but the real benefits of my exchanges were bigger: lifelong friends, a love of French literature, an appreciation for travel and a more international perspective. To learn a language, to share cultures, and to make our world a better and more connected place, I recommend cultural exchanges for your students, your children and yourself.