Friday, June 25, 2010

On the Question of Schooling for Expats

Pretty much everyone assumes that after almost three years in Paris, all of us are fluent French speakers. And oh the disappointment when I tell them "no." And oh the clucking when I mention that we put the kids in international school where all their courses (except of course French!) are in English.

Let me blunt. You wouldn't question a couple's sleeping arrangements or how they handle their money, would you? So please, for the love of God, don't poke your nose into their choices about schools. It's just as personal. What works for your kid doesn't necessarily work for mine. In fact, what works for one of my own kids doesn't necessarily work for the other. As for the choices we made? I have zero regrets.

In the end, it all comes down to this: just what is the goal of an expat experience? Fluency in another language? Fluency in another culture? Integration in another culture? I suppose it's all possible, given enough time, the right set of circumstances, and some luck. But it's not a competition folks where you get extra points for mastery of the subjunctive or for the number of dinner invitations you receive. And frankly I've heard enough stories about American women who've married French men, spent the better part of their adult lives in France, raised French speaking children, and still feel somewhat out of place, to know it's mere delusion to think that I could do otherwise.

So yes okay, I admit I would love it if my kids were fluent in French, able to pop in and out of languages without missing a beat. I'd love it if I could do that too. But you know what? They know a lot more French than they would have had we stayed in DC and they do quite well, albeit quietly, in situations where there aren't other English speakers around. My bottom line: they are generally happy kids who've adjusted marvelously to unfamiliar situations. And if they speak a little bit of French, so much the better. What more could a mother want?

12 comments:

Duchesse said...

Funny, I was having a similar discussion with my husband yesterday. We are expats in the Netherlands and even though we don't have kids, many of my colleagues do and they've all put their children in French school... and I can totally understand. If we had kids, they'd either go to French, British or International school. In theory, it's great for your kids to be with the locals and totally immersed in the culture, but in practice, it's not that simple. How are you supposed to follow up on their studies if you don't understand the language? Or if you move countries a lot? You need some continuity. You can't just keep changing school systems without consequences. It all works well if your kids are in preschool because they're starting along with everybody else, but it's not that easy with an older child.

Anyway! I totally understand your frustration Anne.

Anonymous said...

For what it's worth:
1. We went the international school route when living in London - clearly, it wasn't about language but, as you mention, culture is a big nut to crack and, in the end, we really liked a lot about the international school that we didn't like about British schools.
2. People feel free to challenge your schooling choices wherever you live. I'd like to believe that some people would be REALLY EMBARRASSED if I could play them a tape of things they said when they learned my kids were leaving their school after 8th grade to attend a different high school, but sadly I suspect they wouldn't get it so I don't regret not having the tape! My tongue is perforated instead....

emmabovary said...

Well put. Having and educating kids, like diets and religion, are personal choices and as such should be respected. I would have totally done the same as you, if I had been a temporary expat. Your kids' educational track will run smoothly since they will not have shifted from the French curriculum back into the American one (and believe me, there are no equivalencies to be made between the two--it's incredibly difficult to make the transition). Paris was their "other" classroom where a great deal of language and culture learning took place by immersion.

For outsiders who think it is easy to just drop kids into a different educational system, especially one based on a different language and methodology...wake up. Yes, children are adaptable, but why put their academics at risk?

Joy said...

Education is very much a personal choice - well stated, Anne.

We placed our three in a local French school for the eight months we were in France, but they are quite young, and the oldest had already attended two years of French Immersion here in Canada. Plus, my husband in fluent in French, so we had that to help us. My five-year old son learned French in school and on the playground in France, and it was tough for him, but he is fluent in the vernacular of the region in a way the oldest isn't. Our youngest understands French, but wasn't in preschool there long enough to really speak it.

We chose to do this in order to have them achieve a level of fluency that we couldn't get at home, and we'll do it again in another three years or so, but for only a part of a year. Also, they'll all still be in elementary school when we go back. We won't be doing this once they are in the upper levels, at least, not in this format.

But the looks I get for not becoming fluent in our 8 months in France - too funny!! :D

Anonymous said...

Oh, I want that shirt! Can't read the small text. Where can I find it? Thanks

Starman said...

Interesting.

Anne said...

The shirt is available from cafepress.com. Lots of witty stuff available.

Anonymous said...

Hear, hear! My parents decided to put my sister and me in an international school when we moved to Geneva when I was 7 and she 4. I'm glad they did. We went to school with children from all over the world who spoke English as well as a bevy of other languages. In no way was it the "easy way out": we were *plenty* immersed in the French language and Swiss culture. How could you not be?! Sure, my 7-year-old, developing brain picked up French incredibly quickly and I might have done just fine in an all-French-speaking "immersion" program -- but acclimating to a new city and making friends was hard enough at an English-speaking school. Being in that school enabled me to learn French and adjust to my new surroundings at my own pace.

Wren said...

I went to an American kindergarten in Germany (I get the irony.)My brother went to the base school. I don't know why my parents made these decisions but I respect them. We were only in Germany for 2 years. We needed an American education in order to 'rather' easily integrate into the schools. Our high school offered German and we all (three of us) took it.

My point, if I do have one, is parents have to make those choices and they should be respected. I believe that as a teacher of English- parents often know what's best for their kids. (ok, some people are so stupid they shouldn't be trusted to raise a fly, but you know what I mean.)

Jadie said...

your choice is your choice! and none is without consequence. i can't tell you how many choices i made while raising our two sons that i have rethought in the years since...but only with the benefit of hindsight! and some decisions we made lightly that turned out perfectly. sigh. you just never know til later.

Maureen said...

Very well stated Anne. Here in the US, we have people in our little town in RI question our choice of private school. They assume we are rich...WRONG!!! We sacrifice a lot, plain and simple. Frankly,the RI system that links property taxes to school funding, had us tired of wondering if next year the arts or interscholastic sports would be on the chopping block. Love your blog!!

FB @ FabulouslyBroke.com said...

If you aren't planning on staying in France with your family for a good part of their lives, then I wouldn't bother learning the language... otherwise they would need to learn French to go to the prep schools and try to get into the best business and engineering schools.

That being said, kids CAN pick up languages a lot quicker than adults can.. I know, because I learned French at a much older age and I'm still sort of struggling with it, when if I had learned it around the age of 5 or 7, I'd be a lot better off.

Still, what you choose to teach your kids is your own choice.

I know with my kids, they'll be learning English and French, without a doubt. They wouldn't be able to speak to the other side of their family if they didn't know both languages

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