If I talk to friends of a similar age they roll their eyes when they recall the French exchanges of their school days and remember awkward stilted conversations, feeling uncomfortable and homesick during their time abroad. They are memorable experiences, nonetheless. I’ve always envied bilingual friends being able to slip effortlessly from one language into the other. Why didn’t I have a French mother and English father? I didn’t and in order to learn to speak French and German I went on exchanges abroad through family connections.
Modern languages have been on the decline in the UK and there’s been a big push on to encourage pupils to take them on at school. It’s not easy learning a language in this country. You can learn classroom French, but there’s nothing like immersing yourself in French culture, living with a French family so that you have to communicate in the language. Languages are of course about grammar, vocabulary, written style, but more importantly they are about speaking and that really is the fun bit once you get going.
My fifteen year old is taking French and Spanish GCSEs. The school has arranged a Spanish exchange and he heads to Malaga shortly to stay with a family for a week. The Spanish boy has been here; he’s confident and outgoing, has a Polish mother, Spanish father and speaks incredibly good colloquial English (as well as fluent Polish and Spanish). The boys get on well, which is the key thing, but my concern is that they’ll end up speaking English, as it’ll be the easiest way to communicate (and fifteen year old boys can be plain lazy).
My German exchange in the 1970s was unforgettable. Organised by my German aunt Doris, aged 14 I took my first ever flight abroad to Hamburg and was welcomed into an army family for two weeks. I went on to do a degree in European Studies and used my languages in various jobs and still do on my travels. I believe UK employers prefer to have language speakers, even though opportunities to use languages may be sporadic. Learning a language means developing more than the written and spoken element, it’s about getting to know another country and way of life; the cliché broadening your horizons springs to mind. In my experience, languages open doors.
I discovered that my German family were enthusiastic nudists on their holidays when they showed me their snaps of Corsica. I learnt the meaning of FKK (Freiekorperkultur – literally free body culture) and the first summer managed to excuse myself from a trip to the island of Sylt in the campervan, taking the train to Denmark for a long weekend to visit a family friend while they were away doing their nudist thing. However the following summer, I jumped in the VW and headed to windswept Sylt with them, keeping my bikini firmly on. I didn’t want to strip off, but they were so laid back, they didn’t care what I wanted to do and there were as many people on the drafty dunes with their kit on as off. Memories of my German exchange include her taste in music (Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here and Al Stewart’s Year Of the Cat), her huge attic room, being an only child (I’m one of three), cycling into the wind along the flat cycle paths of Schleswig Holstein, reading Das Bild (we never had a tabloid newspaper at home) and eating hefty amounts of cake with whipped cream.
My son’s French exchange over the summer was sadly not as successful. I don’t have the personal contacts, so resorted to using a company I found on the internet. I couldn’t fault the service, but probably like internet dating it’s a bit hit and miss. Or is it 15 year old boys and their communication skills that are the issue? I usually curse it, but thank goodness for the Xbox, something they could do together, as the chemistry between the boys was non-existent. During his stay in France, my son was taken to see a traditional Provencal procession in their home town outside Marseille; I took the boys down to Brighton for the day, unknowingly coinciding with the town’s annual Gay Pride procession. When I asked him what he thought, the exchange said he found the people in Brighton strange, however, his eyes lit up when I suggested fish and chips on the pier.
Do you have memorable experiences of foreign exchanges past and present? Any advice? I’m going to persevere, as I think a language A level is on the cards.