By Alexandra Regan
When my husband and I decided to take a one-year sabbatical in France with our two kids, ages seven and nine, we had three broad goals.
We wanted to take a much needed break from our jobs, to introduce our children to another language and culture, and to learn to speak fabulous French.
Many of our friends had similar ambitions to live outside the U.S. but thought it would be too difficult to do with young children.
If you are considering living outside the country with the kids, I’ll tell you here why you should. I’ll also give you our tips for making the most of your experience.
It’s worth it
Immersion into a different culture is intellectually stimulating and forces you to examine your culture and your place in the world. Additionally, if you go to a non-English speaking country, your kids will get a head start on a second language.
However, a year in a different country will provide your family with other less obvious benefits. Childhood is short, and if your family lives a modern fast-paced lifestyle, it will seem even shorter.
During our year in France we were freed from our never-ending list of chores and obligations. Our life was simpler, and as a result we slowed down and spent a lot more time together as a family.
We explored our surroundings together, sampled the hot chocolate in various cafes, and lingered over meals. Additionally, my husband and I found more time to explore our individual passions such as cooking, painting, and of course studying French.
The kids are the key
Going as a family is an ideal way to experience a new culture. Having the kids with you provides opportunities to meet locals and gain insights into the culture you might never get otherwise. For example, the twice daily trips to school provided the opportunity to meet other parents in the neighborhood.
We signed the kids up for tennis, horseback riding, and soccer at different points during the year. The chance to chat with other parents during these lessons improved our French and led to invitations for all of us to French homes for coffee or a meal. If you want them to be able to communicate with their new Paris playmates, consider signing up for classes for French online. There are all sort of options in different price ranges.
Before long the kids were arranging their own play dates, and the whole family enjoyed it when French children came over to play.
Having the kids with us multiplied opportunities for interactions with our neighbors, and it was these shared connections which provided a sense of belonging we might not otherwise have felt in just a year’s time.
It is an enriching experience to live in another country at any age, but there are major advantages to doing it when the kids are still in elementary school. Our two children had finished kindergarten and third grade when we arrived in France and we didn’t hesitate to enroll them in a public French school.
Peer Groups Not As Important
At these ages peer groups are less important so it is easier for kids to leave home and integrate into new surroundings. In addition, children under ten years will learn a language quicker and their accent will be better.
With encouragement and some intervention from us, our kids began to understand and communicate well after several months in school.
We made sure their teachers understood that our main goal was for the kids to learn the language and have a positive experience. Since my husband and I already spoke some French, we also told their teachers that we were willing to help them with their homework assignments.
We knew that their language skills would improve faster if they were integrated into the classroom, and therefore made sure they completed their assignments (this had the added benefit of helping us to improve our own French skills).
In many cities there are international schools that provide instruction in English. This could be a good choice if you don’t speak the language, if your kids are older, or if you plan a shorter stay.
How to prepare
If you’re traveling to country where English is not the native language, don’t worry too much about prepping your kids before arrival. Our kids gained some familiarity with French beforehand by watching French cartoons (and even American DVDs with the French language option selected) and learning some simple phrases and words, but there is no substitute for actually living in a foreign country.
We found that the local school was the best place for our children to learn the language. On the other hand, it was a great advantage for us to speak French before we arrived. The more you can express yourself, the easier it will be to meet locals and become integrated into the community.
How long to go
One year is perfect. Whether you are leaving a career behind, taking a paid sabbatical, or taking a leave of absence, a year is about right for recharging your batteries without loosing touch with your profession. If you go for a year the kids can complete an entire academic school year and become proficient in the language.
A year also allows time to settle in as well as to travel a little, but is not so long that you lose the sense of wonder. At home everyday errands can seem like chores that take you away from more interesting things.
I found enough cultural differences in the interactions between the cashiers and customers at our local market in France that—at least in the beginning—even doing the food shopping was engrossing.
Additionally, if you only stay a year you can enjoy the experience without worrying too much about issues like house maintenance, the children’s academic progress and peer influences. As we told ourselves over and over, our year was most like a perfect vacation.
We were away long enough to experience and appreciate France but not so long that our French life started to feel routine. In the end it didn’t matter than our language skills weren’t fabulous – our year with the kids had been exactly that.
Alexandra Regan is a travel writer and librarian who lives in the Pacific Northwest.
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