View from here - Zut alors! Kids can learn more English at home

26th August 2011 at 01:00
France Parents eschew exchange trips to the UK and sign their children up for 'total immersion' in anglophone households

Among life's disappointments, the moment my parents gave a definitive "no" to a school exchange trip to Ivry-sur-Seine ranks disproportionately high. Only when living in France decades later did I discover the destination to be an unremarkable suburb of south-eastern Paris.

In those days, it was more common to have pen-friends overseas than to visit their countries. But the notion of exchange trips took hold and now each year some 700,000 French children are estimated to make overseas sejours linguistiques, with the UK the favoured destination.

Parental expectations vary. But a marked improvement in command of English is not among the benefits they can reasonably hope from a single week costing 1,000 euros (#163;890) per head.

"It's mostly fun, just like any other school trip, but in a foreign setting," says Camelia Encinas, a journalist who accompanied one school party to London for a documentary for French television. "But on the whole, I think it is a good system. Maybe the children don't improve their English to a great extent, but it increases their desire to learn the language and that, to me, is more important."

With so much time spent with friends, and relatively little with host families, it is hardly surprising that the linguistic value is modest.

That has led some French families to opt for a different, perhaps more effective approach. Instead of heading for the Channel Tunnel, children gain English practice in Anglophone households without leaving France.

Jennifer Laur, a teacher with mixed memories of girlhood stays in Torquay, runs Anglais-in-France, which places children with English host families in south-western France.

She hand-picks the hosts and takes care when matching each student and family. Each year, she places more than 100 from all over France - including the far-off new department of Mayotte in the Indian Ocean - in expat homes.

One week costs 1,100 euros (#163;978), but includes 15 hours of tuition, hosts having at least TEFL qualifications.

"This is total immersion, totally different from group trips," she says. "Some students are frustrated and want to stay longer than a week, but I believe it is better to return for a second visit."

One host couple are Sarah and Clive Kendall, who live in Agen, between Toulouse and Bordeaux. "Our own children love having them staying with us, and we notice significant progress in the students' English," Mrs Kendall says. "We've had quite a range, from a 14-year-old girl who has to use a hearing aid to a 17-year-old who is on her second visit to us."

Ms Laur sees two other advantages: parents feel more comfortable when their children have not left France - it is easier to fetch them if anything goes wrong.

And as important as any other factor in a food-conscious country, lodging with expats who have adopted French ways reduces the risk of students going home with horror stories about what they were given to eat.

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