Have you ever seen the film ‘Etre et Avoir’, To Be and to Have? It’s a docufilm which was released in 2002 about a tiny rural school in the Puy de Dome region of France. It beautifully follows the daily life of a schoolteacher and his little class of 4 to 12 year olds; the older kids are busy in one corner doing maths, the middle kids spelling with the teacher, and the little ones are drawing in another corner (and sticking pencils up their nose). The teacher is incredibly patient with his little brood of scholars and it feels more like a family than a school.
It wasn’t our intention to find a school like this when we moved to France, but this is what happened. We are about an hour to the west of the school which featured in the film, in an equally rural, farming community.
The village mayor held up his hands in utter glee when he heard that the “new people” in the hamlet had three kids. The school roll shot up 20% overnight. My mum was equally relieved to hear that a fifth of the school spoke English, until she did the maths and realised that they were all her grandchildren. Who had only a few French words between them.
We uprooted from Scotland to France in October 2007. In what was a bit of a blur amongst selling up, sorting out, and saying goodbyes, we had tried to give the kids a head start by having a French friend visit the house for a few months to play games and teach them the colours and animals in French. It went in one ear and out the other, as often it does when there’s not really a perceived reason to learn a language. They hadn’t got their head round the idea that the country we were moving to spoke this foreign tongue and they would have to too.
We had timed the move so that we would arrive during the October school holidays (vacances de Toussaint). We would have a couple of weeks to hit the ground running before school started, and to recover from a 2000km car/ferry journey with 3 little kids, a dog, a cat (who came in our friends’ car) and all our possessions (which arrived a few days later as a part load of a lorry heading to Spain). It would be a nice shortish school term before a break for Christmas. We alerted the mayor and the town hall (mairie) in advance so that the school knew to expect 3 newbies at the beginning of November.
Adam was 9, Matt was 7, Katie started school a couple of months later when she turned 4. How tiny! “I need a wee wee,” was all Katie could say in French when our 3 little babies disappeared off round the corner in the school bus. We were aiming for practical. The animal names hadn’t stuck. I cried.
We’d met the school teacher during the holidays and we’d visited the school. The teacher had taken away school reports from their Scottish primary school, in English. How useful they actually were I’m not sure. It must have been quite a scary moment for us all when that little school bus first trundled up to the door. Although none of us can actually remember feeing scared. Adam, now 16, says he can’t even now remember a time when he was not able to speak and understand French.
Katie had by the point of starting school stopped glowering. She had started off just plain angry. Why was everyone playing a speaking game that she couldn’t understand? And then it finally clicked. It was a new language and everyone here spoke it. She said the least in French out of all three children for the longest. And then it rolled out in sentences. Childlike but beautiful sentences.
The boys now had a need. They wanted to play in the playground, ask for food at school dinners, and work out what they were being asked to do in the class. They had a teacher come in once a week for an hour to boost their French, but basically it was full immersion. Sink or swim. And kids will always swim with a language when they need to. They are like sponges. They have an ear for sound and malleable muscles to reproduce those sounds.
Adam had the most difficulty initially. He remembers none of it. It was in ways we had not expected. He was good at maths in Scotland and we reassured him that maths is maths is maths wherever you are. But that is not the case. A point is a comma, and a comma is a point in French. That totally throws the decimal places. Lining up numbers to add or subtract was not the same. Division is done differently in France – to this day I still don’t really understand it. And of course the questions in maths are in French too.
And then there was the writing. Cursive, loopy writing in Nelson Script. Beautiful but mighty difficult to read if you are used to non-joined up, print writing. So words on the board, even in English, looked like a spider scrawl. And learning to unwrite, and then write in cursive script was a challenge. An unnecessary challenge I feel, because as soon as he was able in secondary school, he went right back to his old handwriting. Matt was young enough to be learning to read and write first time round, so it was less of a challenge.
We all learnt together the things French primary kids learn, like the names of the Departments or regions and main cities, or the names of the overseas territories. We did the spelling tests together and prepared for dictations. Us parents tried with the division, but failed. We learnt about Charlemagne, Louis XIX and other French historical figures.
We also learnt that napkins are important for school dinners at primary school. That a Wednesday off at primary school is great as a kid because never more than two days pass before you have a day off school to relax, absorb and take things slowly. And that as a parent you should never knowingly steer the topic of conversation at a parents night to food or which cheese should be served at the post school fete meal, or you won’t get home before midnight.
It took about 6 months before the kids got to grips with the basics of the language, and spelling and grammar came later, bit by bit. Our main job was, and still is, to keep up their English. Because what’s the point in learning one language only to forget, or not properly learn, another.
Looking back we’ve learnt a lot indeed.