Considering going to France for a year with kids -- crazy?
November 17, 2017 6:18 AM   Subscribe

I just learned that I can take a sabbatical (yay!), which would allow me to spend a year in France with my two kids and partner. Trying to think through whether this is a good idea.

No, I don't speak French, nor does my husband. I've always wanted my kids (who will then be 4 and 2) to learn a language at a young age, so going away for a year has always been a dream. And I love France. My sabbatical is only for a half a year, but I can take the other half unpaid and we can do that if we are able to rent out our home while we're away. My husband works mainly from home, but would have to go to London for a few days every couple of weeks (which is one of the main reasons why France appeals -- it's a really easy "commute" for him.)

Here are concerns I'd love thoughts on:

1. Location. We're thinking Lille, because it is easy to get back to London on the train and we've heard it's a lovely place. Of course Paris appeals, and it is one of my favorite cities (I've been many times) but it is generally not the friendliest place and not that easy to learn French there. I think I'd love to visit a lot but would prefer to try my luck living elsewhere. We've also thought of Brussels.

2. Kids. Is it mean to drop kids straight into French schools with no language skills already? Not worried about the 2 year old, but it would be an obvious shock for the four year old. We would do some kind of French classes here, and my husband and I would work like crazy to get conversational before we left and during the year. But yeah, I'm thinking it would be hard. Still, I think it would be way easier now than in five years, which is when I might be able to take another sabbatical.

3. Keeping up the language? If one of the reasons to go away is to get the kids to learn the language, is there any feasible way to keep this up when we return? Or would they lose it so quickly? We would try to get a French babysitter, go to France a lot, and spend another year there while they were children. We live in an area with a lot of French families and might be able to find one who also want their kids to keep up the language. Not sure if that's enough.

4. Visa stuff. We're looking at other fora for this as well, because I know this is quite specialized, but would love any advice if anyone has some. One of us is a EU citizen (not British, so not worried about Brexit), our children are also EU citizens, but one of us is American. The problem is whether the American can come with the EU citizen, if it's not obvious the move is for the EU citizen's work.

5. French bureaucracy just seems insane -- getting health insurance, registering for schools, etc. seems like a nightmare. Is there someone to hire to help sort this stuff out? I'm worried about handling it when neither of us speaks French.

6. French schools. We're hoping both can go to maternelle (in Lille it seems some 2 years can go.) Is there any way to tell what is a nice one in advance? Will we get any choice? How hard is it to register?

7. Renting property. Any thoughts on this? We're not worried too much about renting our place out at home, which we've done before in the past pretty easily. But I don't know what renting apartments in France is like, and how much you cab look in advance.

Any advice at all much appreciated; we literally just started exploring these possibilities, and are excited but nervous about it!

posted by caoimhe to Travel & Transportation around Lille, France (14 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Kids adapt extremely quickly. Your 4 year old will learn french faster than you. When they arrive back at the states, they will remember french for approximately 2 weeks before forgetting it.

It sounds like an amazing trip, and learning a new language could definitely help your children's development, but the only case where someone keeps a language and isn't still "immersed" is if it's what's spoken at home all the time, including on TV and the radio and social media - a lot more difficult than one would think.

My two cents. If I could take that experience I still would in a heartbeat, but just because it's fun, not necessarily because of the supposed educational benefit to your children.
posted by bbqturtle at 6:24 AM on November 17, 2017 [9 favorites]

I work in a university. We sometimes have post-doctoral students come here to conduct research with our faculty. Several times they've brought their families. They all loved having the experience of bringing their kids to Boston for 10 - 12 months. One enrolled his child in a local public elementary school and he was just so thrilled with how far her English came along by going to school. The other one that brought her family, her child was too young for school, but she loved all the opportunities for kids.

I bet you and your kids will have a similar experience in France.
posted by zizzle at 6:45 AM on November 17, 2017

Adam Gopnik's book Paris to the Moon is about this - it's old enough that it probably won't be useful for answering your specific logistical questions, but I think it's a good look at what the overall experience could be like.
posted by Mchelly at 7:17 AM on November 17, 2017 [1 favorite]

... but one of us is American. The problem is whether the American can come with the EU citizen, if it's not obvious the move is for the EU citizen's work.

Absolutely. In fact, that is how I came to Europe.

The spouse of an EU citizen inherits most of the same rights as an EU citizen.
posted by vacapinta at 7:19 AM on November 17, 2017

I can only answer to #2: I was dropped straight into an English-speaking first grade school after speaking a different language my entire 6 years up till then. (Apparently I had "learned English" from a tutor and in pre-school, but none of that had any practical use in the moment.) The first day I would run into corners and cry, because I kept not understanding what people wanted from me. A few days later I understood but wasn't able to reply yet. After a month there was nothing stressful about the situation and I had two new best friends who spoke two other different languages and a month's worth of English, which is how we managed to communicate just fine. Children really are resilient. I am very grateful to have had that experience, now.

As for keeping up the language, this one year will make it much easier to re-engage with the language later, even if it gets dropped in-between. If that doesn't end up being in the cards, just having learned another language is beneficial to cognition, in itself.
posted by Pwoink at 7:27 AM on November 17, 2017 [2 favorites]

As for your first question, I am very familiar with Lille (my husband is from there) and Lille is one of the most down-to-earth, approachable and friendly cities in France I've experienced. It's reasonably progressive, has all the benefits that a student-friendly city has, and a good art and music scene. The main drawback is the English weather. Access to London is about as quick as it can be from France.

Two year olds can enter into maternelle chez les petits, and four year olds will be chez les grands. Your two year old might also be in a crèche, (daycare). Ecoles maternelles can be public or private. Public ones are assigned based on where you live, although you can ask for une dérogation to attend another of your choice. Private ones may or may not be selective in their admission, depending on whether the school is contracted with the government. Because it's dependent on where you live, you might not be able to do much about this until you have your address established. A number of our friends have young kids and I can make inquiries about specifics if you want, memail me.

A French-speaking babysitter before and after your stay is going to be key. I have had French-speaking childcare for my kids for several years now, and it's made all the difference in their levels of natural French (instead of book-learned French).
posted by Liesl at 7:35 AM on November 17, 2017 [1 favorite]

I have no direct experience but a friend recently moved to Spain (from US) with her daughter for a year, dropped her non-Spanish speaking daughter into the local school, and had a great time. I think this is a once in a lifetime opportunity for you and the kids. Take it!
posted by latkes at 7:47 AM on November 17, 2017

If you're serious about this idea (which seems amazing, btw), start learning French right now. The more comfortable you are in the language, the less intimidating the bureaucratic stuff will be. And even if it's still intimidating, you'll be able to have conversations with people who can guide you through it.
posted by witchen at 8:22 AM on November 17, 2017 [3 favorites]

bbqturtle: "but the only case where someone keeps a language and isn't still "immersed" is if it's what's spoken at home all the time, including on TV and the radio and social media "

As an alternative datapoint: I lived in the US from ages 3-8, and it took me a few weeks to start speaking English. On return to Chile I kept speaking English, at least so far. I'm 46 now. It helped that my brother spoke it too, though we stopped speaking English to each other around our teen years. My parents never spoke English to us, our friends didn't speak it and the local TV, movies, etc., were all in Spanish.

My 10 year old son, who's never been in an English speaking country, is fully bilingual in English and Spanish, because I speak English exclusively to him, set the TV to English, and YouTube is mostly in English as well. My brother is doing the same with his youngest and at 5 she speaks better English than Spanish.

So, it's possible to learn and hold on to a language without full immersion, but it takes some doing.
posted by signal at 8:43 AM on November 17, 2017 [2 favorites]

Lille was part of Flanders, which means beer.
posted by brujita at 10:31 AM on November 17, 2017

We had a three month sabbatical in Lille when our kids were 1 and 3.5 - it was great. Kid no1 went to the maternelle for half days (so wouldn't be too demanding for him) and we found a local nanny for the baby. It's a really fun city- plenty to do but not so huge it's overwhelming, and easy to navigate by bike or bus. Paris not far at all for the odd day trip & the Lillois are were generally very friendly and more relaxed than Parisians. Seconding the recommendation to improve your French as much as possible before you go. You'll have more fun, meet more people, and get more out of it if you do. Also it just shows willing.
posted by melisande at 12:51 PM on November 17, 2017 [2 favorites]

Great idea!

We looked into german immersion nursery for Baby Tinkletown, and the nursery manager told us than most three year olds are fully fluent within six months (with their only german exposure being through nursery). So your children should be fluent quicker than that if they also have French television, French in shops etc.

In terms of keeping their French going, there may be French immersion nurseries or Saturday classes locally. There are loads near us, but obviously London has a lot of French expats. Failing that, you could get a French speaking au pair or nanny for after school care.
posted by tinkletown at 2:29 PM on November 17, 2017

Your kids are very lucky that you have this opportunity; having grown up in a number of countries (including France), my vote is: definitely go for it. As your kids are young, and it sounds like it’s definitely only going to be a single year, I wouldn’t focus too much on them acquiring a specific second language to keep - the key experience will be that other languages exist, and that they can live in other languages. Even though at four they’re still consolidating their mother tongue, and the focus of their life is still so much within the family and home, to have life exposure to a new language is already going to reconfigure their event-horizon (so to speak), and to live things in French will fundamentally inform/enrich their experience of language as such; it’s less about the specific competence they’ll acquire during this parenthesis in their life, than about what it seeds in general. (Think of it this way: what specific skills from when you were two/four do you remember?) So, seconding bbqturtle and Pwoink above: just to offer them this experience of an “other” framework is the actual awesome gift you’ll be giving them.
posted by progosk at 3:19 AM on November 18, 2017 [2 favorites]

Sorry for the late update! I think we will do this if we can :). I hadn't really thought about how valuable it would be regardless of whether the kids keep the language, but that's an excellent point. Many thanks everyone!
posted by caoimhe at 4:03 AM on November 22, 2017

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