How fast could my kid learn to speak French?
September 15, 2020 8:40 PM   Subscribe

How long would it take my language-skilled 5.5 year old to learn French in a fully French environment? Is 2 months "enough" in terms of language acquisition?

We (Canadian/American family) have the opportunity to live with close friends in France for two months. They are French. I am fully bilingual. My son is 5.5 and currently only speaks English but is interested in learning French and practices words that he learns. They have a daughter his age; he would likely go with her to her school and we would essentially be living only in French for 2 months. Is that long enough for him to make good progress on a language?

I assume the first month will be pretty hard for him, living surrounded by (nice!) people who don't really speak English to him. But does it make sense to do this for only 2 months (the amount of time we have) or is it just sort of destabilizing without a payoff of conversational French acquisition? Of course any amount of language learning is great; I would just conceive of this trip differently if everyone said "oh no no no, a kid needs at least 6 months to learn enough French to play with his friend."

I guess I am looking for your experiences of 5-ish year olds being immersed in a language and knowing about how long it took them to feel some comfort in a different language. We are all up for a good challenge, but I don't want to traumatize him for nothing. Thank you!
posted by andreapandrea to Writing & Language (19 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
My family moved from the US to Vienna when I was about to turn 5, and lived there for 3 years. My German now is not very good, although I can understand a fair amount and have a good accent. At the very beginning my parents placed me in a Kindergarten, and then I went to a bilingual school for 1st and 2nd grade.

My older brother who was 8 was placed in a German only school, and it was by all accounts a really awful experience for him. My oldest brother was 10, and went straight to the bilingual school and is actually bilingual in German to this day. I have fond memories on the other hand of my Kindergarten (less fond of 1st and 2nd grade, but that's because I had dyslexia and was trying to learn to read in both languages), and it's fun to see home videos from that time where I am at birthday parties switching between German and English.

It's impossible to give a timeline for how long it will take your child to learn French, but if he has a reason to keep playing in French when he gets back to Canada, the 2 months could be a great jumpstart. I think he's the right age for it, personally. But longterm language learning for kids in a context that doesn't generally/primarily speak that language is a whole different thing, as I'm sure you know.
posted by Corduroy at 9:18 PM on September 15 [1 favorite]

Either way, I think your family should do it :)
posted by Corduroy at 9:20 PM on September 15 [2 favorites]

In situations like this where the answer is very dependent on the individual rather than the norm, I would look at it not what is the upside but rather what is the downside. The upside is possibly language acquisition and certainly an amazing experience. If your son appreciates that you are there to support him if he is struggling such as translating or explaining things after the fact, he should have a great experience.

What is the downside? He does not pick up the French language and feels isolated. He does not get along with the daughter of your friend. He is shunned in school. Well, if school is not going well, you can help or can even pull him out. It is 2 months in the life of a 5 yo. As for two 5 yo's playing together without speaking, that happens everyday even when they do speak the same language. My oldest, when she was 6, spent two weeks with her grandparents in Italy. Neither she nor her grandparents spoke much if any Italian. At the end of the two weeks, my daughter was able to talk to the host family (friends) at dinner enough to get across what she wanted, what she did not want and to apparently make some good toddler jokes. (While she retained none of it a few months later, she did go on to do a semester of college abroad in Italy and based on her Instagram account, was thriving in Florence and Rome. But I digress...)

I have a friend who moved here when he was 16 from a Spanish speaking country and he said he learned a lot of English watching bad TV sitcoms. I think your son will absorb a lot by simply being immersed.

I think the biggest downside issue is not the language barrier but just the new experience in general and being in a whole new environment. Some children adapt well and some do not. If your son is primed in advance to the exciting experience, knows that you will be supportive, and has a personality where they are somewhat outgoing or at least not what I called "turtling" or going into a shell, it should be a great experience for the entire family.

I am not a language expert, but I do not see this experience, even if it is not a rousing success, being tramatizing.

My advice is to go for it! In the lead up talk it up as an exciting experience, how much fun it is , how he can learn some new words, how he can make new friends and how many stories he can tell his current friends when he comes back.

(It was just suggested to me to suggest to you that even if the teachers at school have no or little English knowledge to communicate or support your son, that you could give them a translation device to use in case they want to make some points in English that they know your son will comprehend.)
posted by AugustWest at 10:04 PM on September 15 [2 favorites]

We moved from the Netherlands to Denmark a few months before I turned 5. Danish neighbours on one side, a Dutch couple, about ten years older than my parents, no children, on the other. Some of my dad's colleagues were Dutch with kids my age, but just one of them in what for me was walking/cycling distance. Also, a farm run by an English farmer across the road.
Sorry, I have no frigging idea how much Danish I could speak after two months, but it was more than 'just a bit'. After three months a Dutch school started and I was taken in. At that point my Danish, as well as English, was passable.

But this was a different situation than you and your son would be in.
posted by Stoneshop at 10:27 PM on September 15 [1 favorite]

My family moved from Quebec to English Canada when my brother was this age. None of the kids spoke any English (yes-no-toaster English, as we called it in Montreal!)

Within two months he had a new best friend who spoke English exclusively, and went straight into (English) grade one, where he needed a bit of ESL support but was generally fine.

Would you be able to get your kid into a French immersion program when you return to Canada?
posted by third word on a random page at 10:43 PM on September 15

As others have said above, what happens during the two months depends a lot on the individual child. Some are really fast learners, others need to listen for a while and then they suddenly start talking.
What happens after the two months, at that age, depends a lot on you. Apparently, I was fluent in French when I was 8, because we lived in a house in Germany where there was a French family with kids the same age as my brother and myself in the other apartment. I have a French aunt, and she was very pleased with this. Then we came to live in Denmark, and I didn't use the French until I was 15 or 16 when my dad moved to Belgium. I didn't go with him, but I visited, and we traveled in France, and I took French in school, but I had lost most of my vocabulary during the years between 8 and 15. I never got back to fluency, though I can manage basic stuff in French.
My brother never became as fluent in the first place, and he forgot even more than I did, but ironically, he is much better than me at French today because he worked in France for some years as a young adult.
posted by mumimor at 11:38 PM on September 15

I am a bilingual parent of two bilingual kids. I think the 2 months would be worth it if afterwards you start speaking mostly/exclusively French with your kid. Otherwise, he'll probably forget most of what he learned there. Kids need reinforcement and motivation to retain languages learned early.
posted by gakiko at 2:41 AM on September 16 [7 favorites]

A few years ago, I coached a couple of recently-arrived kids (Spanish-speaking) for a sport I'm involved in. The 8-year-old brother was able to have complex conversations in English, while the 11-year-old brother really struggled to communicate, to the point where his younger brother had to translate most things for him.

So yes, receptivity to new languages is really variable.

Another bit of anecdata - I went to university with a woman who'd moved to France as a baby and left at eight or nine. By the age of 18, when I met her, she couldn't speak any French, despite having once been basically a native speaker.
posted by pipeski at 3:50 AM on September 16 [1 favorite]

This was a long time ago, but in 1959 my family moved from the Netherlands to the US. I was 10, my brother was 7 and my sister was 4. For three or four months, we lived in a hotel, which was a nice immersive experience since we got to know the entire hotel staff, who spoke nothing but English. Plus, after a few weeks my brother and I were sent to school, basically thrown in the deep end. Certainly after two months all three of us were quite fluent in English. It sounds like you will provide a similar experience to your son, and I predict he will totally pick up French, especially given the interest you say he has in learning it.

A side benefit is that children who learn a second language at that age typically speak it without an accent — even if they forget or disuse it and then return to it as teenagers or young adults.
posted by beagle at 4:35 AM on September 16

At that age, I would expect your son to pick up French fairly quickly, but if there's no or minimal exposure afterward I would expect it to go nearly as quickly.

As food for thought, "heritage speakers" (e.g., American/Canadian-born children of non-Anglophone/Francophone immigrants to the US/Canada) who have been exposed to their heritage language since birth and are often functionally monolingual in that language, pick up English (or French) once they start school very very quickly.

But by the same token many of those heritage speakers often lose proficiency in their heritage language with equal rapidity, or regress to having good comprehension but very poor production in that language, even with continued exposure at home via parents/family for their entire childhood/teenage years.

Children pick up very quickly on subconscious sociolinguistic cues -- i.e. which language is the majority language, which language allows them to have fun with their friends, which language is that of education, and it can be a challenge to maintain fluency in a language if it's restricted to a small variety of situations.

None of this is to say that you shouldn't do this, or that your kid won't be able to pick up French again later with alacrity, but just to set some expectations about long-term effects.
posted by andrewesque at 5:02 AM on September 16 [3 favorites]

Is your little guy an auditory learner?

Can he play close attention to a conversation in a noisy place especially one where there are other conversations going on and understand and retain what he hears?

Can he remember complex multi-step verbal instructions? He needs enough short term memory to follow when someone says three or five different sentences in succession. (E.g. We have to go to the store today but can't go until lunch. I wanted to stop at the shoe store but there won't be time. We'll go to the library first, then get groceries and pick up your Dad on the way home. - If he doesn't have a clue what you will be doing today and when he doesn't have it, but if he forgets that you are picking up groceries but remembers he won't get new shoes but will get books and see Dad he's got it.)

Can he listen well when things are relatively boring and not get distracted? Can he follow conversations between two adults not intentionally directed at his level?

Can he hear precise distinctions between very similar vowel sounds?

If you can say yes about these he is a good candidate for this.

Does your little guy sometimes turn off his vision in order to concentrate on what he is hearing, such as doodling when someone is talking to him so as to keep listening? This is a negative sign because in a short window like this you want him to be lip reading and picking up nuances of expression. However it's also a good sign if he has picked up doing this on his own because he can develop his own strategies for increasing his concentration.

Does he stammer at all or can he chatter away at length? If he is a little chatter box it's good.

When you bring him home again can you put him into French Immersion or better yet into a French language school?

Can you keep him well immersed in daily French at home? Ready access to kid's programming, TV in French, books, work books, people who will talk to him in good French?

Basically it's probably a good investment either way because it will be really good for his developing brain. Even if he ends up not using French and losing it later in life knowing two languages will give him better ability to distinguish between closely related sounds - he'll be better able to adapt and follow two different American accents later, for example. He'll end up with a bigger bank of sounds.

My guess is that he is absolutely a good candidate for this if he is already learning French and enjoys it. There are many kids at five being raised in unilingual households who do not yet have a concept of there being more than one language. He's motivated and has already started? Yes, he could be gifted at languages with a little support.
posted by Jane the Brown at 5:06 AM on September 16 [1 favorite]

I was coming to say something similar to andrewesque. I have an ex who had a serious talent for languages and one Francophone parent, but grew up in the US with English at home. As a child, he'd go to France, pick up French in a matter of weeks, come back to the US, lose it, repeat the next year. I think he got to the point of fluency very rapidly as a teenager when he started doing French in school and switched to using it with his parent.
posted by hoyland at 5:14 AM on September 16 [1 favorite]

Kids need reinforcement and motivation to retain languages learned early.

In my case those 2.5 years, plus two years of having a Norwegian schoolmate at 14, had sufficient impact that I can still understand, read and (to some extent) speak Danish/Norwegian. Including having a decent grasp of which half of a Danish word to not pronounce.
posted by Stoneshop at 5:28 AM on September 16 [1 favorite]

The wide range of experiences has been covered.

Your plan, and a lot of the answers here, seem to rely on him attending school in France during your visit. Have you actually confirmed if your child would be eligible to attend school in France? It sounds as if you’ll be visiting as tourists and not registering to live there so the French state may not be required to provide him with an education. And if that’s the case, the school may let a visiting friend tag along for a few days but two months seems unlikely. And they may not want to have a child on the premises who is not meant to be there from a liability perspective. So perhaps check that.
posted by koahiatamadl at 5:34 AM on September 16 [2 favorites]

There are whole layers of language acquisition. I have a child who abhors language learning, and I put him in a not-great late immersion program for three years, which he did not love but put up with because his friends were in the class.

He is in no way fluent, and yet, his ear and his accent are better than average and he aced Core (regular) French. If he needs to study French later (for Canada's civil service, for example), I think it will help. So I don't see the downside, unless you find your child is stressed out, in which case you can always change your mind.

One thing about being thrown into an immersion environment is that it is really tiring so be prepared for some meltdowns and to prioritize sleep. :)
posted by warriorqueen at 7:50 AM on September 16 [1 favorite]

My child (from a monolingual English household) entered a Spanish dual-immersion kindergarten (so all-English one day, all-Spanish the next). I had three years of Spanish in high school, and it took only 6 weeks before his accent was noticeably better than mine. But I agree it won't last unless you really work on retaining it.
posted by wnissen at 9:21 AM on September 16

If you have the time beforehand, start him in a bilingual/immersion program at home first. Why waste half your time in France struggling with the ABCs? It will make the transition much easier if he already knows things like how to ask to use the bathroom and he will probably be able to absorb more during your actual stay.

However, I am also nthing andrewesque, hoyland, and everyone else emphasizing the need to actively maintain language skills. Yes children can pick up languages very quickly but two months of exposure isn't going to magically install a French language module in your son's brain that he will be able to flip back on later. It won't stick unless there's a reason to practice and make it stick.

All that being said, I think this sounds like it would be a fun experience even if he got absolutely no language skills out of it. Every child is different, of course, but two months abroad at the age of 5 doesn't seem likely to become a destabilizing or traumatic experience, especially since you do speak French and can buffer him as much (or as little) as he needs. I hope it works out for your family!
posted by yeahlikethat at 10:43 AM on September 16

What a wonderful opportunity! I read a blog by an American woman called Gabrielle Blair who lives in France with her family.

They moved there for two years when her six children ranged in age from toddlers to middle school, then came back to the states for a few years and just moved back to France last year.

She's written many posts about their schooling and language acquisition in France that I think would be very interesting to you! Here's two where I'd start:

Good luck!
posted by monster_a at 12:36 PM on September 16

I personally think it's a wonderful opportunity and I would seize it.

Whether or not your son learns any meaningful amount of French, I wouldn't worry that being immersed in a different language will be destabilizing for him. He hasn't been alive long enough to be fixed in his ways! For young kids, everything about the world is new. Novelty is normal. As long as they have the security of their parents' presence, most kids do fine in new environments.* Or even thrive.

* I realize that for some kids, this isn't true. But you know your kid.

As for the kindergarten, my bet is that how your son responds will be more a function of how comfortable he is with being in a new environment apart from his parents than with the language. But in either case, if he's unhappy, it doesn't sound like you need to push it. You can just pull him out.

I'd also like to reinforce what others have mentioned above--the importance of continued exposure to French after you return to the US to maintain the learning. The downside to the fact kids learn languages very easily is that without reinforcement, they forget them very easily too. I lived in Spain from about the ages of 1 to 5. I'm told that I and my older brother were as fluent in Spanish as native-born kids when we returned to the US. Unfortunately, at that point, we were no longer exposed to the language, and it wasn't long before we had forgotten Spanish so completely that it was as if we'd never learned it in the first place.

You said you speak fluent French, so you, of course, could reinforce your son's language learning. But it takes effort. My parents also spoke Spanish (as a 2nd language), but they reverted entirely to English when we returned to the US.
posted by Transl3y at 10:12 AM on September 17

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