Saturday, 15 March 2008

This e-mail arrived in my Inbox the other day:


I am a single mom to a wonderful 14 (almost 15) month old daughter. I was born and raised in California and am attending UCLA right now completing my BA in English Lit. I still have almost two years left, but I am strongly considering moving to Europe for grad school. My ex already said he would be supportive of my moving anywhere as long as he can have open visitation with our daughter where we live..... so I am trying to find leads on grad programs in or around London, Rome, Paris or the South of France with excellent Creative Writing programs..... any insight? Also which place do you feel is best to raise children.... best for single moms, best for expats? Any advice would be helpful.


Mommy to Taylor

Here is my response:


Congrats on being a student and single mom! I know that it must be hard sometimes to get the university papers done and take care of a toddler. Way to go!

For grad studies, if you want to study in Europe, then I would go with Paris. My considerations are as follows:

London is obviously best for language of study but London is incredibly expensive and it will also be difficult to get free, quality preschool or kindergarten for your daughter.

Paris has the American University of Paris and many (French) universities. Paris is a pretty family-friendly city - there are countless playgrounds and activities for kids available throughout the year. What is more, your daughter would have the right (assuming she was at least age three), to attend quality universal public and free école maternelle (French preschool /kindergarten) half- or all-day (virtually all children attend, so your daughter will have few or no playmates if you keep her out of it).

Paris also has an excellent support system for expat parents in a group called Message Mother Support Group. I haven't seen an organization like it in any other city.

Rome has the American University of Rome as well as John Cabot Univerity. Universal preschool also starts at age three here. The network for expats is much more limited than in Paris. There is nothing like Message Mother Support Group here. There is the American Women's Association of Rome but it tends to be focused on older women who have lived here for 20 years.

Good luck in your pursuits and let me know what you decide and if you have any more questions, just send me another email!

If you have a question that you would like to ask about taking your family abroad or teaching your child a new language at home, drop me an email at!

*Names have been changed.

Monday, 10 March 2008

Bilingual children do better!

You may already know that bilingual schoolchildren perform significantly better on standardized tests, are better at problem solving, are better at mathematics and, of course, language. But did you know that bilingual children also tend to read earlier?

Dr. Ellen Bialystok, a York University linguist, concluded from her studies that children who are exposed to a second language early in life learn to read at a younger age than their monolingual peers. In her study, preschool children were tested on their understanding of letters as symbols. The children who spoke English only could recite the letters but could not read without the help of pictures. On the other hand, the bilingual preschoolers understood written language without the use of pictures. The bilingual children scored twice as high on language tests as the monolingual children. Dr. Bialystok concluded that the bilingual children were simply better prepared to tie symbols to words and words to meaning!

Friday, 7 March 2008

Language Immersion - Can it work?

Language immersion is getting popular these days. Mandarin immersion schools are popping up everywhere between San Diego and Vancouver. French immersion schools are available for children throughout English-speaking Canada. And of course, more and more Spanish immersion schools are appearing everywhere in the United States. But here is the 60,ooo Dollar (or is that Euro, nowadays?) question: does language immersion work?

Here in Rome, Italian parents are so eager for their children to speak another language that I often have the opportunity to meet Italian children who attend the French school or one of the English schools. The results are...not stunning. Most of the kids can understand the immersion language fine but their speaking ability remains limited.

This is not surprising. Even at a French or English school in Rome, the classrooms are filled with...other Italian children... who guessed it, Italian with one another. So the children are getting exposure to the immersion language exclusively from their teachers. In that environment, it is unlikely that the child will ever become bilingual as a result of immersion alone. He or she may eventually be able to speak the language somewhat fluently but even there, there are many, many cases where this simply does not happen.

Another risk of immersion is that the child learns to read and write neither the immersion language, nor his or her mother tongue very well...

My advice for those considering immersion education for their children is this: unless you can offer additional support for your child in that language either at home or in the local environment, don't expect your child to become bilingual!

Who can provide additional language-support to a child who attends an immersion school? Any mother tongue-speaker you can find. A parent or grandparent who speaks the language (as a mother tongue, mind you), an au-pair, a babysitter or a nanny. What is crucial is that there be someone in addition to just the teachers at school, either in family life or in the local environment (for example, if your child is in Spanish immersion AND you live in a predominantly hispanic neighbourhood where your child hears Spanish spoken every day), who speaks to your child in that language on a frequent and regular basis.

Saturday, 1 March 2008

Why won't my child speak to me in English?

Over the years, I have had the opportunity to meet many "transplanted" moms. Unlike "expat" moms who are just in a foreign country for a defined term, transplanted moms have effectively immigrated to the country and adopted it as their new home. Often, a transplanted mom's husband is a "local".

Of all the challenges that transplanted moms face, getting their kids to speak English often is the most difficult one to surmount.Take Andrea. She is from the United Kingdom, married to a French guy and lives in France. They have two school-aged daughters.

"I thought raising my kids in English would be automatic," Andrea says. "It never occurred to me when they were born that they might not be bilingual."But at age 12 and 10, Andrea's girls are nowhere near bilingual. While Andrea has consistently spoken to her daughters in English from the day they were born, her daughters, from their first word, have always spoken to their mom in French. Attempting to read an English book is too much of a chore to even bother and watching movies in anything but the dubbed "version française" is a challenge for them.

"Friends said that I should refuse to answer my girls when they asked me a question in French," Andrea says. "I called that 'language blackmail' and I refused to engage in it. Now I regret not having taken that approach."

Andrea is one of many transplanted moms who just can't get her kids to bother with English. They understand when their mom talks to them and that's about the extent of their fluency.

Here are some tips for avoiding this situation.

1. Recognize that your child needs a minimum amount of time per week exposed to English if she is going to learn to understand and speak the language fluently. Your child is not going absorb the English language by osmosis just because one of her parents happens to be an English speaker. Most experts in multilingualism say that a child needs about 20 to 24 hours per week of exposure to English to gain true fluency. Exposure, for this purpose, includes listening to a person talk to the child in that language, listening to people talk to each other in English, hearing it on television or radio, and the child herself speaking English.

Lots of moms complain that their child does not speak English but when you get the details of the exposure the child gets, it looks something like this: the minority language parent works full time and the child is in the local school or daycare where he hears the local language all day. He only sees the minority parent a couple of hours per weekday. Part of the time at home, the minority parent is talking to his or her spouse, in the local language of course. Then on the weekend, the family is with friends and relatives and of course the local parent has to speak the local language with the friends and relatives. Then there is the TV, which broadcasts in the local language... You get the picture.

If you want your child to learn your language, you are going to have to make an effort to make it happen. This may mean ensuring that you talk to your child as much as possible when you are home (more than you normally talk), getting a English-mother-tongue babysitter to pick your child up from daycare early and spend a couple of hours with her, and/or avoiding the relatives on weekends and getting together with other English-speaking families. Bilingualism is not going to happen if you are not ensuring adequate exposure in some way.

2. Always speak to your child in English. This piece of advice sounds self-evident, yet how often I heard my Anglo-saxon mommy friends in France tell their little one to "get into the poussette" (the stroller) or that it was "time for their afternoon gouter" (snack).It is easy to fall into the trap of using local language words for certain items but whenever you do that, you 1) send the message that using the local language with you is acceptable and 2) deny your child an important piece of vocabulary in English. Imagine your child showing up in your home country when he is older and not knowing the English word for "snack"!

3. Original version only! In our home, we have a rule that when we watch a film or television show, it has to be in original version. We watch French films in French, English films in English and Italian films in Italian. Dubbing is something you have to get used to as a child to like. Adults who watch dubbed movies do so because they grew up with dubbed movies. If your child does not grow up watching dubbed versions, there is a good chance that he or she will always prefer watching the original English version of movies and shows when he is older, even if another language is his dominant language.

4. Books, radio, English! Spend at least half an hour reading to your small child in English. And make it a rule that all animated DVDs are to be watched in the English version (all non-animated stuff in the original version, of course!). You don't need to iterate this rule to your child. Just make it so. He wants a DVD? It gets put on in English. If you have access to an English radio station, tune into it! And don't forget to watch the news on CNN or BBC in addition to the local news that your partner insists on watching at 20h00 every evening!

5. If your spouse understands English, consider speaking to him in English if you do not already (at least when your child is with you). It might feel artificial at first but switching to English when talking to your spouse can ramp up the English exposure for your child significantly. Remember, your spouse can still talk to you in his language. This tactic also reinforces that association your child draws between you and your mother tongue.