The White Family

Instead of beginning Year Five at St.Mary’s Preparatory School in Lincoln, Jared White started the school year in Evron, France. This was the beginning of his ALLEF exchange. ALLEF (the Association for Learning Languages en Famille) has organised 300 exchanges for children aged eight to 11-years-old in the past ten years.

The first day of school for Jared was the result of a detailed process that had begun almost six months earlier. But unlike most language exchanges of a few weeks’ duration, Jared stayed on until February living with his exchange partner, Paul Richardot, also ages 11, and his family.

Five months later, Jared was speaking French fluently. So much so that in his first few days back at home, it was his English that was halting. Months of total immersion in French language and culture have given Jared a firm grasp of a second language.

Peter Farnfield, whose son Marcus also completed an ALLEF exchange, said that his oldest son, Tom, who studied French throughout his independent education with good exam results does not speak French at more than a basic level of competency, while Marcus is truly fluent in French.

In daily living, a child uses the language as the necessary tool that it is. The hesitation or embarrassment of speaking a foreign language is forced aside as the necessity of communication forces the mind to grasp the language. Language acquisition studies consistently show that in learning a language it is a case of the younger the better. ALLEF has also found that the exchange process is far more successful with this age group than with teenagers. At this age, the children adapt and accept their new environment much more readily.

Learning to adapt and live in another culture creates a deeper understanding and appreciation for differences in all aspects of life. In an ALLEF exchange families and schools learn that there are many approaches to learning and life.

François, our first exchange ‘son’, was completely self-contained and showed us the art and language of the Gallic shrug to be more than just a gesture, but truly a way of tolerating what one did not necessarily like without offending others.

Paul, on the other hand, was extremely emotive on a wide variety of issues and quite vociferous in expressing his opinions, which in our somewhat quiet family taught us the value of a good rousing argument. Such important issues as the merits of liberal doses of vinegar on fried eggs and other culinary quirks were argued with a passion only a young Frenchman can muster.  So language fluency is not the only benefit of doing an ALLEF exchange. Children gain confidence in their own abilities and learn independence in the process.

As the mother of two ALLEF graduates, I can say that the exchange experience has made my boys much more confident. They can do something that their parents, and a lot of other people find difficult. And, another bonus: they learned to like vegetables! Not every child wants to do such an exchange, but for those that do, ALLEF offers a unique opportunity for exchanges to France or Germany. The main objective is to match suitable English families with a suitable French or German family.

ALLEF does this using detailed application forms and a home visit, which is then followed by interviews where the whole family participate. During the initial stages of the process, after ALLEF feels they have a suitable match, the families are given a dossier on the prospective exchange child and then are encouraged to meet before going forward with any plans. When our family went for a visit to the Gallot-Lavallée family in Corsier, Switzerland, for Seth’s exchange, Jared, inspired by his big brother’s opportunity, decided to begin the exchange process. But it wasn’t easy, especially at the beginning. Even though Jared felt a welcome part of the Richardot family, he felt quite homesick.The Richardots helped him in the early days by speaking slowly, naming household objects and repeating themselves frequently. But they did not spend hours tutoring him in French.

ALLEF suggests that family life be as normal as possible, with the exchange child attending school with their exchange partner. Schools are not expected to make special arrangements for the exchange children. They attend class and at the beginning are just expected to listen. But by the end of term they are participating fully in class. Sue Chapman, then a teacher at St. Mary’s, said that toward the end of term Paul, who became well known for his gregarious, chatty nature, “could hardly keep from answering every question put to the class.”

Mark Upton, headmaster at St. Mary’s said: “The exchange went very smoothly from our point of view. It wasn’t difficult to absorb Paul into life at school and friendships were quickly formed. This opportunity benefited St Mary’s by enabling pupils to gain first hand experience of a child from a different culture. “I would have no hesitation in supporting similar changes. It is important, however, to ensure that the visiting pupil is linked with a form teacher offering direct pastoral support and the school must have a good ongoing relationship with the host family.”

On a practical note, we continued to pay school fees while our boys were in France as if they were still in the UK and then the school allowed the French children to attend without any additional fees.

The exchange experience continues long after the initial exchange. Seth skis with François in Switzerland and Jared tends to go to Paul’s for a few weeks inthe summer, thus brushing up their French and their friendships. We return the favour and have Francois and Paul back for school holidays with us. How long this will continue is up to the boys themselves.

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