WHEN 11-year-old Lizzie family returned home from France last’ summer they left behind one very important thing – Lizzie.
She stayed on, living as part of a French family for six months and learning a new culture and a new, language. Now- she’s back, self-assured, bilingual and accompanied by her new `sister’ Morgane Even, who will spend the next six months in Sheffield.
The swap has been organised by ALLEF, a non-profit-making charity which arranges six-month exchanges between English and French children aged eight to 11.
It’s an opportunity to become immersed in another culture, to experience France as a native rather than as a tourist and to become fluent in the language. But the prospect of leaving a much-loved child among strangers for six months is not one easily undertaken by most parents.
“It was difficult, particularly for her mum,” admits dad Martin Hughes. “But we were reassured because we’d gone through a fairly robust process to get her there, the family seemed very nice and welcoming and we knew it was only for six months.”
Lizzie’s big adventure began after she met an ALLEF `graduate’ and made up her mind she wanted to try the experience herself.
After filling in detailed forms, going through official police checks and a lengthy interview process, the family were matched with their counterparts in Vannes, Britanny, and the exchange was set in motion.
There was no time for a trial visit, so in August Lizzie set off to meet her new `family’ – and four days later her dad, mum Cherry and six year-old brother Sam returned home, leaving her behind.
“The girls liked each other immediately. They both enjoy art and craft and they had booked Lizzie in for a kayaking course at the big lagoon near their home, so they had quite a lot in common.”
Weekly phone calls reassured Martin and Cherry that Lizzie was settling in: “I think homesickness was a problem at first but, that’s expected for the first couple of months. Once the language picked up she was fine.”
Visits are strongly discouraged, so Lizzie spent her eleventh birthday and Christmas with her new family and excitement mounted as the date for her return approached.
She finally arrived home in Nether Edge last week: “It’s great to have her back – and to hear her talking French like a native. I’d forgotten what a brilliant kid she was,” says Martin, proudly.
And four days later 11-year-old Morgane arrived to start her six month stay in Sheffield.
Morgane has already made new friends at Hunters Bar Junior School, has signed up with Lizzie for the Sheffield Music Service choir and is looking forward to a family holiday in London and a camp with the local Woodcraft Folk.
“Certainly Morgane’s English is better than Lizzie’s French was but she’s very hesitant. “No doubt that will soon change once she gets used to living in England,” says Martin.
“This system wouldn’t be right for every child but it’s certainly worked for Lizzie and she’ll probably draw on it for the rest of her life.”
Sheffield Telegraph March 2003