We asked them: are you French or British?
In search of that elusive “quality of life” including, in many cases, a higher quality of free education for our children, we bought one-way tickets across the channel and enticed the children to come along with promises of bigger gardens and endless pains au chocolat.
At least they’ll be bilingual, we told ourselves. And, anyway, children are very adaptable.
Indeed, the advantages of bilingualism, apart from increasing your value in a global jobs market, are now widely accepted and well documented and far outweigh any minor inconveniences. The Canadian psychologist Dr Ellen Bialystok is one of the world’s leading researchers into bilingualism and says that bilingual children think more flexibly since they understand that there is more than word for objects and ideas. They are more willing and able to learn further languages whilst also scoring higher in verbal tests in their first language and performing better in maths, logic and problem solving.
Bilinguals also develop sensitivity to other people and cultures and since they need to be aware which language to use they are more attentive listeners.
As they grow to understand their gift for bridging different languages and cultures, their self-esteem and self-confidence grows accordingly.
However, becoming bilingual is not merely a matter of being able to speak another language. Learning a language, especially if it’s the language of the country you are living in, inevitably involves acquiring the values, attitudes and behaviours of the host country. In French schools, our children have assimilated a Napoleonic world outlook. They are not British teenagers who speak fluent French; whether we expected this to happen or not, they are British kids who are also French kids - bicultural as well as bilingual.
When they swap languages, they are also swapping cultures and attitudes. In some cases even personalities. To some extent we all have a range of personalities depending on whom we are with and what we are doing- and even monolingual children may be quite different at home and at school.
In bilinguals, these dual identities can be very pronounced. Research by the University of Texas in 2006 into English/Spanish bilinguals found that they were more extrovert, agreeable and conscientious when using English and concluded that people who speak two languages “feel like a different person depending on which language they are speaking”.
The same personality shift is common among children of Indian immigrants in Britain who feel and behave like “Westerners” in English but drop these attitudes when using their mother tongue.
This is perhaps why our interviewees all say that they prefer to keep their English and French friends separate - each group sees a different side of their personality.
So, while the decision to live in France is frequently no more than a lifestyle choice for parents, the experiment has far reaching consequences for our children. Their bilingualism is not just an extra skill, something to put on the cv. The ability to move between languages, cultures and even personalities becomes an integral part of their who they now are.
But how do they view the results? Are they French or English? Foreigners in both countries or confident European citizens?
We asked teenagers who have lived all or most of their school lives in France: who do you think you are?
Vita Anichkina, 15 yrs, started her French education in CM1 (primary school) and is now in seconde (first year lycée). She is a weekly boarder at a pioneering bilingual lycée in Rennes and studying for the option international du baccalauréat.
“I am English, definitely. But I am also 100% French - or rather Normand, as Normandy has its own strong cultural identity within France. Because this is the culture I have grown up in, this is also who I am.
Even though I haven’t spent much time there, I don’t feel foreign in England nor foreign in France but completely comfortable in both. But I don’t really use the word 'foreign'. If we open our presents on the 25th December rather than the 24th, or put gravy on a roast dinner, I don’t think of it as because we are “foreign” or “English” but because that is what we do in our family. Each family has its own rituals and traditions and these are ours.
Nor do I see people as foreign from one another, just that we are all different, and the things that make me different are just part of who I am.
People always ask me what language I think in. It depends what I am thinking about. If it’s about lessons or teachers or boys I’ll be thinking in French but if I’m wondering what Mum will cook at the weekend it will be in English. The English me is more bubbly and talkative and the French quieter and more serious. I can talk a lot in French but only when I have something to say; when I’m being English I can talk about nothing for hours.
I want to go to University in England because I would like to have some English education since those are my roots. Afterwards, I don’t necessarily see myself working in either Britain or France, it could be anywhere in the world. But wherever I end up and whatever nationality the person I marry, I am determined to make both my English and my French cultures part of my own family life.”
Alice Beal, 18 yrs, moved to France when she was one year old. She is now in her first year at Caen University studying languages.
“Definitely, I see myself as English, because that is the language we speak at home and because at school I was the English girl. But I like being different. It means I can dress how I like, for example, and it’s put down to me being foreign whereas a French girl might feel more pressure to conform. I like the fact that in both France and England I am a bit different but can also blend in.
When I think in either French or English, I think differently and take on the culture and attitudes of the language I am thinking in.
I don’t mix my French and English friends much - they come from different areas of my life. My English friends are mostly the children of my parents’ English friends so we got thrown together and grew up together whereas my French friends are friends I have chosen. I can talk to English friends about things I wouldn’t with French friends - like France!
After Caen, I want to do a second degree in Britain so I am qualified in both countries. I go back to England quite often and I love it. I love the convenience, that you can go out and buy something any time, there’s always somewhere open.
After that I might work in UK or anywhere in the world - although I wonder, with what is happening to the planet, whether life may become less global and more local again?
At the moment I have a French boyfriend but, whoever I marry, I would definitely want to bring up a bilingual family. If my husband were foreign, he wouldn’t just have to speak English but also live in England for a few years so that he understood the culture as well. Bilingualism isn’t just a question of two languages but two cultures.”
“I am definitely more English. But although I had quite a hard time adapting at first, I do now feel French as well. I don’t entirely fit into either country though: here I am a foreigner, but in England I am aware that I missed out on a significant part of becoming English - the teenage years when your personality comes out fully. When I go back and see friends I am not an English teenager but a French teenager.
But the advantage of having a second language probably outweighs this. You try to give your children all the advantages you can, so now I would try to bring my children up to be bilingual, like me. Even if we were an English family and living in England I would teach my children French at home.
I would have liked to go to University in England but will probably stay in France now as I understand the system and the teaching methods and trying to readapt to the English system while studying for a degree might be difficult.
But I want to take a year off so that could change and maybe I’ll end up living and working in another country altogether.
The big advantage of having come to France and adapted to a new country and culture is that it has enabled me to look outside where I am; the idea of living or working in yet another country is not a frightening prospect.”
First published in 2010
First published in 2010