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OPINION & ANALYSIS

OPINION: Make no mistake, raising bilingual kids in France is an intensive daily workout

It's very rewarding to raise your children in a bilingual household and hear them slipping seamlessly from one language into another. But it's also hard work, writes Emilie King, the mother of two Franco-British children.

One of the joys of raising bilingual kids is not only seeing the way they switch so effortlessly from one language to another, but how they almost slip into different personas when doing so.
 
My ten-year-old daughter certainly seems to do that. Talking French, she's as Parisian as you get, naturally full of Parisian sophistication (something I've finally given up on despite stubbornly persisting over all these years – either you have it or you don't). In English, her French mannerisms slip away and she turns into something of an English rose, all softly-spoken and polite.
 
Looking at her today, I sometimes forget that raising her to be bilingual wasn't as simple as it looks. My amazed very monolingual French in-laws think it is all magically merveilleux, but in truth it hasn't always been plain sailing.
 
“They just pick it up!”, “Kids are like sponges!” are frequent well-meaning but quite frankly irritating comments I've heard many times when I've questioned the ability of my children to become perfectly fluent in both languages.
 
 
For a start, my youngest daughter who's seven refuses point blank to speak any English at all. I'm absolutely forbidden from uttering even a single word of English at all anywhere near the school – lest she combust from sheer embarrassment.
 
Although she understands every word and can no doubt speak it, at this point I need to hear it to believe it because she simply never does except when she's visiting her family in the UK and really HAS to (and even then, not within earshot of me, her mother).
 
This is where we stand today. Over the years, ensuring English is as important in our family as French has actually been in my experience quite hard work. 
 
I was also raised bilingual, but my mother is British and English is my mother tongue. So when my first daughter was born, English flowed out as the natural language in which to address my children.
 
To this day, I persist in only speaking English to them at home, where I feel permanently engaged in some kind of daily intensive linguistic workout. I speak French to my French husband, as do the girls, but I always respond in English and I permanently try to resist the urge to slip into Franglais – more or less successfully.
 
In reality, this state of affairs translates into a bit of a language muddle at home
 
Sometimes the kids can't help mixing everything up. At bed time for example, my youngest always says: “Tu peux me 'tuck me in”? (the language police wouldn't condone this type of thing I'm sure, but I actually find it quite charming).
 
When they were much younger, getting the kids' English up to scratch was one of the reasons we went to live in the UK for a few years where my eldest was old enough to go to school. My youngest was too young, which probably accounts for her reticence today. The kids spoke very little French when we returned, and I must admit it was quite amazing to see how fast they caught up.
 
 
French is now their dominant language as the kids go to the local French primary school. So now we're back, I make sure there's as much English at home as possible: the children mainly watch films in English and I always read to them in English too.
 
On top of that I must admit, to take the load off a bit, a very pleasant English student comes round once a week to give the girls a hand with English reading and writing.
 
For secondary, I'm keen for the girls to attend a school that caters for native English speakers in some way or another. At that stage, I feel that if we don't go that step further and intensify their English learning, it won't happen just like that.
 
But I could be wrong. It's a topic that often crops up among my friends in France who are in the same situation, and their children vary.
 
Many appear to have picked up English pretty naturally. Some parents chose to put their children in bilingual schools from the start, which helps, as does of course if both parents are native English speakers and it's the only language spoken at home.
 
Another one of my friends, a French-British couple who live just outside Paris never bothered about English education at all and their daughter still ended up studying in a UK university.
 
Like so many things when it comes to bringing up children, everyone has their own way of doing things and each child is different.

But there is a general consensus among experts that children who speak several languages benefit in many ways in the long term. So I'll keep fighting doggedly on, and hope one day that my youngest will see the benefits of being fluent in both the language of Shakespeare and Molière.
 
And soon, who knows, she might even stop turning crimson every time I make the outrageous faux-pas of talking English anywhere outside the home. 

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OPINION & ANALYSIS

OPINION: France’s ‘slow train’ revolution may just be the future for travel

Famous for its high-speed TGV trains, France is now seeing the launch of a new rail revolution - slow trains. John Lichfield looks at the ambitious plan to reconnect some of France's forgotten areas through a rail co-operative and a new philosophy of rail travel.

OPINION: France's 'slow train' revolution may just be the future for travel
The slow trains would better connect rural France. Photo: Eric Cabanis/AFP

France, the home of the Very Fast Train, is about to rediscover the Slow Train.

From the end of this year, a new railway company, actually a cooperative, will offer affordable, long-distance travel between provincial towns and cities. The new trains – Trains à Grande Lenteur (TGL)?– will wander for hours along unused, or under-used, secondary lines.

The first service will be from Bordeaux to Lyon, zig-zagging across the broad waist of France through Libourne, Périgueux, Limoges, Guéret, Montluçon and Roanne. Journey time: seven hours and 30 minutes.

Other itineraries will eventually include: Caen to Toulouse, via Limoges in nine hours and 43 minutes and Le Croisic, in Brittany, to Basel in Switzerland, with 25 intermediate stops  in 11 hours and 13 minutes.

To a railway lover like me such meandering journeys through La France Profonde sound marvellous. Can they possibly be a commercial proposition?

Some of the services, like Bordeaux-Lyon, were abandoned by the state railway company, the SNCF, several years ago. Others will be unbroken train journeys avoiding Paris which have never existed before – not even at the height of French railway boom at the end of the 19th century.

The venture has been made possible by the EU-inspired scrapping of SNCF’s monopoly on French rail passenger services. The Italian rail company Trenitalia is already competing on the high-speed TGV line between Lyon and Paris.

The low-speed trains also grow from an initiative by President Emmanuel Macron and his government to rescue some of France’s under-used, 19th century, local railways – a reversal of the policy adopted in Britain under Dr Richard Beeching from 1963.

The cross-country, slow train idea was formally approved by the rail regulator before Christmas. It has been developed by French public interest company called Railcoop (pronounced Rye-cope), which has already started its own freight service in south west France.

Ticket prices are still being calculated but they are forecast to be similar to the cost of “ride-sharing” on apps like BlaBla Car.

A little research shows that a Caen-Toulouse ticket might therefore be circa €30 for an almost ten-hour journey. SNCF currently demands between €50 and €90 for a seven-and-a-half-hour trip, including crossing Paris by Metro between Gares Saint Lazare and Montparnasse.

Maybe Railcoop is onto something after all.

The company/cooperative has over 11,000 members or “share-holders”, ranging from local authorities, businesses, pressure groups, railwaymen and women to future passengers. The minimum contribution for an individual is  €100.

The plan is to reconnect towns ignored, or poorly served, by the Train à Grande Vitesse (TGV) high speed train revolution in France of the last 40 years. Parts of the Bordeaux-Lyon route are already covered by local passenger trains; other parts are now freight only.

In the longer term, Railcoop foresees long-distance night trains; local trains on abandoned routes; and more freight trains.  It promises “new technological” solutions, such as “clean” hydrogen-powered trains.

MAP France’s planned new night trains

For the time being it plans to lease and rebuild eight three carriage, diesel trains which have been made redundant in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region.

There will be no space for a buffet or restaurant car. Restaurants and shops along the route will be invited to prepare local specialities which will be sold during station stops and eaten on board.

What a wonderful idea: French provincial meals on wheels; traiteurs on trains.

Olivia Wolanin of Railcoop told me: “We want to be part of the transition to a greener future, which is inevitably going to mean more train travel.

“We also want to offer journeys at a reasonable price to people who live in or want to visit parts of France where train services have all but vanished. We see ourselves as a service for people who have no cars – but also for people who DO have cars.”

Full disclosure. I am a fan of railways. I spent much of my childhood at Crewe station in Cheshire closely observing trains.

Three years ago I wrote a column for The Local on the dilemma facing SNCF and the French government on the 9,000 kilometres of underused and under-maintained local railway lines in France. Something like half had been reduced to low speeds because the track was so unreliable. Several dozen lines had been “suspended” but not yet officially axed.

The government commissioned senior civil servant, and rail-lover, François Philizot to study the problem. After many delays, he reported that much of the French rail network was in a state of “collapse”. Far from turning out to be a French Beeching, he recommended that a few lines might have to close but most could and should be saved – either by national government or by regional governments.

Since then the Emmanuel Macron-Jean Castex government has promised a big new chunk of spending on “small lines” as part of its €100 billion three year Covid-recovery plan. Even more spending is needed but, for the first time since the TGV revolution began in 1981, big sums are to be spent on old lines in France as well as new ones.

The Railcoop cross-country network, to be completed by 2024-5, will run (at an average of 90 kph) partly on those tracks. Can it succeed where a similar German scheme  failed?

François Philizot suggested in a recent interview with Le Monde that a revival of slow trains might work – so long as we accept that a greener future will also be a less frenetic future.

“When you’re not shooting across the country like an arrow at 300 kph, you can see much more and you can think for much longer,” Philizot said.

Amen to that.

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