January 4, 2007

"Meet the Fakhers"

So, last night we had dinner with Kevin’s supervisor, Fakher (pronounced just like the name of the family in “Meet the Fochers”) and his family. It was a truly international experience.

Fakher is Swiss-French of Egyptian decent; his wife is German; and his children Léon, 10, and Louisa, 6, have combined Swiss, American and EU citizenship. (They picked up the American citizenship because they were born while Fakher was doing a post-doc in Santa Barbara). Fortunately for us, in addition to French and German, Fakher and his wife speak perfect English, so we had a common language between us. (I speak a little German, Kevin speaks good French, but neither of us really speaks the other’s second language).

It was a fascinating window into the home life of what I assumed to be a standard European family. At school the children are taught in German, although both also study English, and Léon is about to tackle Latin. Therefore, at home, their parents insist that they speak only French, so that they might be able to converse with their many Swiss-French relatives. The children speak perfect, unaccented French, as far as I can tell (and I only studied French for a year in college), and they seem to be very comfortable using it in any day-to-day situation. However, the system isn’t fool-proof. Several times during dinner, the children would slip into German, and occasionally they’d even venture a little English. Sadly, at after only a couple years of study, Léon’s English is already much better than my German, so whenever I tried speaking German to him, he’d always answer back to me in English.

Other than their brilliance with languages, European children seem to be much like American children: They still test their parents’ limits with table manners and bed times, and all they want to do is to play video games. But where an American 10 year old has probably already logged hundreds of hours of game time, Léon and Louisa only received their first game this Christmas and are allowed to play for no more than an hour a day. Watching these children with their effortlessly multi-lingual life makes me wish I’d spent a little more time as a child studying languages instead of playing video games.

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