Every year, sometime after Christmas, I have a sense of déjà vu as I sit in front of my computer and set down to the task of trying to find a way for my children to improve their German. Every year is the same; I scour the internet, using search words such as ‘tennis camp in Germany’ or ‘German pony clubs’ in an attempt to find an authentically German activity centre which they can join for a couple of weeks in the summer holidays. It may sound straightforward, but it is surprisingly frustrating, time-consuming – and not necessarily successful.
“If this is a punishment: well done” our out-going daughter told us during her first week at a German equestrian centre. Apparently the only person who talked to her was the riding instructor; the rest of the time she spent watching DVDS in her room. We didn’t do much better with our 16 year old son: I waved him off from Gare de l’Est with a kiss and a hug, the address of a tennis camp near Frankfurt and 30€ for a taxi. He came back two weeks later with a cup having been awarded player of the week; the two other participants were aged 8 and 12.
You might say that I am either an incompetent researcher or an unlucky one. Whatever the case, I just wish that I could contact one person – a professional – who could steer me in the right direction to help find a fun, rewarding and truly native summer camp. A place where my children could speak the language from dawn to dusk alongside German children, whilst taking part in an activity – whatever it may be – which would occupy them happily. I believe that to be the most rewarding and positive method of learning a language, whilst simultaneously immersing oneself in the culture.
It makes perfect sense to me, therefore, to help families find the equivalent in Great Britain; to become that centralising figure who can offer a choice of venues to fit in with various criteria. Initially, the factors to be taken into account are practical things, such as the dates and length of the visit, the age of the child, the level of their English and the budget available. Then a more personalised angle can be explored: whether the child would prefer a small or larger organization; purely British or with a smatter of international children; within easy reach of a town or lost in the countryside; the rugged outdoors or the more cosy interior, with or without organised English lessons; with the opportunity to practice a particular sport or a variety of activities. The aim is to find something for everyone.
On my recent travels in search of bona fide British summer camps I visited parts of Great Britain I never knew existed and came back to France both eager to tell people of what I had discovered and also keen to set off once more to explore further. I had no idea how much the British Isles had to offer; the richness, variety and great beauty of its countryside, the cheerful and warm welcome of its inhabitants and the enthusiasm and great effort of the people running the organisations. These places were a far cry from the British summer camp or language holiday as depicted in films such as A nous les petites anglaises. The ‘English Riviera’ has its charms and attractions – as does London – but I believe that those visitors who do not venture further afield are really missing out.
“The key to success is learning in the right environment” (Jo Farrington)
It is true that the British summer camp cannot compare with its long-established, highly reputable American counterpart, and nor should it try to. My own experience of the American version comes courtesy of Walt Disney’s The Parent Trap, which portrays a highly attractive summer camp life of log cabins, flag poles and uniformed leaders. The British version may not be as developed, but I have discovered smaller-scale equivalents: camps offering a garden cabin in Somerset, a bivouac in a Welsh valley, or chalets in Suffolk. Children can walk in the highlands of Scotland, surf and body board in Devon, swim off the Cornish coast sea before breakfast, or ride across the moors. They may come across Camelot the Camel – a resident of an East Anglian riding school – or learn about food miles in an ecologically-built dining-room. Whichever type of activitiy they become involved in, the children will soak up the English language surrounding them.
For those who are not in search of a Swallows & Amazons or Famous Five existence, there is always the more standard option of the larger, international camp, based around a classic timetable of morning English lessons and afternoon sport or excursions. These are often based in British boarding schools during the summer holidays and therefore offer a large range of high-quality facilities where weeks of sports such as tennis, football, swimming, cricket, basketball, squash or golf can be enjoyed. There is also the opportunity for children to become more fluent in English whilst taking part in a camp specialising in such activities as film-making, dance, cooking or photography.
It is my aim that my own children have a happy experience perfecting their German. In the same way, it is of the utmost importance for me for that the children I help come back from Great Britain with cheerful memories and with a wish not only to return, but also to continue to use their English with ease and enjoyment throughout their adult and professional life. My search for other exciting, activity-based organisations to add to my list is not complete, and I am greatly looking forward to my continuing exploration.