One evening two years ago we were struggling through supper with our French lodger, Guillaume. He was a solemn, monosyllabic young man. My husband, Jeremy, had asked about local dishes in Lyons and I'd resorted to "Do you live in a suburb or in the middle of the town?" But every conversational ball lobbed towards him landed like a paper weight in soft grass.
So I was getting a bit desperate. And I did what every parent does in desperation – resorted to my children. I turned to our 12-year-old son and said brightly: "Teddy learns French at school, don't you Ted?"
Ted didn't look up.
"Go on, Ted," I said. "Show Guillaume. Say something in French."
"Wot?" said Ted.
"Go on. Anything."
Ted looked uncomfortable. He shrugged. Then in a robotic voice he said, "Je habite à Teddy."
And, for once, Guillaume smiled.
So, my suspicions were confirmed. Ted had been learning French at school for two years but he still couldn't say anything remotely sensible in the language. He still didn't speak French, and probably didn't think anyone else did either. French was not a language, but a school subject.
I was appalled. How could I have let this happen? What would my brother think? His five children communicate happily in English, Italian and French, and speak Scottish Gaelic as their mother tongue. I'm not, like him, an extreme polyglot. But I do speak, in varying degrees of fluency, three foreign languages. Yet somehow, with only two children to bring up, I had completely failed to pass on any linguistic competence.
In tiger mother mode, I set to work. A couple of weeks later, I told Ted that I had arranged a summer French exchange for him. I had spoken with Madame on the phone; Adrien was a sporty boy like Ted and his family lived outside Paris. Ted would go to France to stay with Adrien in the summer, and later Adrien would come to us. I didn't ask Ted. I presented his French exchange as one of those things he just had to do – like going to school, or putting out the recycling.
Ted, of course, protested. Nobody else in his class had had a French exchange, so why should he? I pointed out that, aside from football and Xbox, he had zero extra-curricular activities, played no musical instruments, had no improving hobbies. Trying to not sound too grim, I added: "It'll be fun!" But Ted had sat through "Do you live in a suburb?" suppers and he looked sceptical.
Later, I tried another tack. If Ted went to France, I argued, he'd learn French without trying. No boring vocabulary lists. He'd learn without noticing it, easy peasy. French would become one school subject he really wouldn't have to work for: a GCSE on a plate. Voilà.
This struck a chord – his cousins had got themselves extra Scottish highers with almost zero effort. But Ted was still doubtful. Then Madame emailed again. She was most apologetic. The dates for Ted's Paris trip were looking tricky. Would it be possible instead for him to join them on their summer holiday in Corsica? Adrien's grandmother had a little house in a fishing village. There were sandy beaches, fish restaurants, water sports. Would Teddy mind?
Back in England it was cold and rainy. If Ted were to go to Corsica he'd miss the end of the school term. Did he mind? Why ask?
Ted flew off to Corsica on an extraordinarily expensive unaccompanied minor ticket and for the next 10 days Madame sent me mobile phone pictures every day. Ted in sunglasses on the beach, Ted diving into a mountain pool, Ted with a gaggle of French boys, Ted at the market, Ted delving into a vast ice-cream sundae, Ted eating pizza, Ted up on a tree-top assault course, Ted and Adrien holding a plate of sea urchins they had caught. He was having a grand time.
Ted came back brown and very happy. He'd developed a Gallic shoulder shrug and a taste for Lipton's iced tea. He'd also acquired an unhealthy obsession with fireworks and hunted through Bristol high and low for bangers. He had learned a language too. He spoke fluent French-accented English. "Pleeze pass ze buttergh." We now had our very own little in-house Inspector Clouseau.
Adrien came to us a few weeks later. We were then in Edinburgh visiting my father and the Gaelic cousins. I felt the swap wasn't entirely fair. Where Ted had had sunshine and sandy beaches and French food, Adrien got Scotland, which is really an adult pleasure. Children don't drink fine malts and they don't "get" views.
Normally, I would have left my children to slouch around my father's house and mostly amuse themselves. But now that I had Adrien I felt obliged to up the ante. We had to do things. I followed Madame's example and laid on an exhausting schedule. We went surfing in the North Sea and canoed through drizzle in the Trossachs. We visited castles and took sightseeing trips round Edinburgh. We visited friends, went for muddy walks with dogs.
Doing things seemed to pay off. Adrien flourished. And he and Ted clicked. I mean that quite literally: Adrien taught Teddy how to flick his hands in the air so that the bones in his fingers made a sharp clicking sound.
As we travelled south into England the boys sat together in the back of the car: "clickclickclick". We went to the cinema: "clickclickclick". We visited the Pitt Rivers museum in Oxford: "clickclickclick".
Instead of having one Just William in the house, I now had two.
At the end of August, Adrien went home and life returned to normal. Well almost normal. For our family had altered somewhat.
The first change was most pleasing. Ted, though he wouldn't speak French in our presence, did seem to have learned something. After a few days back at school, his French teacher stopped me in the corridor. The improvement, she said, was amazing. Until then he had been an indifferent student, now Ted was getting As, even in his written work.
But there was another less expected consequence. The exchange had nurtured not only his French, but also his sense of entitlement. Whereas normally children just have to accept life as it is lived at home, now, fatally, Ted did know better. Having lived with another family, he had a point of comparison.
Why, complained Ted, was our house so shabby? And so messy? And why not throw out all those old newspapers? The laundry, he pointed out, was really slow. In Corsica, Madame had washed things the day he gave them to her (ie, the day she picked them off the floor). They got washed and ironed.
Ted was also not entirely satisfied with the standards of parenting provided at home. Why didn't we always arrange a schedule of activities? Why did we almost never eat out? Why wasn't there enough ice cream in our lives?
Madame and I arranged more visits. The following Easter, Ted stayed at Adrien's house and went to Disneyland Paris. And Adrien endured a damp outward bound holiday in the Welsh hills. A few months later, Ted went to Brittany and Adrien came to us.
By the summer, Teddy had built up enough being-away-from-home stamina to spend four weeks going to school in France. Now he really does speak French. Admittedly, the accent is terrible and the grammar approximate. But he speaks French confidently. And because he speaks, he learns more. This winter when we went on holiday to Morocco he blahed his way through the souks in French.
There are other changes too. I note little bits of French schoolboy hatching within Ted. He is a better, more fastidious dresser than he used to be. He would now never dream of wearing odd socks and has acquired a taste for "pull-ins", astonishingly expensive French boxers. He loves the YouTube clips of the Jeremy Beadlesque prankster Rémi Gaillard. His culinary horizons have widened: he has observed the interesting fact that French pizzas sometimes have a layer of ham under the tomato topping. And why, he asks, can't we have ready-made pasta boxes like the French?
Jeremy and I, meanwhile, now have an additional part-time son. Adrien, an enterprising boy, does not arrive at our house like an ordinary guest. He is of course perfectly polite and smiley and well-mannered. But he comes with an agenda. He knows what he wants to do, and where he wants to go shopping. He requires gorgonzola so he can cook his favourite pasta dish and is fond of complicated card games. He enjoys visiting Primark and, because he runs his own illicit sweet shop in his school playground, likes to drop in at Costco to compare prices. On the first day of Adrien's last visit he said, "Today, you say what we do. Tomorrow, Ted. Next day, my turn and we do Laser Quest. Yes? Ha!" And Laser Quest, he knows, is just over the road from Costco.
Anything you do as a parent, however off the cuff and improvised, quickly becomes a family "tradition". Ted's French exchange aerates our little nuclear family. Now, once or twice a year we lose Ted for a week or 10 days. And once or twice a year we become a family of five, which means that Jeremy and I become a minority in our own house.
Of course I do feel the French exchange has been a very good thing. Our son, a most unscholastic child, now has a school subject in which he can effortlessly excel. And having Adrien to stay makes us do things we wouldn't otherwise do. We are fond of him and like his family. And every time he comes he brings divine French chocolate pastries.
But sometimes I wonder. Going abroad may have broadened Ted's mind and made him grow up faster, but it has also chipped away a bit more of his innocence. Has it made him too independent? Too interested in clothes? And in fireworks?
In the end you never win with your kids. A child with a bit of grit will always know how to turn things to his own advantage. And Ted is no exception. Over breakfast on Sunday, he flicked through his school calendar. He turned to me and said languidly: "I think I'll do Corsica again this summer."
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