Can French Immersion Camp Revive Our Bilingual Household?

One writer heads to Concordia Language Villages’ camp near Bemidji to inspire a deeper love of the French language (not to mention the food)
Attendees of the Lac du Bois French immersion camp sing songs around the fire
Attendees of the Lac du Bois French immersion camp sing songs around the fire


When I was 12 years old and thrilled by the chance to study a second language at school for the first time, I spent a weekend at a language immersion camp where we adopted French names, changed our dollars into now-extinct francs, and gorged on croissants. Rendered giddy by our botched attempts to speak a new language, we tumbled into our bunk beds each night utterly exhausted. In other words, it was bliss. Did this excitement come from living in—rather than simply reading about—another culture, even if it was only a faithful simulation? Or was it merely an altered state induced by crepes slathered with Nutella?

Three decades later, I’m back for a week with a 6-year-old in tow. Times have changed. We exchange dollars for euros at “la banque” and choose our French names. (How can I possibly do justice to the bewitching Séraphine?) Macron, rather than Mitterrand, is president, and apparently it’s no longer obligatory to harbor a clandestine mistress at the Elysée Palace. But some things happily remain the same here at Lac du Bois: Everyone’s speaking French, singing boisterous songs, and eating their weight in baguettes. Nestled along Turtle River Lake outside Bemidji, it’s one of two French camps at Concordia Language Villages. Originally founded in 1962, the villages have grown to encompass 15 languages, including Korean, Finnish, Arabic, and Russian—the latter of which has outlasted not only the Cold War but the Soviet Union itself—and offer immersion experiences to students, families, and even adults.

Why the sudden return, and why now? We are here to conduct an experiment of sorts. Although I’ve lived and traveled widely in France, I’m merely proficient rather than fluent, meaning that I can carry on a conversation with occasional, and sometimes frequent, errors. Because I’ve been speaking French to Theo since his birth, his first words were in French. Yet mysteriously, around the age of 3, our conversations became one-way. I would pose a question in French, and he would respond in English. Suddenly a “ça va?” would earn an “I’m fine,” not a “ça va bien.” Can a week at French camp rekindle the dying flame of our bilingual household?

After we’ve settled into our cabin, a sonorous gong rings out through the woods: dinnertime. The sound strikes me with momentary dread. You’d think my greatest trepidation upon arrival would be butchering the subjunctive, the Marie Antoinette of verb tenses. (Tempestuous, demanding, and extravagantly complex, it’s dreaded by those new to the language.) But no. Ridiculous as it sounds, I’m most worried about the food. Will they serve steak tartare tonight, and how will I possibly cajole my kid to eat it?

As we congregate with a dozen others for a family-style dinner around a long table, we make introductions in a disjointed mishmash of French and English, true to our melange of novice to near-fluent speakers. When I spy one of the “monos” (short for “moniteurs,” the cheerful young staff who work as camp counselors) carrying a tray of croque monsieurs to the table, I’m inordinately relieved. Surely it will be easier to convince a first grader to try a glorified ham and cheese sandwich than, say, foie gras?

To my chagrin, my son Theo takes one bite and officiously declares, “I don’t like it.” 

Are you kidding me? What child has the audacity to refuse the champagne of grilled cheese sandwiches? Aiming for an implacable sternness I’ve seen French parents effortlessly pull off, I ask him to at least have the decency to reply in French. Gratifyingly, he complies. “Je n’aime pas ça.” 

Author Sarah Chandler with her Son, Theo
Author Sarah Chandler with her Son, Theo


Originally, Normandy-born chef François Fouquerel explains, Lac du Bois “was like other camps—spaghetti on Mondays, hamburgers on Tuesdays.” Then a lightbulb moment occurred. “Eating is the one thing we get together to do three to five times a day. What if we used food as an avenue to explore the culture?” 

Since then, authentic food is the rule—and not only from France. The meals here are designed to educate even as they nourish. “If we talk about outdoor markets in Morocco, we eat Moroccan food,” Fouquerel says. (True to his word, one night we feast on chicken tagine and vegetable couscous.) There are limits, of course. Chef François recounts trying to pull off Bretagne crepes for 180 people. “That’s six crepes per person, times 180,” he laughs.

That first evening, as platters of gateau au chocolat finally mollify even the picky eaters, I remind myself that the dinner table, rather than being immune to cultural and linguistic battles, often proves to be a battleground. Yet later, as we gather around the firepit to sing a song about a mythical monster named Jean-Claude who lives in the lake, Theo and the other kids are transfixed—and by tomorrow they will be singing the words by heart. I may have lost tonight’s culinary skirmish, but thankfully music transcends all.

During the next few days, when the children head off to French class, the adults do, too. A dozen of us gather in a forested amphitheater while Bissa, who teaches French at an Algerian university, helps us finesse the difference between “quand” and “lorsque”—words that essentially mean “when,” but whose subtle distinctions are easily lost on those of us who can’t claim French as our mother tongue. Bissa reminds us that to gain intimate knowledge of a language, we cannot merely observe. Yes, he says, we can improve our French by reading books and watching films—it’s a relief to know my late-night binge-watching of Netflix’s “Lupin” has not entirely been in vain—but in the end, we must begin to speak. After all, watching cooking shows may bestow culinary knowledge, but you can’t become a great chef without picking up a knife.

On the third evening, over poutine—fries glazed with succulent gravy and spiked with cheese curds, part of a crash course on Québécoise cuisine—Robert “Yapo” Petrie, one of the monos who has been coming to Lac du Bois for six years, echoes this sentiment. “During the school year, I learned grammar,” he muses. “During the summers, I learned how to speak.”

Thankfully, opportunities to speak abound. We sing and swim. The kids make art projects and play “le foot” (you know, soccer). We paddle canoes. One night, because it’s market night—at dusk, the village square reconfigures into an outdoor market in Côte d’Ivoire—I watch 9-year-olds discard their shyness to haggle in French for cowrie shell bracelets and djembes, traditional drums found across Francophone Africa.

If you can expertly haggle in a bustling street market, are you on your way to fluency? According to research on language acquisition, the answer is probably yes: Becoming bilingual is a dynamic, social process that goes beyond the classroom. Harvard professor Gigi Luk calls it an “interactional experience,” and everything at Lac Du Bois seems designed to stimulate interaction in an authentic way, meaning that before you realize it, you’re already learning. Vocabulary building gets embedded into daily rituals here, from singing songs before dinner to listening to chef François explain the cultural roots of the evening’s main dish. After dessert, you know it’s time to gather plates and cups when a bell chimes and the monos kick off a surprisingly catchy call-and-response. In fact, it will be downright difficult to leave this place and ever forget the words for cleaning (“nettoyage”) or dish tubs (“les bassines”). As Lac du Bois dean David “Daveed” Benson quips, “At home, kids just clear the table. Here, it’s a learning moment.”

Still, back at home a few days later I’m caught by surprise. As I clear the dining room table after dinner, Theo grins and begins to sing a familiar tune. “Ayage … Nettoyage. Aieee … Les bassines!” he calls out, as if the words are a joyful song stuck in his head that demand to be sung. Three weeks later, he’s still singing it.

Camp attendees line up at Lac du Bois
Camp attendees line up at Lac du Bois


Speaking vs. Listening

It’s day two, and we’ve been at Lac du Bois, Concordia Language Village’s French immersion camp, for nearly 36 hours. I’ve been gamely trying to speak mostly French since I arrived, exchanging “enchantés” with other families here for the week. (Charmingly, while “enchanté”  literally means to be enchanted or delighted, it loosely translates into “nice to meet you.”) After evening games for the kids and songs around the nightly campfire, I tuck Theo into his cozy bunk bed and sneak off to watch the nightly film.

Thankfully it’s dark in the cinema room, which helps conceal my disappointment about the lack of English—or for that matter, French––subtitles. The film tells the story of three hapless criminals who get themselves embroiled in a drug-dealing scheme. I strain
to follow their dialogue as they speak simultaneously, in overlapping slang. While I catch a few phrases—“Les flics!” (the cops!), “ce mec!” (that guy!)—and a few other phrases better to avoid in polite company, I’m basically flummoxed. To master l’argot (slang), evidently, I’ll need to spend at least six months hanging around the port of Marseille at midnight. 

Letting the door creak sadly behind me, I skulk out of the cinema room feeling defeated, promising myself I’ll return tomorrow for the film “J’Accuse.” Tonight’s film suggests that my listening comprehension is, depending on the situation, borderline abysmal. But why? I’ve been speaking this language since I was a kid. Why can it be so hard to understand, especially when people speak quickly? The French language suddenly seems like a snow globe that I can only admire and observe—that I’ll never get inside.

In this frustration, I’m not alone. In the book “When in French,” writer Lauren Collins recounts a watershed epiphany about the French language that suddenly demystified her struggles upon moving to France. “If English is difficult to pronounce, French presents learners with the opposite problem: easy to say, hard to hear,” she writes. 

As a listener, one particularly infuriating quirk about French is its elision, or the
suppression of syllables between words. In spoken French, it can be nearly impossible to distinguish, Collins suggests, “where one word ends and the next begins.”

Elision makes French vowels and consonants recklessly collide, like two Citroëns crashing at a Paris intersection. This explains why, when I’m at a party with French friends, I’m quite literally hanging onto their words, as if I’m climbing up a cliff and they hold the safety rope. One missed syllable threatens to send me not expertly rappelling to the bottom but plummeting in total freefall. 

In the end, what is the antidote to this linguistic dilemma? It’s maddeningly simple, of course: If you want to learn a language, don’t simply read or speak it. Make sure to listen, too.