The Universal Language of Play: Lessons Learned While Traveling Abroad

By Jody Mace

It was during a hide-and-seek game in Montpellier, France, that I realized I had been wrong. My assumptions about what my kids would learn about language from traveling had been narrow: they would master a few new words and learn about other cultures. I never imaged I would see my children use their ingenuity to find other ways to communicate with others when their vocabularies failed them. We were living in England for a year, and, in lieu of traditional schooling, my two children, eight-year-old Kyla and five-year-old Charlie, were being home-schooled. They were getting a significant part of their education from our trips to nearby European countries.

Before we went to a new city, I would teach them some of the basics about the place, things like foods that the country is known for, a little history, and some essential words in the language. It’s not that I expected them to actually learn French from a week in Le Provence, but I wanted them to at least be able to say the basics: hello, goodbye, thank you.

One reason I tried to teach them these basics was to foster politeness in my children. We encountered too many Americans in Europe who go to restaurants without so much as a phrase book, and then expect the waiter to explain, in English, the items on the menu. But it was more than that. I also wanted them to see how their own language relates to the world, to get a small taste of the intricate web of words. I wanted them to notice when words from different languages pop up in English. I hoped this might make my children appreciate other cultures more. The language of the quintessential American Wild West has echoes of Spain: bronco and buckaroo. And what could be more American than the word “cafeteria,” which came from the Spanish as well? When we’re relaxing on a hammock under the warm sun, perhaps we can imagine taking a midday siesta on a “hamaca.” If we’re lucky, we are enjoying a “margarita” and aren’t plagued by “mosquitoes.” Oceans separate the United States from the majority of countries in the world, but I hoped my kids would feel more of a connection to hese countries after learning how much of our language we owe to other societies

I also wanted them to understand the regional influence on some words. When we were in Girona, Spain, one of the first things we saw when we left the airport were exit signs in both Spanish and Catalan. Since we had previously been in France, it made sense to my seven-year-old daughter, Kyla, when I pointed out how the Catalan word for exit, “sortida,” seemed like a combination of the Spanish, “salida,” and the French, “sortie.”

Within a single country, the language people speak sometimes conveys more than just meaning; the very language can be a statement. When we went to Ireland, we stayed in a small town called Dunquin, within a Gaeltacht region. It was an area where Irish Gaelic, rather than English, is the most commonly spoken language. At first my kids were most impressed by the beauty of the written alphabet, but when they learned a little bit of the history of the Irish language they were even more impressed. Years ago, the Irish language all but died, because England tried to control the country by forcing its people to speak English. Speaking Irish Gaelic in schools was a punishable act. But slowly the ancient language made a comeback, and is now being taught in schools. My children were too young to understand how speaking a language can be a political act, but they did try to understand what it would be like to be prevented from speaking the language of your homeland.

Even in English-speaking countries, like England and the United States, there can be considerable differences in vocabulary and pronunciation. This was often so befuddling that my five-year-old, Charlie, assigned different names to the English spoken in those countries. The language spoken in England was English and that spoken in the United States was American. Kyla found the contrasts between British and American English so interesting that she wrote down a list of the differences. Sometimes it seemed like we were learning a foreign language. In England, French fries are chips, and potato chips are crisps. If that is not confusing enough, sweaters are jumpers, elevators are lifts, soccer is football and football is American football. And we learned quickly to never refer to “pants.” In England, “pants” are underwear. You’d better say “trousers” instead. But far from being something to divide us from our British neighbors, our different vocabulary was a conversation-starter. Our new friends were always interested in hearing what we call things in the United States. The key, we learned, was to keep a sense of humor and to not get embarrassed if we used the wrong word.

Traveling to non-English-speaking countries, however, was where the fun really began. I enjoyed seeing how much fun learning words in other languages can be for my kids. My son Charlie is especially fond of learning words in different languages. He’s not the shy type and enjoys communicating. When a shopkeeper in Avignon, France, told him “merci” after a purchase, it was not surprising to hear him pipe up loudly with “Merci boucoup! Au revoir!”

It’s impossible to travel abroad and not learn, so it didn’t surprise me that my kids learned a lot from the experience. Sometimes the lessons were obvious, like learning the words to greet someone, and sometimes they were more complex and subtle, like learning a bit about the politics of language.

I expected that my children’s horizons would be broadened by the experience of living abroad for a year. But what surprised me was how my children were able to find common ground with other kids with whom they didn’t share enough words to have even the most basic of conversations. This was demonstrated to me on that fateful day at the playground in Montpellier, when an impromptu game of hide-and-seek opened my eyes to my little boy’s instinctive social skills. Charlie told me he wanted to play the game with the other kids, but he did not know how to ask them. I scoured our French phrase book, but as usual it didn’t have the words that we needed. If we had wanted to know how to say corkscrew, shoe horn, or jellyfish, we would have had no problem. But I haven’t encountered a phrase book in any language that tells you how to say “hide-and-seek.”

I noticed that one of the dads on the playground was bilingual, so I asked him, in English, if he knew how to say “hide-and-seek” in French. He considered this for a minute, and finally came up with “cache-cache.”

I told Charlie, and he ran around to all the children on the playground, covering his eyes, then pulling away his hands and saying, “Cache-cache? Cache-cache?” Before I knew it, my son and about six French children were dashing around the playground, hiding behind trees and under slides, while one child called out, “one, two, three….” or the French “un, deux, trois…,” depending on who was doing the counting.

Watching this game of “cache-cache,” I was struck by how unstoppable two human drives are, especially for children: communication and play. Sometimes when I’m in a non-English speaking country I retreat into myself a little bit. It’s easy to feel alone when you don’t have the words to express any thoughts beyond asking for water or inquiring where the restroom is. I’m self-conscious about pronouncing words wrong. I’m spooked by that blank look on a shopkeeper’s face after I think that I’ve said something completely reasonable, but have mispronounced the words so badly that they were indecipherable. Children don’t let this fear stop them, because they are less prone to embarrassment and because their need for contact with other children is so great.

Not all of my kids’ interactions with non-English speaking children were quite so sweet. On a playground in France, Kyla struggled to figure out how to tell a boy that she wanted a turn on the swing. We again consulted the phrase book, and constructed a polite request, something that we thought translated to “May I please have a turn?” This question was met with a blank stare, and Kyla shrugged her shoulders and walked away. Later when she was on the swing, the boy came over and shook the swing until she was dumped, stunned, onto the sand. Apparently he had correctly deduced that Kyla would not understand his verbal request. When my husband, Stan, later asked his French teacher what Kyla should have said, she told him that we were being much too polite and a child would more likely say something like, “It’s my turn.” That was another lesson learned. Keep it simple.

Another time, on a beach in Spain, when a little girl kept on knocking over Charlie’s masterpiece, he demanded to know how to say “Get your hands off my sandcastle!” in Spanish. We couldn’t help him, so he had to resort to waving his finger at the girl and, remembering the lesson about keeping it simple, sternly saying, “No!” Just like the “cache-cache” kids, she got the message. There are all kinds of connections to be made with people. Standing up for yourself is just as important a skill as organizing playground games.

During cooperative play or during conflict that year in Europe, I always saw a connection between my children and other kids. During a hot day in Budapest, Stan and I watched from a bench as Kyla and Charlie played with a horde of children at a playground. The jumble of Hungarian voices – the muted tones of the parents and the enthusiastic calls of the kids – was strangely soothing and jarring at the same time, like hearing a familiar symphony played by unfamiliar instruments. A small boy, parched by the sun and running, pensively stood by a water fountain. Then he filled a plastic bag with water and dumped it on his head. Delighted by the cool water dripping off his head, he grinned. Charlie, who had been watching, burst out laughing, and the Hungarian boy joined in the laughter. They understood each other, no words needed.

It’s tempting to try to measure children’s learning in a quantitative way. When we were planning our travels, I thought of how much my children would learn: how many words, how much geography. What I didn’t anticipate was that they would learn how much could be said without words, and how kids are the same everywhere despite geography. The most important things that they learned would never fit into a phrase book.

When not exploring the world with her intrepid youngsters, Jody is at home in North Carolina pursuing a freelance writing career.

Parents’ International Travel Tips

1. At museums, go to the Information Desk and Gift Shop first. There are often children’s games and “trails” that lead them around the museum, learning about the exhibits in a fun way.
2. Let your kids help plan the trip. Before we went, I always gave the tour books to my kids, and let them highlight their must-see attractions. We did not miss many swimming pools or zoos!
3. When you’re in a non-English-speaking country, learn the names of a few common foods that your child likes. It can be intimidating to find foods for a picky eater in a foreign country, but being able to at least find “pollo” (“chicken” in Spanish) or “frites” (“French fries” in, well, French) can ease the way.
4. If you normally give your child an allowance, give it to him in the country you’re visiting, in the local currency. For one thing, you don’t have the aggravation of him asking for money in every shop you visit. For another thing, it’s fun: if you find yourself in Hungary, your child can crow over getting 1000 forint for allowance – and it only puts you back five dollars!
5. Turn your misadventures into family folklore. My kids may not remember a thing from our tours of “old churches,” but they delight in retelling how we got lost in Barcelona and ended up driving onto a pedestrian plaza or how the border police on a train from Prague to Budapest tried to hit us up for bribes.
6. Don’t spend all your time at cultural attractions like museums, churches, and palaces. Although they are interesting, your children, as well as you, will often learn more about the culture of a place by buying groceries to make dinner, playing at playgrounds with local kids, and figuring out the public transportation - in other words, by living as the locals do.
7. Bring any medicine that you think you may need. Although it’s fun to practice our skills at a foreign language, pantomiming “sore throat” and “high fever” to a pharmacist isn’t that much fun.
8. Before you go, read a children’s book that is set in the locale you’ll be visiting. Everything will be more interesting for your children when they recognize the sights from a familiar story.
9. Consider visiting small towns, rather than big cities. The small towns have extra charm, are a small enough scale for kids to feel comfortable in, and are often a more authentic experience than are souvenir-shop-filled cities.
10. Invest in a tour book aimed at families. They will list attractions that appeal to children, as well as kid-friendly restaurants and shops. Examples from several series are listed below.

International Travel Tips By a Kid for Kids (written by seven-year-old Kyla)

• Always bring a backpack when you go on a plane. Add stuff like word searches, markers or crayons, coloring pages and definitely extra socks (because when you take them off they're all sweaty and they get crusty, and you won't want to put them back on.)
• When you're going to get on a train try to get there early so you don't have to sit on the floor.
• Definitely don't order a beef burger in England because they'll serve it without a bun and it will have beans on it.
• Don't go around spending lots of money, because one pound is worth one dollar and fifty cents. (Actually it’s even worse now!)
• Be careful in England because you have to drive on the left side of the road and steer on the right side of the car. If you're in the passenger seat, and someone is driving and they've never driven on the left side of the road yet, you should BE QUIET because they need to concentrate.
• If you can't sleep with a lot of noise, and you're going to a hotel with someone and the person makes a lot of noise when they're sleeping, try to get beds in separate rooms or wear ear plugs.


1. Take Your Kids to Europe, 6th: How to Travel Safely (and Sanely) in Europe with Your Children by Cynthia Harriman
2. Time Out London for Children by Ronnie Haydon
3. Storybook Travels : From Eloise's New York to Harry Potter's London, Visits to 30 of the Best-Loved Landmarks in Children's Literature by Colleen Dunn Bates
4. Fodor's Around Rome with Kids, 1st Edition : 68 Great Things to Do Together
5. Way-Cool French Phrase Book : The French That Kids Really Speak by Jane Wightwick and Wina Gunn
6. This website has loads of fun attractions in many international cities
7. Travel tips from parents who are seasoned international travelers

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