On any given day in the Gau household, the family’s children may be speaking French, German, or Spanish.
For several years, the Rochester family has been involved in foreign exchange programs through En Famille International, a France-based nonprofit that has been organizing foreign exchange programs for 40 years.
“It’s like an international house. You just hear a flutter of languages,” mother Tiffany Prow said.
Four of the family’s five children are participating in foreign exchange programs, and the family is currently hosting three exchange students as well.
Participants in the program are matched with a family. Children spend six months in a foreign country, then return with a member of their host family for another six months.
This program is unique in that it serves younger children. Participants are typically between 9 and 16 years old. This early immersion is proven to facilitate easier language learning.
Nick Gau, the father of the family, was initially skeptical about allowing his children to participate in an exchange at such an early age but came around to the idea.
“Kids can just be kids in that country,” he said.
After learning of En Famille from a family friend, Sebastian Gau, now 14, was the first family member to participate in an exchange. At age 12, he spent six months in the Champagne region of France.
“It made me more self confident,” he said.
Sebastian has since participated in an exchange in Germany, and plans to travel more in high school.
The same year, his sister Katherine did an exchange in Leon, France. She stayed with Manon Flander, who then returned to America for six months. Katherine later studied abroad in Spain with Andrea Navarro and her family, and is getting ready to study in Singapore for six months.
Thirteen-year-old Manon has returned to stay with the Gau family for shorter periods of time twice since then.
“I like everything!” she said. Highlights of her time in America have included horseback riding and swimming with Med City Aquatics.
Andrea Navarro, also 13, has returned for shorter trips as well. For her, a notable highlight is Cookie Monster ice cream at Flapdoodles.
Upon arriving to their host home, children are given one week to ask as many questions as possible in their native language. After that, they are expected to only use the language of their host country. Kids are allowed one 30-minute Skype call to their families per week, but the parents of each family typically communicate updates more frequently.
Remington Gau, 11, spent six months in Versailles, France, last year with Erik Sauvage and his family.
Remington enjoyed attending French school.
“I liked meeting new kids, and it made it easier to learn the language,” he said.
Remington is planning to study in Germany next year.
After completing the initial six-month exchange program in America, Erik returned for a few weeks this summer.
His favorite part was playing in the family’s large backyard, and hunting for worms to feed the chickens.
Madeline Gau, 9, is leaving at the end of August to participate in a program in Brittany, France. She’s been studying French for a few months to prepare.
“I’m really excited to try the food,” she said. “Especially bread.”
Four-year-old Harrison Gau is the only sibling without international travel experience, but he wants to eventually study in Germany or Spain.
Parents Nick and Tiffany operate adult foster care homes in Rochester for survivors of traumatic brain injuries. They both participated in foreign exchange programs and wanted to allow their children the same opportunity.
“We hope to keep these relationships for years, and the kids would then have contacts in Europe they can visit,” Nick Gau said.