Teaching children a second language

Do you / did you teach your children a second language? Did you learn another language when you were little? How did you do it? I'd love your tips and advice! 

When my father was growing up, French was the only language spoken inside the home. Then he'd go to school in Australia and speak only English all day with his friends and teachers. The result was that he grew up fully bilingual (albeit with apparently the most appalling Australian accent to his French you could ever imagine). 

Sadly, my father didn't do the same thing at home when I was growing up. By the time I was 11 and about to travel by myself to New Caledonia to visit relatives, the sum total of my French was to be able to say "Oui," "Non," count to ten, and to say the word for toilet (taught to me as "cabinet," which I learned when I got over there was hopelessly out-of-date. When I asked for the "cabinet," everybody just shrugged). 

Now, I'm trying to do for my children what I wish my parents had done from me, and introduce a second language into their lives before it starts to feel like "learning." It's important to me that they learn their family's language. Even though we live in Australia, most of my dad's side of the family are still in French-speaking countries, and that's a big part of my children's heritage. 

The trouble is, of course, my aforementioned dearth of French-language skills. I've improved since my "cabinet" days, and can count past 10, but it's not ideal. French people understand me when I speak, but they also laugh. Attempting the whole "speak French to them at home all the time" thing with my kids would probably be doing them a great disservice. 

We are planning an extended trip to France next year (I'll share more about that soon), so I've decided to get more strategic about this whole 'language acquisition' agenda I have for my family. A lovely French girl called Cecce visits us once a week to help teach the children. Throughout the week, we also listen to French songs, choose French language on our favourite DVDs if it's available, watch French kids' shows on YouTube (my guys are addicted to a cartoon called PJ Mask), and we have a big French vocabulary book (that is unfortunately spurned by my kids). 

Where possible, I incorporate French words into our day-to-day lives. I encourage them to say hello, goodbye and thank-you in French instead of English (we sound like such tossers when out and about doing this, but I persist, blushing like crazy, because I am determined that we'll be ready for France next year). We count stairs / birthdays / dried apricots in French, and we identify the names of things and colours of things in French as we walk down the street. 

I've tried to find some more narrative-style books in French, without much luck. A while back somebody recommended a little French magazine called Pomme d'Api for small children, but getting hold of it in Australia was fabulously expensive. Like, remortgage-your-house-level expensive. 

And then last month, out of the blue, the publishers of Pomme d'Api, Bayard Milan, contacted me to let me know that a number of their children's book and magazine titles are now available in Australia, in the English language. They offered to send my children some of the magazines to try, to which I breathlessly replied, "Will the French-language titles be available in Australia too?" The answer is yes, so AT LAST we have some stories, games and activities to help my children learn French (and we get to keep our house). 

For example, the little French stories in Histories pour les petits are great to read to the children, because the language is simple enough for me to understand and therefore explain if I need to, but mostly they can follow along by looking at the pictures, and listening for words they already know. My children love activities in magazines, like mazes, spot-the-difference, and find-hidden-objects, so they enjoyed the magazine Toupie, pitched at children three-to-six years old. In English, we particularly loved one of the magazines called Story Box, which was filled with fictional stories as well as fun science explanations such as "why we breathe" and animal information. 

We will keep on reading but in the meantime, I'd love to know your tips. What are some fun ways to teach language to children (if you're not super-fluent in that language yourself)? 

This post was not sponsored, however, these magazines were sent as a gift to my children. If you like the look of them, they are now available in Australia in English, Spanish, German and French. To order, visit, and use the code E20 for a discount. 

Meals in the Mail (a new idea)


* UPDATE 16 JULY 2017: please note that the official date to send recipes for this project has ended. However, you are still welcome to take part. There are no guarantees that your recipe will make it into the book but the sooner you send it, the more likely it will happen. I will be too busy delivering my Your Beautiful Letter course to start the book at least until the end of August, so any letters that arrive before then will still be part of the project. * 

I've had an idea. Shall we write a book together? A recipe book? 

Often I tell people that one of the nicest, easiest (and completely free-of-charge) gifts to enclose with a letter is a recipe. All you need to do is write or type it out neatly, fold it up, and there is something personal, thoughtful, and useful for your pen-friend.

Over the years, I have received some wonderful recipes in the mail, from family, friends, and strangers alike. First, I was thinking I might like to turn them all into a little "meals by mail" recipe book to share with you. But then I had a better idea: what if we were to share all of our recipes with each other? 

Recipes 3
Recipes 3

So here is what I propose: 

1. If you want to take part, simply send me a letter. You need to send it by post, not email or in the comments. My address is: 

Naomi Bulger  "Meals in the Mail"  PO Box 469  Carlton North Vic 3054 Australia

So that this project doesn't drag on forever, let's say your letter needs to be postmarked by 1 July, 2017, to be included. 

2. In the letter, you will need to enclose two things: a) a recipe that you love (write it, type it, illustrate it if you like! anything as long as you like the recipe and it's legible); and b) some words telling me what makes your recipe special. They could be a sentence or an essay, or anything in between. Maybe the recipe was given to you by someone you love, maybe it is part of a family tradition, maybe you cooked it for a memorable occasion, maybe it's simply something that is always popular with your friends or family... just share with us the special meaning behind the recipe. 

3. It's not at all required that you decorate your envelope or include anything else, but of course you are welcome to do so and, if appropriate, I'll try and feature some of the more decorative envelopes etc in the book for inspiration. 

4. Maybe I'm the only one who thinks this is a good idea (Oh! Lonely me!) BUT if I receive enough recipes, I promise to turn them into a recipe-book or zine (how many recipes do you think I'll need for a book? 20? 30? More?), celebrating the recipes, the letters, and the wonderful way that food links us to people we love and memories we treasure.

Plus, I promise to send a free copy of the book or zine to every contributor. 

Are you in? Let's do this, to celebrate food, nostalgia, hand-written communications and community all in one go. Then we can stir, sizzle, mix and bake each other's recipes, and weave them into our own stories. And I would really appreciate it if you could tell your friends, because maybe they want to share their recipes, too! 

ps. These recipes, from top, are from my great-grandmother (via my mother), Ashwatta (via Ashwatta's Art on Etsy), and Meaghan (via @polaroids_and_snailmail). 

Our favourite new children's book

archie+and+the+bear+coverLast week my first-blogging-and-then-real-life friend, children’s book author Zanni Louise, sent my children an advanced copy of her new story, Archie and the Bear.  I can't even tell you how much we love this story. Especially Ralph, who is three, and for whom it seems to have struck a wonderful chord. The story is at once magical and mysterious, and also heartwarming and homely. 

Archie and the Bear is about celebrating imagination. Just going with it.

Yesterday, Ralph found a piece of ribbon and asked me to tie it around his forehead. "It is a cap to make me more super-y," he informed me. Once I had tied the ribbon on he straightened his back and balled his fists. "You may call me," he announced grandly, "Super Boy." And he stayed in-character as Super Boy for the entire day, saving the day from all kinds of super-villains both seen (Scout) and unseen (the cat), and demonstrating a dizzying array of super-powers to combat the challenges besetting him on his heroic journey. 

Nobody told him "You don't really have super-powers," or "You're only a pretend super-hero." 

There are plenty of studies to remind us that for children, the benefits of imaginative role-play are numerous, helping children teach themselves impulse regulation, language development, social skills, conflict resolution, and ways to resolve real-life tensions and fears. 

But I also think day-dreaming is pretty special for us grown-ups as well. Do you ever like to imagine out loud what would happen if...? Imagine if I won a million dollars... Imagine if we moved to France... Imagine if I quit my job and pursued my dream full time... 

Those imaginings are like little head-holidays. They are like trying on costumes and testing out other lives, knowing that we can return to the safety of our own lives any time we like.

But how crappy is it when you start a sentence with "Imagine if," and the person beside you ends it with an ice-cold bucket of reality? You can't afford it. We don't have the time. You'd be bored in a week. Ok maybe they're right (or maybe they're not), but that's not the point. I'm dreaming here! Just go with it! 

On the weekend, Mr B has promised Ralph that we will go to the shops to buy more ribbons, so we can all be superheroes together. So look out for that impressive scene if you spot the Bulger family walking down the street this Easter. 

In the meantime, at Ralph's request, we will probably be reading Archie and the Bear every night, a story about a little boy who is not wearing a bear-costume (because he IS a bear).

Processed with VSCO with a6 preset

Here is a little flip-through of this beautiful book, created by its UK-based illustrator David Mackintosh. Take a look at the fabulous scale-play, with little Archie sometimes appearing as small as an ant in the deep dark forest, but as big as a bear in bravery, imagination, and friendship.

Archie and the Bear will be officially released next month. Zanni sent this book to my children as a gift, but I was not paid to write about it, nor was there any requirement that I even mention it at all. I am just so seriously in love with this beautiful story that I couldn't help myself.

Ok happy Easter. See you on the other side! 

Spiders, bedtime stories, and what's the fuss about Henry Fussy?

Processed with VSCO with a5 preset We have been reading Charlotte's Web to the children at bedtime. Last night was the final chapter, and the whole book has been every bit as magical and sad and beautiful as I remember from my own childhood.

Scout was enthralled from beginning to end. I wasn't confident of this when we started: books from this era move at a slower pace to those written these days (slower than, for example, Monsters Wear Underpants, a tremendous favourite of Ralph's - thanks Mum), and Scout is only four after all.

But she soaked it all in, even the long passages about the changing of the seasons, the subtle shifts on a farm from one month to another. Even the brutal honesty about life on the land, about how spiders eat, about love and loss. It was precious to see her settle into this slower pace, resting up against my side and dreamily playing with a thread on her pyjamas as she listened, always begging for more when each chapter ended. 

However, here's something I did not even remotely pick up on when I read this book as a child: Henry Fussy. How did I not notice Fern's complete desertion of her best friends, for a boy called Henry Fussy? I'm guessing I must have been so caught up in Wilbur's and Charlotte's stories that I failed to notice that Fern was having a story of her own, a coming-of-age journey that took her away from the barn and onto a Ferris Wheel instead. 

And I get it. Fern wouldn't be the first person to neglect her friends for a crush, and she won't be the last. But...

Fern happens to be the only human on the entire planet with access to the MAGICAL WORLD OF TALKING ANIMALS. 

Nope, not enough. Henry Fussy is over there.

Well how about this: Wilbur, who she claimed to love "more than anything else in the whole world" is going to be KILLED BY FERN'S UNCLE, unless Charlotte's plan to save him works.

Henry Fussy paid for her ticket on the Ferris Wheel, so she didn't have to spend her own money.

We learn Charlotte is dying. She is also about to become a mother, but will not live to see her sweet babies. 

Fern says this has been the best day of her life. 

THE PLAN WORKED! Wilbur is getting a special medal, Fern's Uncle has never been happier, Wilbur's life has been saved. The entire family goes crazy with pride and excitement.

Fern wants money so she can pay for Henry Fussy's ticket on the Ferris Wheel. 

And can I finally please point out, Fern is EIGHT. Girl, we need to talk. 

After we finished reading Charlotte's Web last night, we talked a little bit about friendship and love and death, and it was a little bit sad but a lot beautiful. I kissed the children, turned out the light, and went downstairs to make my dinner alone as Mr B was working late. Then about half an hour before my bedtime, he came home. 

Pale, shaking, and giggling in a high-pitched, slightly hysterical way (you know, like Floki from Vikings, if you happen to watch that show). Turned out just as he was parking the car, a giant huntsman spider the size of his palm had scuttled across the windscreen of the car.

Then it disappeared. Somewhere in the dark. On the car. Waiting. 

Now I happen to think Mr B is all man, but that spider knew better, and it reduced him to the state of a terrified little old lady. Me too, when he told me about it later. Oh man, I was terrified just from the telling.

Just as Mr B was about to venture out of the car into the dark, where the spider waited unseen - literally a nanosecond before Mr B opened the car door - the spider appeared again, millimetres from his face, crawling down the outside of the car window. Slowly. Big, hairy underbelly and powerful legs moving across the glass and across Mr B's petrified face. If he'd opened that door even one second earlier, the spider would have landed on his head. 

He scrambled over to the passenger seat and climbed out that door, ran back around to the driver side and whacked the spider away (don't hate - neither of us could have got back inside that car otherwise), and came inside to giggle hysterically in the lounge room. Then he went back outside again to check whether or not he'd left the headlights on in all the shock. 

When at last he came back inside for good and sat down, we both started laughing, because from time to time we like to dream about moving to the country: a tree-change and a slower pace of life. And then a spider crawls across the windscreen of our car and we remember that we are literally the worst people in the world to ever attempt life in the country. Completely pathetic. Nature wimps. 

But in our defence, "That was no Charlotte," Mr B said. 

Things left unsaid


This is the truth about what really happened that weekend. I have loved you for years. A secret. I have to know why you did that. I’m your biggest fan. There’s a question I’ve always wanted to ask you. I’m sorry.

Is there something unsaid lingering in your life, that is eating away at you? Is there someone out there who you wish you could tell, or ask, that one thing? But you can’t find them, or you don’t have the courage... you don’t know how they’d react?

Me too.

This blog post is a story about six degrees of separation, which seems to happen to most of us at some time or another, but it is also about snail-mail (so hooray!), and there's a way for you to find some personal resolution on those unspoken words, too. So really, there's something in this blog post for all of us. Read on, comrades!

About six months ago, I received in the mail a little book of short stories, from my dear friend Sonya. (Once, Sonya and I and my dog Oliver squeezed into a tiny, tin-pot rental car and drove across the United States from New York to Florida, into New Orleans, up to Oklahoma, and then all the way to LA along Route 66. I have been lucky to travel to a lot of wonderful places in the world, but that was the best journey I ever had). The book she sent me, Portable Curiosities, had been written by another of Sonya's friends, Julie Koh. It was full of stories that were magical and whimsical and disturbing and challenging in all the right ways. "This writer is my kind of person," I thought to myself.

Then earlier this month, Julie put out a call for participants in a fabulous new snail-mail project, planned for ABC Radio. I might not have heard about it, except that my sister-in-law, who also works for ABC Radio, did hear about it. So she sent a message to Julie, telling her about me, and Julie sent her back a photograph of my book, Airmail. Turns out Sonya had been busy sending books between us! And then my sister-in-law sent a screen-shot of part of the conversation to me, also alerting me to the aforementioned fabulous snail-mail project.

And so everything came full circle, and yesterday I reached out to Julie at last, because I think the universe was saying, "Do it!"

Onwards to the bit where you come in.

You're wondering what the fabulous new snail-mail project is, aren't you. Well, it's called Expressive Post, and here's what it's all about in Julie's words:

Have you always wanted to write a letter to a particular someone but haven’t, for whatever reason?

Is there something you want to tell another person but it’s a delicate topic, and you’re not sure how they’ll react? A topic so delicate that only a letter will do?

I’m testing a potential new show for ABC Radio National that needs letters like these.

To participate, all you have to do is:

1. Write that special letter and post it to the address below.

2. Include your name and contact details.*

As part of the test run, I’ll select the most compelling letters. Then I’ll track down the intended recipient for each letter and deliver it to them. They’ll read the letter for the first time on the show.

The address to write to, and all the other details (including the fact that you can remain anonymous if you prefer it) are on Julie's website, right here. But be quick: this is a trial program and will only go ahead if there are enough good letters and connections to make.

The deadline for the first round of letters is next Friday, 4 November, so if you want to write, especially if your letter is coming from outside of Australia, maybe drop her an email just to let her know it's on its way.

I am going to try to find the words to reach out to my best friend from high school. For years I felt like I had failed her, but I also loved her dearly, and I've wanted to reach out for a long time. I've tried in the past to reach out to her, but with no success. I don't know if she didn't want to hear from me, or if my overtures were never delivered, but they've only met with silence.

Maybe this is my chance to say, at last, "I know I failed you. I tried to be a good friend, and I did love you, but I didn't understand."

How about you? What have you left unsaid? Will you take this opportunity to find the words?

Eccentric escape

sea-table gerald



at home

You can move away, you can run away even, but, 90 percent of the time, your quirks and fears and troubles stow away with you. I know this because I have moved a lot, and sometimes a long way.

This is the underlying theme of a new TV show called The Durrells. Thankfully, the quirks, fears and troubles that follow the Durrell family from Bournemouth in the UK to the Greek island of Corfu are also frequently adorable, affectionate, and genuinely funny.

Oh my gosh, I am so in love with this eccentric family of misfits and, in particular, with their mother Louisa, who is most often at her wits' end but is also my hero.

The series is inspired by the trilogy of books by Gerald Durrell. Remember My Family and Other Animals? My father gave me this book when I was a child, telling me how much he had loved it when he was a child. So now I can't think about the book without thinking about my father, which makes it doubly joyful to revisit the hapless Durrells in their warm and sunlit world.

In fact I never want to leave that world. A fruitless wish, since there are only six episodes to a season, but thankfully I hear a second season is already in the making.

And in the meantime, since summer is only just around the corner here in Australia, I am going to take a leaf out of the Durrells' book and eat lunch in the ocean, to keep cool. Tablecloth included. It looks kind of perfect, don't you think?

ps. more of my favourite TV shows here and here

Animal etiquette


"No animal, according to the rules of animal-etiquette, is ever expected to do anything strenuous, or heroic, or even moderately active during the off-season of winter." - Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows

We are recovering from Scout's fourth birthday party yesterday. As luck would have it, today is a public holiday, so I intend to be unheroic and inactive, all day. Back soon! xo

Pistachios and eggs




Recently I purchased a time machine. It was humble to look at: a recipe book, printed in 1893, called Cakes and Confections à la mode by Mrs de Salis.

You know how scent and taste can transport you to a moment in your past? Take you right back to that first bite, and to everything that happened around it? This book represented someone else's food memories (Mrs de Salis' food memories), and I knew that her words on the page, if I followed them, had the power to carry me backwards 123 years in time.

Mrs de Salis was a famous home-cook, the Nigella Lawson of her time, with a best-selling range of "à la mode" titles covering everything from "Dressed Game and Poultry à la mode" to "National viands à la mode" and even "Floral decorations à la mode," among many more.

But that was a long time ago, and her techniques are foreign to me, and some of her ingredients even more-so (angelica? alum? greengage? ammonia!? pyrogallic acid!?). How were these cakes supposed to taste? I have no idea. What did they look like? Again, no idea. Mrs de Salis leaves no hints, assuming that her readers are already familiar with these types of dishes.

But if I attempt these recipes, and follow them faithfully, I will be stepping into a late-Victorian kitchen. Cooking by the light of the window, squinting over the words on the page as the afternoon shadows gather, by candle-light or maybe, if I am lucky, gaslight. The fire burning in the cast-iron AGA stove keeps me warm. There must be hens in my yard because many of these recipes call for copious numbers of eggs. For the same reason, I imagine I will be serving up smaller slices to my family than my 21st-century counterpart might do; these recipes read heavy! Victorian-era Naomi will have wonderful muscles in her arms, patiently grinding almonds or pistachios into meal to be used in place of flour.

In the process, lost flavours are rediscovered, forgotten meal-times reignited. This is time travel.


Pistachio Cake (Mrs de Salis, 1893)

Blanche a pound of pistachio nuts and pound them in a mortar with a little orange-flower water. Then add the beaten white of an egg and a little grated lemon-peel, six ounces of castor sugar, the yolks of ten eggs beaten lightly, and the whites of eight beaten to snow. Mix all the ingredients thoroughly, have ready a buttered mould, and bake for an hour in a moderate oven. When cold, ice it with pistachio-nut icing. 

Ten eggs, my friends! Yeesh! Also, as far as I can see in my book, Mrs de Salis doesn't actually supply a recipe for pistachio-nut icing. She does however provide a general icing recipe, which I have copied out for you here:

Icing for Cakes (Mrs de Salis, 1893)

Take some icing sugar, mix twelve ounces of it, and mix it in gradually to the whites of four eggs whisked to a stiff froth, beating it well to make it smooth; mix in the strained juice of a lemon and two drops of pyrogallic acid*, and lay the preparation on the cake with a very broad knife. Put it in a cool oven to harden, but be careful it is not hot enough to discolour it.

Let me know if you bake this. I'd love to know how you go.

* NOTE: Please skip the pyrogallic acid if you try this recipe, as it is apparently poisonous!