Millie Jacoby described it excitedly on Twitter in December as “the most WHOLESOME thing.” The 21-year-old Warwick University student had signed up to an organization that pairs language learners with “old people who are lonely” in France to have conversations over Skype. “My French grandma is 91 and she likes knitting and lives in a retirement home,” Jacoby wrote. At the end of their conversation, her new “grandma” asked her: “I’m not boring you too much, am I? would you like to call again next week?”
The tweet, which has since been deleted, went viral in a year when feel-good news stories were thin on the ground. Amongst those who saw it was Charlotte Wilson, a 19-year-old from England who studies French at Oxford University. “I’ve always been good at writing and reading French, but speaking is more challenging. I liked the idea of being able to practice,” she said. She got in touch with Oldyssey, the French non-governmental organization which runs the scheme, and they paired her up with Philippe Simon, a 61-year-old former journalist from Normandy.
“He’s very easy to talk to and has so many interesting stories!” Wilson said. They talk every Monday morning, and she said she has seen a definite improvement in her language skills in the five weeks since they started. “I am feeling more fluent and more confident,” she said.
Wilson learns more from their talks than just the language. Listening in on one of their calls feels like entering a high-brow literary salon. Both Simon and Wilson are passionate about literature and history, and together they discuss everything from disappearing dialects to the classic French play Phaedra and its psychoanalytical undertones. “I’ve learnt about some elements of French culture that I would never have heard of otherwise,” Wilson said.
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Simon, meanwhile, is thrilled to have someone with whom to share his interests, and to whom he can teach his language and culture. “I always say knowledge is pointless if it isn’t shared,” he said. He also enjoys Wilson’s tales about life in England, saying that he is “fascinated to find out how things work elsewhere.”
After retiring last year, Simon planned to travel to Iceland with his wife, but then coronavirus happened. During successive lockdowns in France, he couldn’t even travel as far as the ocean, “which is only 15 minutes bike ride away!”
The “Share Ami” scheme by Oldyssey takes the old idea of having a pen pal to learn a language and brings it into the modern era. Pen pals talk via Skype rather than letters, and they come not only from different cultures but different generations. The organization has so far created nearly 90 pairings.
‘A mutually beneficial relationship’
“It has been a real hit. There is a waiting list of students at the moment,” said Christina Panaggio, a volunteer with Oldyssey, whose job is to match language learners with senior citizens. “What always strikes me is that it is a mutually beneficial relationship. That is very unique compared to other volunteer work,” she said.
On one hand, the scheme allows language learners from all over the world, from Tibet to Uzbekistan, a chance to practise their conversational skills. The only criteria for taking part are to have at least an intermediate level of French and to be under 35 years old.
Share Ami also seeks to tackle the major problem of loneliness amongst older generations. In a survey from 2019, 27 percent of people over 60 in France said they felt isolated. The COVID-19 pandemic has only worsened this problem by making family gatherings impossible and forcing care homes to place restrictions on visits.
Loneliness also accelerates physical and cognitive decline in elderly individuals. U.S. psychologist Julianne Holt-Lunstad has suggested that loneliness can be as detrimental to health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Luckily, isolated French seniors can now find solace in these long-distance friendships.
Eloïse Stark is a freelance journalist based in France.
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