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Taking aim at French
Quebec Camps Make Learning Fun
By Frank Jones
Kids at Base de Plein Air des Laurentides are typical campers, except that those who are English-speaking learn French under the best of all possible circumstances.
Nine-year-old Oliver was having a hard time. He had been at Base de Plein Air des Laurentides, north of Montreal for a week, and he had had enough. "I want to go home," he announced.
It had all been a bit sudden and traumatic for him. There was the seven-hour drive from Toronto with his parents, Lisa and Bob Borovic, and he was going to be staying at the French-speaking camp for a month. He had never been away from home before, not even for overnight.
"I had butterflies," he says. "I was kind of excited, but I was going to miss my parents. I felt quite worried. I was going for a month! Oh, man!"
The trouble started when Oliver found that the French he had learned in French immersion at his public school back in Toronto was not the same as the French spoken by Quebec youngsters at camp.
The accent was different and, at first, he couldn't understand what they were saying. And he missed his parents.
The idea of sending Oliver to a French-language camp in Quebec "just popped into my head," says Lisa Borovic. Like increasing numbers of parents in English Canada, she realized that she and Bob could send Oliver to a French-language camp right on their doorstep, as it were. Well, seven hours away.
It seemed like a good idea to send him for a month because it was a long way to go for a shorter period, Borovic says. Then, after one week, the whole thing seemed to be coming apart.
Meanwhile, two other Toronto parents, Elaine and Michael Kachala, had taken a different approach in sending their daughter, Nicole, now nine, to Laurentides. "The first year, she hadn't been to camp before, so we just sent her for a week," Elaine Kachala says. "She liked it so much, she wanted to go again last summer, so we sent her for two weeks."
Nicole, who attends a bilingual school in Toronto, where half the classes are in French, made good language progress. However, Kachala admits, she made a mistake: she visited Nicole half way through the two-week session.
"I should have listened to Jacques (Grondin, the camp director)," she says. He, like many camp directors, advises against parent visits, which can upset youngsters and make them homesick.
How did it all turn out for Oliver and Nicole?
"I sent Oliver an e-mail explaining that there are things in life you have to overcome," says Lisa Borovic. "If it had been really, really bad, I would have gone to get him. But we got a message back saying everything is great now."
Oliver says that by the second week, "I was one of the best horseback riders. And there was the rock-climbing -- oh, I was so scared!" Scared, but loving it. His French fell into place in the third week, he says, "and by the fourth week I didn't want to come home because I was having so much fun."
Adds his mother: "And he was even thinking in French."
And Nicole, who was upset by her mid-session visit from her mother, was soon enjoying French and horseback riding again, and says she wants to go back again next year.
"Only this time, I won't visit her," says her mother.
What's so special about Quebec camps? Put simply, it's that their working language is French. "We tried out a couple of French day camps here (in Toronto)," says Elaine Kachala, "but if the kids speak English, the staff ends up speaking English to them too."
Emmanuelle Deguire, of the Odyss?e camps, expresses beautifully Quebec's appeal for parents: "Through fun, they will learn French."
It's easy, for instance, when it comes to archery for a youngster to learn that the bow and arrows are un arc et des fleches. And that easy switch applies whether it's canoeing, swimming, nature study or any other of the many activities at Odyss?e's three camps.
Although camp counsellors are bilingual, English-speaking children make up only a small minority, says Deguire. "If French is not the language spoken at home, it usually takes one week for a child to adapt."
One interesting trend she has noticed: parents from Ontario make the fact their children are at camp in Quebec the excuse for taking a vacation there. For instance, she says, parents often drop off or pick up their children at Odyss?e's Trois-Saumon camp, which is on the South Shore, on the way to the Gasp?.
And there are no language police at the camps! Marie-Eve Girard of Camp M?re Clarac, where 80 per cent or more of the 250 boys and girls in each session are from Quebec, says they are just as pleased if francophone children pick up some English from campers from Ottawa or Toronto. Like most camps in Quebec, M?re Clarac also numbers among its 200 or so campers kids from overseas, including Mexico, Italy and France.
Laurentides even has English lessons for francophones in addition to French lessons for kids who sometimes arrive at the camp speaking no French at all. "It takes a few days," says director Jacques Grondin, "and then they are speaking the language of kids. By the end of camp they are communicating easily."
Boys, he observes, pick up French as easily as girls, and the key often is an English-speaking child finding a best friend who is French-speaking.
As with any camp, these are friendships likely to last for life.
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