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Thousands of Canadian students take on the challenge of public speaking in a second language every year.
And at this year’s Concours d’art oratoire, Vernon School District French immersion students came out in force to research, write and share a speech to their peers at school, at the regional level at Okanagan College and, ultimately, at the provincial championships at Simon Fraser University’s Surrey campus.
Grade 7 Beairsto student Sage Shaw took the top prize for his grade, won the regionals in his category and then came in second place at the provincials.
His speech, on chaos theory, was inspired by a science book he received as a gift from his grandmother.
“When I was younger, I used to get stage fright, but not anymore,” said Sage, who enjoys the challenge of learning a new language and is considering a future as a writer. “My teacher, Monsieur (Ian) Cox was really helpful, and I’ve had help from my mom because she was also in French immersion.”
Sage’s mom, Kerry Bokenfohr, said despite the teachers’ job action this year, students at Beairsto, Harwood and Seaton have all been able to take part in Concours.
“It could not have happened without the teachers’ support,” she said.
Sponsored by Canadian Parents for French (CPF), Concours is Canada’s largest annual French-language public speaking competition, involving close to 100,000 students every year.
All kindergarten to Grade 12 students have the opportunity to participate, as students write a speech in French and present it in their classroom.
Every student is awarded a certificate and a prize for their efforts, and parents are invited to attend.
“It’s wonderful that so many students have the opportunity to present at the district and provincial levels, but what we really want to celebrate is the hard work that all of the students do to prepare and perform their speeches,” said Bridget Trainor, CPF rep for Beairsto. “It is an involved process that requires creativity, research and practice on the part of every student.”
Beairsto vice-principal and teacher Brendan Robertson is a former French immersion student.
“Having been both a French immersion student and teacher and doing Concours every year, I know just how much effort these students put into their language learning,” he said.
“However, I am always amazed at the quality of our students’ spoken French. It simply astounds me how successful the immersion program is.”
The late French immersion (LFI) program at Harwood has been both popular and successful.
Vice-principal and teacher Rita Tedesco calls her students a joy to teach.
“Students work exceptionally hard to learn the French language in only two short years,” she said. “There is no greater learning than that where students can reap the immediate benefits of their efforts.
“In this case, the reward is being functionally bilingual. These kids deserve the recognition of being motivated, enthusiastic students.”
Grade 11 Seaton student Laurisa Dohm started French immersion in Grade 1.
“It’s good to learn a second language because you have that capacity as a child,” she said. “And since we live in a bilingual country, Grade 10 French just isn’t enough.”
For Marina Lor, French is actually her fourth language, something she hopes will be useful in her future career as an international lawyer.
“So this gives me another leg up, plus as a lawyer you have to be able to speak in front of people, so Concours is a really good way to learn,” said Marina, who also speaks Persian and Mandarin.
Beairsto kindergarten teacher Lauren Merler is a former French immersion student and longtime Concours participant.
“Parents ask ‘why put my child in French immersion?’ and my answer is ‘why shouldn’t you?’” she said. “People say they worry about their kids learning to read in another language, but the process is the same; you are learning to use the same decoding skills as you would use in English, such as sounding out words.”
Merler, whose mother, Marilyn Merler, was principal at Beairsto for 10 years, said taking part in Concours was more of a mandatory activity than a choice, but she’s grateful for the experience.
“I love speaking in front of people and I think that’s why I became a teacher,” she said. “And Concours taught me to feel a sense of accomplishment for something I did all by myself, and taking part in the provincials is such an amazing experience because you’re with all of these like-minded people in the same place. It teaches you poise and also how to deal with your nerves.”
For Merler, spending her working day at Beairsto is something of a dream come true. When the family lived in Merritt, they would come to Vernon to ski at Silver Star and drive past Beairsto.
“My mom used to say, ‘One day, I’m going to work at that school,’ and I used to say the same thing,” she said. “I love what I do — the kids make me feel so special, and it’s so much fun to watch them grow, especially with a second language.”