Elizabeth Gaffney was a 6-year-old Anglophone living in Ontario when her parents enrolled her in a French camp in the Laurentians called Camp Mère Clarac. Gaffney says her parents strongly believed that their daughter should speak a second language so they were willing to make the eight-hour drive to the camp. It was a total immersion experience for the young girl.
“I was the only one there who was English,” she recalls some 40 years later. Yet, at the end of the week, Gaffney had made friends, participated in all the activities and was even named Camper of the Week. She continued to attend the camp for 11 more summers; and each year, her friends, Thèrese, Suzanne and Louise saved her a spot in their cabin and welcomed her back.
For English-speaking children and their families, summer camp in French offers an opportunity to improve language skills in a more relaxed environment than school. However, some parents may wonder how their children will cope living for a week or more at French camp.
Several camp directors, who see Anglophone kids thriving at French camps, say that children manage to communicate, make friends and adapt without too much trouble, in large part because camp is so focused on fun activities.
Sister Marie-Hélène, the director of Camp Mère Clarac, says campers come from all over the world, including South America, North America, and Europe. Although the primary language at the camp is French, many of her staff speak three languages and are always able to assist campers.
“We’ve never had a case where a camper had a problem because of the language barrier,” she says. Through activities such as hiking, horseback riding and swimming, the children make friends, learn enough of the language to communicate and generally have a great time. And each spring, the camp opens its doors so parents can meet the staff and ask questions about the camp and how it integrates non-French speaking campers. (Visit http://camp.marie-clarac.qc.ca for dates.)
Socializing promotes bilingualism
In fact, it is more common for campers to suffer from homesickness rather than problems arising from communication, says Sacha Plamondon, the director of Camp Minogami, located near Shawinigan. This camp welcomes about a dozen unilingual campers each year. Many of the counsellors are bilingual, so should communication problems arise, someone is available to translate (and a great number of young people have at least a working knowledge of English).
Plamondon says that the best way to learn a language is by swimming, playing and making friends. Camp Minogami does not offer French classes but they will put a bilingual counsellor in charge of a group that has English-speaking kids. He adds that many English campers return year after year. “They come back because they’ve made friends and enjoyed the experience.”
And, as Gaffney can attest, the friendships forged at camp can last a lifetime. Although she lives in Stratford, Ontario, she still keeps in touch with her camp buddies and loves having the opportunity to use her second language. She also sent both her kids (Sara and Ian Brown) to French immersion schools and, when they turned 8, she sent them to Camp Mère Clarac.
Although her kids had a grasp of French when they attended, they were not fluently bilingual. But like their mother, they discovered that the games and routines at camp made it easy for them to integrate. “You don’t need to speak French to play dodge ball,” she says.
Gaffney adds that both her children are now fluent in their second language. “My son goes to university in Ottawa and people ask him if he is French or English,” Gaffney says, adding, “I hear my daughter yatter away on the phone in French and I know I have succeeded.”
The Association des camps du Québec (ACQ) certifies that camps in this province meet safety and health standards. The ACQ website, www.camps.qc.ca, has an extensive list of French camps, including activities and costs. For more information, call (819) 424-2261.