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Language ‘pioneer’ bids au revoir to teaching

Roger Delage, a French Immersion teacher at White Rock Elementary, is retiring after 30 years. - Chung Chow photo
Roger Delage, a French Immersion teacher at White Rock Elementary, is retiring after 30 years.
— image credit: Chung Chow photo

Tom Delage retires after more than three decades on the job

The past three decades for Roger Delage have been a labour of love, planting the seeds of a new language in the gardens where they’ll most certainly grow best: the minds of young students.

Considered a pioneer of Surrey’s late-immersion French program, Delage knows that watching those gardens grow and blossom is what he’ll miss most in the next phase of his life.

“Most of the time, they go beyond (my expectations),” Delage says of the Grade 6 and 7 students he’s introduced to his mother tongue. “I’m always so amazed at how quickly kids can learn a language.”

Delage retired last week, closing a chapter filled with songs, games, fun and satisfaction.

“I will miss it,” he says. “I’ve had lots of fun and I still enjoy it tremendously.

“One thing I find every day is I really do have lots of fun in the classroom. I find myself laughing out loud.”

Delage was among the first to teach late-immersion French in the province. He was hired to teach the program in Surrey in 1978; his wife, Elene, taught early-immersion French (which launched the year before) across the hall from him in White Rock Elementary, in the original annex.

With no materials or a model for such a program to guide them, they “kind of figured it out as they went along,” said Alicia Logie, Surrey’s French-immersion helping teacher.

“They kind of invented it.”

The couple had moved from Slave Lake, Alta. Delage grew up in Peace River. The French community in the northern Alberta town was strong there, Delage said.

“It was just a unique bilingual area,” he said. “Still today, people speak French all over the place.”

Delage, the youngest of four in his family, said he was drawn to teaching by his love of the French language. It didn’t hurt that he’s always liked children.

And over his years in classrooms at White Rock (1978-79, 1990-2008), H.T. Thrift (1979-80) Sunnyside (1980-85) and Jessie Lee (1985-90) elementaries – he moved from school to school with the French-immersion program – colleagues say there’s no doubt his students flourished on his enthusiasm.

Logie has worked in the district for 18 years; the last five as French-immersion helping teacher. “The kids love him,” one mother told Logie.

“Her daughter said, ‘he’s the best teacher I’ve ever had’,” Logie said of Delage’s Grade 6 student.

And that’s not the first time I’ve ever heard that. He kind of comes alive when he’s teaching. He just does what’s good for kids – some would say, perfectly.”

Delage has always had a knack for making learning fun, Logie said, motivating his students through songs and games, and going to great lengths to make what he was teaching them relevant.

“If they’re learning about verbs, they get up and they do it,” Logie said. “He intersperses that with a lot of hard work.”

Delage said research shows the best age to learn a new language is between birth and 12 years old. After that, picking it up becomes more difficult.

By the same token, those equipped with a second language typically find it easier to learn a third and fourth language. As well, multilingualism opens doors to many more careers and can even make travel in foreign countries more pleasurable.

Delage likes to believe he’s played a role in the success or career directions of some of his former students. One from his very first late-immersion class recently told him she now holds a PhD in linguistics.

“She’s telling me that first interest started when she was in my classroom,” he said.

Other students have gone on to become pilots; another is certain knowing French got her out of an uncomfortable situation while traveling in Zaire, because she was able to communicate with initially unfriendly soldiers.

“She said when she started speaking in French, they backed off,” Delage said. “You never know when you’re going to use French. It just opens up a new world of possibilities, in terms of meeting people, in terms of making friends.”

French-language instruction is intended to provide students with a working knowledge of Canada’s other official language. It’s also aimed at instilling an appreciation of French culture. The Ministry of Education recognizes its benefits to students’ cognitive and social development. According to the Surrey School District, French Immersion students typically surpass the provincial average in writing and math in the Foundation Skills Assessment, a test administered to all Grade 4, 7, and 10 students.

Delage described LFI students as highly motivated and not afraid of a challenge. Joining the program often means changing schools and friends, on top of learning a new language and learning their subject matter in that new language.

Crescent Park Elementary’s Guylaine Cyrenne, who worked with Delage for 10 years at WRE, is confident her colleague’s friendly manner, sense of humour and obvious passion for the language has inspired many students to rise to the challenge.

He likes to have fun with teaching, and “this is the key to education,” she said. “He’s a Francophone and you can see that he’s proud to be a French speaker. He just loves the language.”

The choice program has come a long way since it was introduced in Surrey 30 years ago. It’s now available in 16 schools across the district, and demand for late-immersion remains high. Delage noted there’s already a wait list for the 2008-09 program at WRE.

He hopes to one day see similar programs for other languages.

For now, he’s looking forward to spending time on activities he’s long put on the back burner, including travel and gardening.

And he just may take up another language.

“I’ve always wanted to learn Spanish. Now, maybe I’ll have time,” he said.

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