In northeast Ohio, students studying foreign languages can sometimes be hard pressed to find opportunities to practice their skills outside Oberlin’s classrooms.
Fortunately for two fourth-year French majors, a chance to use their considerable French-speaking abilities arose at a competition on April 15 sponsored by la Maison Française de Cleveland, an organization dedicated to promoting French language and culture.
Georgia Lederman, a fourth-year French major with a concentration in education, was awarded the grand prize at the organization’s annual competition for undergraduate students in northeast Ohio. Morgan Griffith, a fourth-year voice and French double major, won second place.
“It was cool to see that there are a lot of people with a passionate interest in French culture in this country, and it was great being able to celebrate the work I’ve done as a French major,” Lederman says.
The competition consisted of two sections, a written essay and a spoken interview. The contestants, two students each from nearby universities including The College of Wooster, John Carroll University, and The Ohio State University, were given an hour and a half to write a roughly 500-800 word essay from one of 12 topics that ranged from discussing the politics of the veil in modern France to personal questions such as “why do you study French?” A conversational interview with the judges followed, testing the students’ oral communication skills.
“The spoken portion was very relaxed, not intimidating or anything, and it was actually kind of fun,” Griffith says. “I was more at ease, and I could let that joy of Francophone culture and language come across.”
Visiting Assistant Professor of French Laura Atran-Fresco aided Lederman in preparing for the competition, but stressed that the credit all goes to Lederman’s exceptional skill with the language.
“Georgia is an excellent student. I just gave her little clues and little colloquial expressions to use, but she gets the subtlety of the language and that’s all her,” Atran-Fresco says. “I’m very proud of her. I’m not surprised at all that she won.”
The open-ended nature of the competition made formal preparation hard, so aside from tips from Atran-Fresco and being quizzed by Faculty-in-Residence and Lecturer in French Thomas Chevrier on the way to the competition, Lederman and Griffith depended on their own facility with the language.
Griffith has been a resident of the la Maison Francophone (French House) on campus for four years, and in addition to loving the community, she has found that maintaining her language skills has helped with both her majors at Oberlin.
“As a musician and singer, French has become my favorite language to sing in. My singing has helped my French, and learning pronunciation and diction has helped my singing,” Griffith says. “Because of my relationship with French, I’ve been able to create a niche for myself in the music world.”
Lederman has also found that studying French has positively contributed to her other focus at Oberlin: education.
“I think for me, my French major has given me insight into how it plays out when the main language spoken in the classroom is not yours, about the interactions of society and classroom dynamics, and making people and myself more aware of how French isn’t just an elite, white language,” Lederman says. “Lots of classic French poets really steal the stage, so widening the understanding of the French language and who uses it is something I’m interested in if I do decide to go into teaching.”
Opportunities to apply foreign language study outside the classroom are myriad, and language competitions are just one place where students get a taste of this usefulness.
“I think it’s very good to have contests to promote French and go ahead and have fun with the language,” Atran-Fresco says. “The students have the opportunity to practice French outside the classroom and to get that recognition from an outside institution and be recognized as real French speakers.”