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“Because they are immersed in the language, participants quickly gain the confidence they need to speak”

Making plans in a foreign language is something all Roeland camp participants learn to do. Board members and didactics experts Marc De Clercq, Jacques Eichperger, Luc Jacobs, Christel Arens, Tom De Paepe, Sofie Ermens and Dieter Heye explain exactly how we go about this, and why. 

Luc Jacobs, member of the governing body and holiday camp organiser : “I had visited a couple of language camps set up by other organisations and I had noticed that they were all quite school-like in their approach. I thought : this can be done better. From the moment Roeland started in 1971, our approach was to learn whilst doing sports, singing, having meals together etc. – all whilst speaking another language. To make this work, we needed to have enough staff. Other camps had one activity leader for each ten participants. At Roeland, the ratio was – and still remains – one to five. 

The Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR)

Christel Arens, member of the governing body and pedagogical counsellor for catholic education : “In the past few years, we have been in discussions with external parties in order to adapt our didactics. This change was inspired by the European framework A1 – C2. Roeland’s didactic vision has three pillars : participant-tailored,  communication-targeted teaching and a creative approach.”

Dieter Heye, didactic coordinator and volunteer : “A1 is the beginners level. At this level, the children get a solid grounding in how to understand and deal with everyday situations. This is at our junior camps, where the volunteers only speak the target language, but the participants are still allowed to speak to each other in their own language. We do it this way because, at this young age, children do not yet have the emotional resilience to be completely immersed in another language. To insist that young children speak only the target language can lead to a lot of frustration. 

“Once children are older than 12, there is more diversity when it comes to language acquisition. That’s why Roeland has a number of groups of various levels for the language workshops. Participants who do not yet speak very much of the target language tend to catch up pretty fast thanks to the immersion approach.”

Customised for Each Participant

Sofie Ermens, member of the governing body, teacher and volunteer : “Some children who come to camp already speak the target language pretty well, whilst others barely speak a word of it. That’s why we have an introduction game at the start of camp – it gives us the chance to observe the children and see what level they are at. Then we can put them into small groups according to ability.”

Tom de Paepe, member of the governing body : “At our camps, the participants can decide for themselves which workshops they want to join and which sports they would like to participate in. It’s always a good thing to have choice. They also feel really involved in the language labs because they are in a small group and they are actively using language through having discussions, playing games or doing quizzes. They can put what they have learned to use straight away, which makes them feel competent : “Interviewing somebody in French ? Yes, I CAN do it !”

Christel : “Our camps are a perfect fit for Prof. Dr. Maarten Vansteenkiste’s (UGent) ‘ABC motivation model’ – he has identified the three elements that stimulate children and young people to learn : autonomy, involvement and competence.”

Learning-Targeted Communication

Sofie : “ ‘You can go for seconds !’ – none of the children are familiar with this typical English expression when they arrive at camp. At first, you have to find a simple way to explain what it means, but the children soon understand and they don’t hold back in queuing up for a second helping at the buffet. And they soon start to use the expression themselves, too ! This way, they learn lots of useful things for daily life – things which they would never learn or use at school.”

Dieter : “During the first few days, we put extra focus on language which is useful for camp life : asking for something during mealtimes, taking your turn during a game, expressing yourself and talking about what you think and how you are feeling. There are posters all over the walls with reminders about the practical things, which also helps the kids.”

Creative Approach

Tom : “Because we immerse the participants at Roeland camps in the target language and because there are also native speakers present, there is a really great atmosphere. Once, when I was a participant, I had to try to sell shares as fast as I could in a really crazy stock market game. Everyone flung themselves into the game so wholeheartedly that we completely forgot that we were speaking French.”


Christel : “In the past, the approach was to start with the vocabulary which a child already knew. If they came across a word they didn’t know, they were expected to look it up. But that’s not a realistic context, because children are constantly coming across words they don’t know, which leads to them simply switch off and stop listening. But if children keep listening, they can guess the meaning of the word through its context.”

“That is why Roeland aims to promote language acquisition in a more spontaneous way. For example, a teacher might ask someone to pass the butter whilst pointing to it. That way, the child will understand through the context that the teacher wants the butter, without needing to understand each word perfectly. This is a good way to increase vocabulary. The next stage is for the child to use those words themself to ask for the butter.”

The Confidence to Speak

Jacques Eichperger, former general coordinator and chair of the general assembly : “Thanks to our ‘one volunteer per five participants’ policy, from morning until night there is always someone encouraging the kids to talk. Some children chat spontaneously, but there are always plenty of participants who feel shy or are afraid of making language mistakes. Our volunteers work hard to encourage these kids to start talking, too. They soon realise that they can do it !”

Marc De Clercq, chair of the governing body and professor emeritus, Ghent : “Immersion in the language ensures that the participants quickly gain confidence speaking the language. They sometimes feel a little overwhelmed on the first couple of days of camp, but after a day or two they start to understand more and they realise that they can actually get by in the target language. That is quite different to how they learn at school.”

Sofie : “The children like the language labs because they are put into small groups of around ten participants who are at the same level as them. They soon realise that their language skills are improving and they become more self-assured. There are children who come to camp with almost no knowledge of the target language and at the end of camp they perform in a play, speaking in front of the whole group. That’s when they realise that they can really get by in another language, and it makes them feel so proud of themselves.”