When Chelsea Ray teaches French language and culture courses at the University of Maine in Augusta, she brings together students who grew up in Maine’s Franco community, to meet up with others who simply want to know about Franco-Americans. Next year, Ray will also lead a French language program for children in Augusta and Lewiston schools.

Ray says her personal French immersion experience helps teach the Franco language and heritage by creating intercultural relationships.

“Relationships create friendships that span several generations,” she says.

Ray learned French when she was an exchange student in France in high school. She recently returned, this time with her husband and children, to visit the places and people of her high school experience.

They traveled to the Loire Valley, near Chinon, to visit her host family. During the visit, Ray says her two daughters quickly learned to speak French even faster than she did as an exchange student.

“I was excited to introduce my French adoptive family to my husband and children. Likewise, my host family wanted to learn our American culture through the exchange experiences,” she says.

Ray was in her junior year when she attended the French Lycee d’Iroise, when she lived with her host family. They resided in Brittany at the time.

“I only had one year of high school French under my belt when I went to France, but within weeks, I was taking all subjects in French at the high school, including physics, chemistry, history, political science and math. I did well in my English class, but I think I made my poor teacher nervous!” she recalls.

This past summer, Ray’s family stayed with her host family for three weeks. It didn’t take long for her two 5-year-old daughters, Chloe and Alina Schueman, to learn French. They picked it up very fast when Ray and her husband left them with the host family while they visited Paris.

Ray has spoken French to her daughters since they were 1 year old, so they understood what people were saying and could jump into activities with the host family’s grandchildren.

“My daughters were shy at first about speaking for themselves. They would whisper things to us in English. So, our hosts Solange and Patrick Nerisson were shocked when, within hours of our departure for Paris, the girls spoke French with the Nerisson’s grandchildren, in full sentences! We had no idea how fast the language immersion would take place!”

Her daughters enjoyed a trip to visit a chateau that inspired Charles Perreault’s story of “Sleeping Beauty” (“La Belle au bois dormant”).

“My daughters were delighted to see scenes from Sleeping Beauty on display in a real castle,” she says. Neighbors also organized a day camp for seven local children including Ray’s daughters. They went on a picnic in the forest, enjoyed face painting and dressed up for a pretend circus.

Friendships forged by the children continue. Ray’s daughters are too young to use social networking yet, but they received a message from the Nerissons that their grandchildren miss Chole and Alina. They want to visit them in Maine.

Ray’s professional teaching includes building cultural awareness about Franco-Americans in Maine. In January 2012, she will lead a children’s French Heritage Language Program for two schools in Augusta and one in Lewiston, based on the same fun learning principles her daughters enjoyed in France.

“We want children to learn while they enjoy creativity, spontaneity and develop a natural feeling for learning French through play,” she says.

Contact Ray for more information at [email protected].