Freshman makes BBA history with win in French language contest


MANCHESTER — A freshman at Burr and Burton Academy has earned the highest ranking in a national French language contest, a first in the school's history.

Iren Hangen-Vazquez, a 14-year-old Danby resident, won a platinum award in her level at this year's Le Grand Concours, "the National French Contest," an annual competition sponsored by the American Association of Teachers of French.

Hangen-Vazquez posted a near-perfect score in level four of the contest, said Michelle Emery, Burr and Burton's French teacher. The contest uses an online test to evaluate participants' French writing, reading and listening skills.

"Iren's accomplishment is to be celebrated as the rare and special thing that it is," Emery said, adding that in 24 years of teaching French, Hangen-Vazquez is the first student of hers to bag a platinum in Le Grand Concours.

Some 75,000 students from Grades 1 to 12 throughout the U.S. — including those who are home-schooled or have private tutors — participated in this year's contest. Only 237 of them scored in the platinum category, according to the contest organizers.

Hangen-Vazquez actually considered not joining the competition since she hadn't prepared much for it because of other school activities. But she said Emery encouraged her to participate, telling her to just do her best.

"I definitely didn't expect to win the award — in fact, I thought that I didn't do too well on it," the teen said. "When Madame Emery called me to tell me the news, I was quite shocked."

Being a native Spanish speaker has apparently helped her learn French; both are Romance languages. She speaks Spanish and sometimes French with her parents, Heidie Vazquez-Garcia and Eric Hangen. She started learning English, her second language, in preschool.

"For Iren, speaking multiple languages is a big part of who she is," her parents said in an email. "Being bilingual, bicultural and biracial are essential parts of her identity. The world has become too insular and nationalistic, and if we are ever going to make progress together to change that, we have to learn to speak, listen and understand each other in each other's language."

Sixteen other Burr and Burton students took home gold, silver or bronze medals or honorable mentions in Le Grand Concours. The current batch of honorees represent the biggest and highest-ranking group of winners the school has had in at least nine years of participating in the competition, Emery said.

"It is quite a feat to place first in the nation on this exam, but I would like to underline the accomplishments of all who placed," she said. "Even achieving an honorable mention means that those students scored in the 75th percentile or higher on the national level."

Knowing a foreign language helps not just in landing a job, but in seeing things from a different viewpoint and understanding other cultures.

French, specifically, is one of the official languages of international organizations such as the United Nations, the Olympics, the Red Cross, the European Union and the World Trade Organization. In Vermont, French is the second most spoken language, and the state's largest trading partner is the French-speaking Canadian province of Quebec, Emery said.

The teacher said mastering a foreign language requires hard work, the willingness to be open and flexible, as well as the ability to laugh at oneself and not get hung up on mistakes.

Among the individual projects that Burr and Burton's French students undertake is writing a children's book in French 3 class. The students read their finished work to grade-school students of French at Maple Street School in Manchester and Flood Brook School in Londonderry.

"It is a wonderful way to have an authentic audience for my students' work, as well as for the students to synthesize all they have learned into a creative project," Emery said.

Le Grand Concours is administered between February and March each year, with the results announced in April.

List of Burr and Burton winners:

Level 2

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Amos Smithwick '22 - Gold

Juan Calvo de las Heras '21 - Silver

Matt Sabol '21 - Silver

Jack Martin '22 - Bronze

Evangeline Bulick '21 - Honorable Mention

Hannah Cyr '21 - Honorable Mention

Kate Martin '22 - Honorable Mention

Molly Murphy-Major '22 - Honorable Mention

Sofia Sukiennik '22 - Honorable Mention

Luigi Travalglini '21 - Honorable Mention

Level 4

Iren Hangen-Vazquez '22 - Platinum

Noah Price '21 - Silver

Alejandro Shapiro-Mochon - '21 Silver

Chenru Xu '19 - Bronze

Madelyn Goebel '21 - Honorable Mention

Level 5

Shepard Siegel '20 - Silver

Esther MacKenzie '20 - Honorable Mention

Tiffany Tan can be reached at, @tiffgtan at Twitter and 802-447-7567 ext. 122. 


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