French for Travelers, Non-Immersion Style

For years now, ever since enrolling in the local Alliance Francaise to resuscitate my high school French, vacationing in France has a new dimension — a chance to put my hard-earned French conversation skills into action. Often, however, the experience falls short of expectations. Without an opportunity for “immersion” in a full-time language program, and within the limited time constraints of a week to month-long vacation, opportunities to speak and learn can be limited and not always confidence building. This is true most especially in Paris, where busy waiters and concierges sometimes respond to my carefully crafted but obviously not native French with impatience. This past year, with two opportunities to travel in France, I was determined to surmount this frustration. In two different situations, the first a week-long stay in Paris, the second a month in Provence, some pre-travel research helped me to identify non-immersion opportunities for language support. Not only did I boost my French skills, I learned a lot about the culture and made some new friends. My first experience was a week-long trip to Paris with my husband this past spring. Paris, of course, is awash in language schools, but most schools require longer term enrollment or signing up for a full-scale immersion program. I was looking for a more flexible approach, ideally a daily morning class, leaving me most of the day to do all the other things Paris has to offer. Starting off the day with an hour or two of French conversation, I reasoned, should stimulate the right neuron chains, instilling confidence to hold my own with surly serveurs, and giving me a language base where I could ask the daily barrage of language and culture questions that are part of every visit. Location was important too — I was looking for something in central Paris, walking distance from the hotel where we would be staying in the 6th arrondisement.  After some internet research, I found what I was looking for at Lutèce Langue, a small private institution in the first arrondisement. The school focuses on conversational skills and offers enrollment for a minimum period of one week (Monday through Friday), with small group classes (maximum six students per class) at different skill levels. I had the option of enrolling in one or two back-to-back morning sessions of 90 minutes — I chose the single, earlier session. For level placement, the school e-mailed me a written test, and this was followed by a telephone interview to assess comprehension and speaking skills. Several weeks later and newly arrived in Paris, I headed for class on a Monday morning, a leisurely commute along Boulevard St Michel, across the Ile de la Cité (with a brief stop for a café crème), to the right bank and Boulevard de Sebastopol. The school is located just steps away from the Pompidou Center. I climbed a few flights of stairs and was ushered into a sunny classroom where I was soon joined by five other students, from the US, UK and Japan. They were a diverse and interesting group, most of them in Paris for a few weeks to a few months. Two classmates were university students while others, like me, were well past university age but still fired up to master the subjunctive and other baffling complexities of the language. Happily, I found that the school had done a good job in matching our skill level, allowing us all to converse continually and comfortably under the guidance and constant correction of our very able and sympa native “Prof,” Pierre.  Besides kicking my conversational skills up another notch and giving my stateside French a badly needed update, my daily class gave me the kick-start I needed for holding my own, language-wise, in Paris. I looked forward to starting each day by heading off to a real French rendez-vouz, and by the end of the week was sorry to have to say au revoir. Next time I find myself back in Paris for a week or more, this is something I definitely will do again. The second experience was this fall, during a month-long stay in the Var region of Provence. My husband and I had arranged to rent a house in a village with a population under 1,500, where a dedicated language school was not an option. A month or two before our scheduled rental date, however, I noted that the village’s office of tourism had a rather impressive website. I sent the tourist office an e-mail, asking if they had information about French lessons for visitors. I didn’t really expect a reply, but I figured there was no harm in trying. A week or two later, I was delighted to receive a reply.  The tourism office had flipped my request to the village library which identified a local professional certified in languages who was willing to spend an hour with me three or four mornings a week.  The results, as the French would say, were for-mid-able! Not only did I have a chance to converse and be corrected, and to learn some of the subtleties of both Provencal and Paris French (many of the village residents, including my amazing teacher, are transplanted or part-time residents from Paris), I learned a lot about the village and about local history and cultural events. We talked politics too, from the American election to the French newly enforced headscarf law, exchanges that were insightful for both sides. I made a number of new French friends who invited my husband and me into their homes. The village library, recognizing me as the American who had e-mailed the village looking for French instruction, gave me borrowing rights for books and films during our stay, further helping me steep myself in the environment. Next fall, we’ll be going back to the same village in Provence, where I am now “wired in,” or, shall I say, branchée? But, from now on, no matter…
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