The Guide to Learning French in France
The Only Difficulty is Narrowing Down Your Options
Learning French helps you enjoy the great local food served at restaurants.
I recently bought a house in a small village in the south of France. One day, there was a knock on the door. It was my neighbor, Monique. After I invited her in, my problems began. At first I thought she was asking me to join her for cocktails that evening. I explained that I had other plans. She became agitated, “No, no…” that was not what she was asking. She repeated her question, again, and again. Finally, I got it—she was asking me if I felt better since I had told her that I was not feeling well when I arrived the previous week. I was aghast. Monique is a primary school teacher and speaks very slowly and distinctly. How could I not have understood her?
I had studied French in college a long time ago and had started to study again with various books and tapes. I hadn’t studied as much as I would have liked because day-to-day things kept getting in my way. I decided that I needed to find a program away from home that would allow me to focus on nothing but improving my language skills.
Where to Study in France?
Once you decide to study French in France, the hardest part is deciding which program to enroll in and where. Numerous programs are available in all parts of the country. You need to decide if you want to attend school in a large city, a small town, or the countryside. Each offers distinct advantages. A city offers more choices in terms of cultural activities, restaurants, and so forth. Small towns provide a better opportunity to interact with people and get a feel for the local culture. The countryside may provide more opportunities for outdoors activities.
It is also important to consider why you want to study French and what you hope to gain from the experience. There is a big difference between someone who has a professional need to learn French and someone who would like to feel more comfortable when shopping and dining in restaurants. Determining how much time you want to devote to this effort is also a factor.
Which Kind of Courses?
The courses tend to fall into three general categories: standard, intensive, and immersion.
Standard Programs: These offer two to four hours of daily formal classroom instruction. In the afternoons you are free to do as you like. Some schools will plan activities for you for an additional fee.
Intensive Programs: These follow a curriculum similar to those in the standard program, however, they are supplemented by afternoon classes that allow you to improve your conversational skills, acquire specific professional vocabulary, or learn more about the culture.
Both standard and intensive programs tend to group students by language ability through placement testing. The quality and intensity of this testing varies. Some schools may ask you to complete the test (on the honor system) prior to arrival; others administer the test on the first day of class. Try to understand what type of testing your school offers. Is it vocabulary, grammar, or reading comprehension? Does the assessment also include an evaluation of speaking and listening skills? If after a class or two, you feel that you are over your head or totally bored, request a class change.
Immersion Programs: These are exactly what the name implies. You are “immersed” in the language continually during the day and evening. For my needs, an immersion program was best. I chose a program in the Bresse region. A typical day consisted of breakfast, instruction in grammar and comprehension, followed by lunch and an afternoon excursion. During these activities we participated in conversation with the instructors and other students en Français. Our pronunciation, vocabulary, and grammar were constantly corrected. Dinner typically concluded the day, although sometimes there was an evening activity like a movie or concert. My instructors hoped that I went to sleep dreaming in French.
While exhausting, my immersion program enabled me to improve my language skills rapidly, particularly in the area of communication.
The downside of an immersion program can be that the learning experience is intense and often stressful. These programs are not for the casual student. They are most appropriate for people who have a professional or personal need to come up to speed in French quickly.
Often an immersion program is based in the home of the instructor(s). When this is not the case, students are usually housed in a hotel nearby. These programs are typically limited to fewer than six students. Some schools will try to place students in groups based on language levels, but many do not, because a mixed group more realistically mirrors the real world, where you will encounter people with different levels of ability and regional accents.
Whichever type of program you choose, remember that class size is very important. Experts seem to agree that for learning (or improving foreign language skills), six or fewer students is ideal. Inquire ahead of time as to what happens if there are only one or two students of a particular level. Many schools will then reduce the number of class hours (but not the tuition) proportionately. Your 3-hour class based on six students could turn into an hour and a half if only you and one other student are present.
Most programs will help arrange housing for you. Housing options can range from staying in a hotel or a studio apartment in a student residence to boarding with a family. The location of your accommodations is important. You do not want to spend a large part of your day traveling to and from school. One school in Paris offered a boarding situation that required three changes of Metro lines and was barely within the city limits.
Keep in mind that if you want to study French outside France, there are many excellent programs in Switzerland, Belgium, and Canada.