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Annual Tours for the Thinking Person: France

Off to Learn the Lingo

In France an immersion language study course leads to fluency. Non?

January 11, 1998|GREGORY CURTIS | Curtis is editor of Texas Monthly

ROANNE, France — "When we get to Paris," I told my wife, Tracy, one evening not long before we left on our trip, "we might think about going to the Comedie-Francaise. It's supposed to be fabulous, and by then," I concluded casually, "we'll speak French."

That moment haunted me during the two weeks we spent at l'Ecole des Trois Ponts (Three Bridges School) on the outskirts of Roanne, southeast of Paris. We went there to take an intensive course in French: 25 hours of instruction each week and breakfast, lunch and dinner where only French is spoken. We arrived at the train station in Roanne the first Sunday afternoon in June fully expecting that when we returned to the station two weeks later to catch the train to Paris, we would be chattering away in French as easily and comfortably as we did in our dreams.

Long ago we had been indifferent language students in school. But several summers ago, on a horseback riding trip through the Loire valley in south central France, we were a little embarrassed to find ourselves able to speak only English and a bit of pidgin French in a group of Europeans who all spoke French, English and German with equal ease.

We returned home determined to learn French. Tracy took an introductory course at the local community college while I used instructional tapes in my car and painfully plodded through some of Georges Simenon's inspector Maigret mysteries, with the help of an English translation. We made progress, but it was difficult and slow. And when we tried to speak--once in particular when we ran into a group of French exchange students in an airport--we were given friendly smiles but not understood. Nor could we understand what they were saying to us. We realized the limitations of our haphazard study techniques. If only we could take some time and concentrate on nothing but French. Which is why we enrolled at l'Ecole des Trois Ponts.

*

We couldn't have chosen a prettier setting. The school is in a 17th century chateau recently renovated by its present owners who also run the school: Rene Dorel and his wife, Margaret O'Loan. The chateau is isolated on 32 acres of land on the outskirts of Roanne. Everything is simple, neat and attractive. Our room on the second floor had a ceiling at least 20 feet high, a gray carpet and prints of French paintings hung here and there on peach walls. Outside our window was a broad walk leading down to a pond and a wide expanse of grass and trees. All we could hear were songbirds and the pleasant, almost musical croaking of frogs at the pond.

Nor, in this pretty setting, did we have to worry about anything but learning French. Each morning while we were in class, a maid cleaned our room. Claude, the chef, a huge man with thick silver hair and a silver mustache and tattoos on each forearm, cooked all of our meals. (The traditional French fare was superb.) He was very fond of Americans. Each morning he would bend the French-only rule and say to me, "Hello, my friend Greg," in what he believed was an American accent. I would answer, "Hello, my friend Claude," in what I believed was a French accent. With our daily schedule all expertly arranged, the only decision we had to make for two weeks was where to go sightseeing on the weekend.

Dinner the first Sunday night was a bit stilted. Tracy and I gamely tried to speak French as we assumed we should, but we were peeved to find that several of the other five students blithely spoke English. Only S., an elderly German woman, spoke solely in French, but she either could not or would not understand my French. When I told her I lived in Texas, she shook her head emphatically, as if refusing to believe that anyone who lived there could have anything to say in either French or English. I gave her the benefit of the doubt and assumed that she must have a hearing problem.

We had a short test the next morning and Tracy and I were assigned to different classes. I walked into mine--in a nicely furnished room with a fireplace and a large window on the first floor--only to discover that it consisted of myself, a teacher and S. I was filled with dread. Was all my time in the car with my tapes going to be wasted on a German woman who couldn't hear?

I took solace in our teacher, Gabby. He was a short, dark, handsome man who appeared to be in his late 30s. I learned that he had been born near Roanne and lived there still. At one point in his life he had spent several years in the United States and spoke impeccable English, although he rarely used it in class. He immediately gave us our first assignment: S. and I were to talk to each other for a few moments, then we would tell him what we had learned about each other. Gabby left the room. In a kind of gloomy darkness, sitting at a small oval table, S. looked at me and I looked at her.

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