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boston-globe

Stay for a month, learn French for a lifetime

(VILLEFRANCHE-SUR-MER, France) – We are seated in a magnificent villa perched on a hillside on the French Riviera with a spectacular view of the Mediterranean in the distance. And we are terrified.

Some of us are expert at not showing fear. Others, like Susan, who works in London as the assistant to actress Hayley Mills, are a bit more transparent.

It is the first day of class at the Institut de Français in this gorgeous fishing port between Nice and Monaco. Most of us underestimated what it would be like to speak French, and only French, for eight hours a day, five days a week. And not just for one week. We’ve signed on for the school’s month-long immersion course, considered one of the best in the world.

Despite the fear factor, the institute is so popular that some people book months in advance and return again and again. Queen Sonja of Norway, actresses Kathy Bates and Kate Capshaw, and assorted diplomats, ambassadors and international CEOs are also alumni. Word has it everyone loved hairstylist Vidal Sassoon when he was here.

Some couples attend; some come with a parent. Some, like me, are second-generation students. My mother studied here 15 years ago.

In theory, my class has it easy. After being carefully tested in audio comprehension and writting and speaking ability upon arrival, we landed in one of the two advanced classes. We have been deemed superior to the débutants who can’t speak a word or even the intermediates, who are struggling with the basics…

“It’s a very humbling experience” says Frédéric Latty, the institute’s executive assistant, who began here as a teacher 17 years ago. “You can’t cling to your ego. And we don’t promise miracles. But if you play the game here, you will make very, very rapid progress in French.

Fortunately, our group of nine students – ranging in age from 22 to 66 and hailing from England, Wales, Japan, Switzerland, the United States, Australia and Morocco – is in good hands. Our patient, yet sardonic teacher, Jean Segarra has been teaching at the institute for 24 years and is often so hilariously funny that you forget you are in a classroom.

“Our teachers have personality” says Latty. “I can’t tell you how many people tell us at the end of their four weeks that they had the best teacher. Then they come back another year and get another teacher and this time say, I had the best teacher.”…

The day begins around 8.30 a.m. when students start streaming in from nearby school-run apartments, most of which are also perched on the hillside with exquisite views of the sea. We eat breakfast together in a big cafeteria-style room. Class begins at 9 a.m. sharp – and the teachers don’t brook latecomers. The day is divided into classroom work, a noon hour spent in the language lab, or “la chambre de torture” , a typically long French lunch (teachers are stationed at every table to make sure everyone speaks French), and post prandial “seances”.

The best séances involve adult parlor games or charades, watching and analyzing French movies, or listenning to a history of cheese that ends with a sampling of different types and sipping wine. The worst sessions require students to huddle in the salon, listening to news taped off the radio.

Ultimately, the process is a paradox, one of the teachers warns. The more you learn, the more overwhelmed you feel, and the more you think you still don’t know.

Then something magical happens. After 10 days of classes, I went to bed one night, and everything I dreamed was in French. I’d walk along the Villefranche harbor at sunset after school and realize I was starting to think in French. It’s almost as if the language has gotten into your blood…

That French alter ego develops rapidly as a result of the immersion process. The results become visible quickly when you leave the school grounds.

The school arranges a day trip to the charming hill town of St Paul de Vence where students visit the Fondation Maeght, the magnificent modern art museum. Students are also encouraged to see a play, usually something by Molière in Nice.

When our month came to an end, everyone in my class agreed the time had gone by too fast. The fear I felt at the start of the course was replaced by a feeling of angst over having to leave.

Many people enjoy their time at the institute so much that they buy property in the area. They are almost like institute groupies.

“We call it the French connection” says Latty. “The same students keep coming back and coming back. And then they wind up living in the area part of the year. Villefranche and the Institut are the ultimate picture-perfect cliché of the south of France – and people just can’t get enough.”

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Villefranche-sur-Mer 5 °C
December 16, 2017