“… During the first week of the “Total Approach” French language course at the Institut de Français, a fellow student endeared himself to the teaching staff when he came to class and gleefully exclaimed (in French, of course), “this total immersion stuff really works! last night I had my first dream in French!” And then he continued, “Je n’ai aucune idée de ce qu’ils disaient, mais c’était complètement en français! ” (“I have no idea what they were talking about but it was all in French!”)

The method – state-of-the-art, modern technology, sink-or-swim “Total Approach” or total immersion – was developed 37 years ago by Jean Colbert, a French avionics engineer. Colbert was interested in taking a scientific approach to teaching a spoken language, and when he started is now one of the world’s most highly regarded and intensive total immersion courses – eight hours a day, five days a week, for four weeks. (So much for “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist…” In this case, I guess it did). It’s offered by the Institut de Français in Villefranche-sur-Mer, a charming fishing port located between Monaco and Nice on the French Riviera.

Despite its science-oriented origins, the institute’s teaching method is based on the simple premise that learning a language by ear – the way children do – is easiest.

Since it began in 1969, the program has attracted all manner of high-profile students, the queen of Norway probably being the most famous. There were no queens in my class, but there was an interesting melange of people, including a professional interpreter who had served as a Russian translator for Richard Nixon when the former president was in Moscow, a Dutch engineer studying French for a two-year stint on a United Nations water-purification project in Africa, a teacher/farmer from Melbourne, Australia, the president of a large Swiss paper company and “moi”, a freelance journalist and crew member with Delta Airlines.

On the first day, the only thing that mattered was how well – or how little – we could speak and understand French. We were tested in oral comprehension, speaking ability, and the intricacies of French vocabulary and grammar, then carefully placed in one of eight possible levels of no more than 10 students per class – “débutant” 1,2, intermediate 1,2,3,4 or advanced 1,2.

The adventure began the following morning with an 8:30 breakfast in a cheerful French country kitchen. From that point on, only French was permitted; anyone caught speaking another language faced a fine of 1 euro ($ 1,2). Even the gardeners were prepared to pop out from behind the bushes to collect the obligatory “amende”. (Fortunately, the kitty goes to a very good cause: a substantial supply of champagne and French Provençal hors d’œuvres on graduation day).

After breakfast, we had ear training, a swift-paced program aimed at training students to comprehend the language as spoken by the French – way too fast.

This was followed by a brain-twisting language lab session – also known as “la chambre de torture”, or “abattoir” (slaughterhouse), as some dubbed it – to improve listening comprehension. Ultimately, students are expected to be able to slip direct and indirect pronouns into “passé composé” (present perfect) and negative sentence structures – something about as easy as in-line skating downhill at 60 mph on the Grand prix Circuit in Monaco.

The key is patience and faith. Eventually, that “chambre de torture” and the professor in charge will ensure that no one leaves without getting those pesky pronouns in the same irrational places as the French put hem. It’s when you stop thinking about where everything is supposed to go and start relying on instinct that, suddenly, the babbling starts making sense.

Lunchtime at the institute provides a pleasant respite from the intense morning sessions. Students and teachers not only enjoy a delicious French “déjeuner” (midday meal), but also can chat and joke – only in French, of course, unless you’ve come with a pocketful of Euros. Oftentimes, full-day discussion-excursions extend to villages in the area.

Reality-check time comes during afternoon sessions in the grand salon or in the beautiful garden where we played adult games like Pictionary and charades. This is when you begin to get an idea of how much of the information avalanche from class and labs is actually being retained.

In the evenings, we learned French in such pleasantly grueling way as going to the theater, the opera, restaurants or screenings of French films.

All the while we thought we were just having fun, but the learning found a way to sneak up on us. By the second week, even the “débutant” were conversing in present, past and future verb tenses.

Most inspiring was the Russian student who started as a “débutant” in July with a French vocabulary of about 10 words and by the end of September had reached the advanced level.

At the conclusion of the program, all students are required to present an “exposé” in which they must speak for about 20 minutes on a topic of their choice, followed by a question-and-answer session. The more advanced students must also lead a 20-minute class discussion on a topic of their choice.

Fortunately, success is inevitable at the Institut de Français. From my perspective, the only possible improvement would be to teach a total immersion class entirely on a sailboat while cruising along the Côte d’Azur and inland waterways.

When not in New York, Delta crew member

Patricia Lewis practices her French

during her regular run to and from Nice.