“… The Institut de Français, here on the Côte d’Azur, has a reputation as one of the world’s most intensive year-round schools in spoken French. Friends chortled knowingly when I told them that I was going to brush up my French on the Riviera, little did they, or I, guess that eight hours a day, in the Côte d’Azur’s worst heat wave in years, we 70 students would toil in the midst of paradise.

The Institut, uses a method that, in its inception, was positively Cartesian: language snoops placed microphones in French subways, offices and stores, pored over the result, and came up with a “fundamental vocabulary” of words most in use in everyday conversation. The Institut potboiled the list to an even more basic 1.200 words. The teachers speak in this rigorously selective prose, musically, clearly and rapidly. And almost from the first day, with a strange sensation of having fallen through the looking glass, you understand perfectly.

I had worried about my student stamina. But the Institut’s varied curriculum made it easy to stay alert. We whisked from grammar to films to lab to French songs; and even – sheepish but dutiful – played parlor games during the sacred postprandial “hour of digestion.”

Our teachers were dazzling. Good-humored, tactful, radiantly clear and gifted with celestial patience, they could remorselessly insist on le mot juste and the non nasal or take 10 minutes, if necessary to extract the correct verb from a floundering student, and yet never deflate our ever-growing confidence.

A miracle did happen, after all. Classmates became friends, met and known only in French. It was as though we had each discovered, exhilaratingly, a fresh persona. Racing ahead, we forgot the helplessness of the early days. So much of our sense of self is bound up in language : acquire a new language and you feel more powerful, more alive. After the exciting intensity of effort, we felt – and almost were – triumphantly bilingual…”