“(VILLEFRANCHE-SUR-MER, France) – More than half a century ago, Grace Kelly began the arduous process of learning French after she married Prince Rainier and settled into life in the palace in Monaco at age 26. Today, the woman reportedly set to become the next Princess of Monaco, the South African swimmer Charlene Wittstock, 30, is taking the opposite tack.

Wittstock is already ensconced in an apartment at the Palace in Monaco near Prince Albert, 50, and has been studying at the most exclusive – and intensive – French language school in the world, the Institut de Français in Villefranche-sur-Mer – eight miles west of Monte Carlo on the French Riviera.

Wittstock is the latest in a steady stream of diplomats, world financial powerbrokers, actresses (Kathy Bates, Kate Capshaw and Britain’s Honor Blackman), athletes and royalty (Queen Sonja of Norway was a recent student) to attend the Institut hoping its unusual methods will help them perfect French…

Most students, who range in age from 21 to over 75, live in school-run apartments scattered on the hillside and walk to the Institute every morning… Although students come from all over the world, including America, England, Australia, Germany, Switzerland and Scandinavia, they all have one thing in common : they’re Francophiles.

Rick Posner, 56, a court reporter from San Francisco who attended the Institute recently, said he fell in love with the French language when he was a 16-year-old high school student. « I even thought I’d eventually become a French teacher, « he said ». « But then life took over and my French went on the back burner. I lost a lot of it. I always regretted it. » When he came to the Institute recently, Posner said he was realizing a lifelong dream. « I felt I was finally living out my high school fantasy, » he said. « and when I left the school, I was really speaking French. »

No one is exempt from classes that begin every day at 9 a.m. and do not end until 4.45 p.m., five days a week for a month. Students are fined one euro if the teachers hear them speaking any language other than French. Even beginners have to deliver an oral report in French…

Students spend 60 minutes a day in a language laboratory or « Chambre de torture ». But the tougher sessions are made more palatable by afternoon « séances pratiques » during which, for example, students learn the history of various French cheeses and wine or how to make chocolate crepes – and partake of what they’ve just learned at the end.

For many, the school is so addictive (and the perfection of French so tantalizingly out of reach) – that they return over and over again. The record is held by a San Antonio couple, Margie and Charles Kilpatrick, who have taken the Institute’s course 11 times. A number of wealthier American alumni have even bought homes in Villefranche. As for Wittstock, whose engagement to Prince Albert is said to be imminent, she is making rapid progress….