A few years ago, I decided I wanted to learn French.
After three years of listening to and working with training books and CDs, I mastered several crucial phrases: Hello. Goodbye. Where are the toilets? And, how much is that? All were spoken in precise French, or so I thought. Now, I had this powerful repertoire of: Bonjour, Au revoir, Ou sont les toilettes, and C’est combien? I was on my way to being the truly sophisticated traveler.
I persevered. Soon, I mastered several other phrases: Where is the ceiling? I drive a Toyota. And – I would like another compartment. I was confident, knowing that I could confront any situation with my expanding knowledge of French. As I repeated them, I heard and felt the phrases flow, resonating with feeling: Ou est le plafond? Je conduis une Toyota, and Je voudrais un autre compartiment. Unfortunately, I soon realized that they were of no conceivable use to me. I decided that, at some point, I must go to France.
First though, I sensed a need for a more formal approach to studying French. So, I enrolled in a basic French course in a local college. There, I learned the grammar underlying the phrases I had been memorizing by rote. With the patience and guidance of my professor, I began to understand the syntax behind such new phrases as: Je m’appelle Jean, J’ai faim, and A tout a l’heure. I was on my way to extraordinary heights of fluency!
Unfortunately, by the end of that first year, I realized that I was not only unable to speak at the conversation level of See Dick, See Jane Run, but I could not even describe Jane in French! So, I took the next logical step: I decided to attend a French language college in France. After all, where better to study but in the country of the language, and how better to do it but by total immersion?
I would travel and study in France. Two weeks touring the country, from mid-June to the end of the month, then spend July at a college in Cannes. As I drove from Paris through the wine country of Beaune, then to Strasbourg in the Alsace-Loraine region of Eastern France, I attempted to speak French only: that was the way to learn.
Each evening, while seeking a room in a hotel, I was armed with a few appropriate French phrases: un lit simple, (single bed), avec une douche (with shower)’ une toilette, et aussi petit dejeuner (breakfast). I was nervous as I approached the desk clerk and spoke…and he understood! I left the lobby with la clé – the key – in hand delighted with my efforts.
I persevered, through Annecy, with its idyllic, lakeside, alpine setting at the foot of the Alps, to Chamonix, all spectacular glacial and snow-topped mountains, ordering rooms and becoming increasingly more confident. I enjoyed securing a room in Sisteron, the fortress town on the Durance River, in the south of France, the place where Napoleon could have been stopped on his second march to conquest had there been gunpowder for the Royalist soldiers in the Citadelle high above!
By the time I reached Nice, I felt I was a native, renting hotel rooms and ordering food and drinks in restaurants, with both abandon and the unconquerable faith of the true believer. The next day, my daughter arrived for a week’s vacation. We explored Nice to Cannes, a long day in Monaco including watching the beautifully choreographed changing of the guard late morning at the Palais Royale and revelling in the elegant ambiance of Monte Carlo in the evening. With each café or boutique, each restaurant and historic site, I felt the power that only comes with the confidence of knowing that I could speak French!
After a week of strolling along the Boulevard des Anglais in Nice, lounging on the beach in Cannes beside la Croisette and acquiring a beautiful tan, my daughter reluctantly left, praising me for my increased fluency. After all, I had ordered the chaise lounges for the beach, the cool drinks, and our meals.
The next day, I entered the life of the locals, moving into a small apartment owned by a French family in Cannes. And then I slowly realized that I might not be quite the skilled linguist I thought I was. The following day I started at the college in Cannes and was ushered into an auditorium, along with several hundred other students. We were then separated into smaller groups of twenty or so, given a written placement test, followed by a personal interview with one of the instructors who evaluated my French. Based on the results of those interviews and tests, I was assigned faux debutant, an advanced beginner. My real education had begun.
Most of the students in the college were young–late teens or early twenties–and from a variety of countries; so, I felt a bit out of place. Out of twenty, only three of us were from les États-Uni (the United States); others were from Italy, Japan, Saudi Arabia, Mexico, Switzerland and Germany! But I was in France, in a college located across from the beach…la plage, the Riviera! And I was serious about learning the language.
The first class was an eye-opener as the instructor spoke rapidly, covering what I thought was far too much information for one day. But I decided that I would be able to catch up by the end of the week. It was draining and I hoped the next day would be better.
It wasn’t. The instructor continued with her rapid-fire delivery, and I felt myself slipping farther and farther away from my goals. By Friday, I knew I had to leave that class: it was too accelerated for me. I transferred to a lower level – le debutante (the real beginner). Each day added to my skills, through a combination of ninety minutes of grammar, followed by a twenty-minute break, then another ninety minutes of open conversation and in-class writing exercises.
After lessons, I developed a routine, exploring various sections of Cannes such as The Old Quarter, with its medieval cobblestone streets lined with cafés, restaurants and boutiques. I wandered past historic buildings working my way to le Souquet, the high point of Cannes, away from the glamor, hustle and pace of the Cannes below me. Then I continued to the old castle for a spectacular view of Cannes, the Mediterranean Sea, les Iles d’Lerins twenty minutes away, and so much more. On warm evenings, I enjoyed open-air concerts in front of the entrance to and in the courtyard of the castle.
Those experiences forced me to depend upon myself as I used the French I was slowly acquiring. I had many minor successes with the language! Of course, I spoke with a horrendous accent, using grammar that must have offended the listener! But I never met anyone who either belittled or ridiculed me when I tried to speak French with them, contrary to the stereotypes of the French. Indeed, they would help me and encourage me, adding to my self-confidence and allowing me to explore and grow with the language.
The combination of the formal classwork, the casual conversations with the host family, and interacting with the local community on a variety of levels all helped me, in so many ways. I would walk along la plage after class, listening to others engaged in various conversations. I felt a subtle change occur as I internalized the language and culture. That is when I realized that I was learning French, not just memorizing word and phrases.
In four weeks of classroom instruction, I had covered the entire year of the language course back home. More than that, I had also been immersed in the life of a world that I had never known before. That is where the true learning occurred.
I realized how knowing where the ceiling was, fit into the overall scheme when I sat in a deeply cushioned sofa beside my daughter, outside the main gaming salon at Monte Carlo. As I settled into the exquisite, sensual, supple leather, I looked up and saw the magnificent ceiling above me. The phrase, “Ou est le plafond?” came back to me.
When in class we discussed our personal lives and worlds, I was asked what kind of car I drive, and I was able to answer, “Je conduis une Subaru.”
Later as I boarded a train from Cannes to Nice, near the end of the four-week class, I discovered that I was assigned to a compartiment containing five teenaged girls from the United States on a tour of Europe. I whispered said to the ticket taker, “Je voudrais un autre compartiment.” She kindly moved me, with a knowing smile, to another, occupied by a French couple in their late forties. Neither spoke English, but I was able to talk with them, using my new skills.
Perhaps the most rewarding moments came when I was watching an international fireworks competition on la Fete Nationale (Bastille Day to English speakers) in Cannes. I was leaning against a three-foot-high wall which separated the promenade from the beach. A couple in their thirties, with a young boy and girl stood beside me. I offered my space by the wall so the kids could sit there and better see the display. As we chatted, I realized that I could finally speak French and that I, somehow, fit in, when they told me their names. They gave me their address and phone number in Antibes (a short drive from Cannes) and invited me to visit them.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if, when I do visit them, I see a beautifully decorated ceiling (plafond) in their home and a Toyota in their drive? I also hope I will have to change mon compartiment on the train from Cannes to Antibes.
By John Pekich producer, director, actor and writer, especially of original Sherlock Holmes and Victorian Mysteries in Cape May, New Jersey, USA