“The Real “”Corps”” de Franais by the Sea”
Friday morning I landed in an unusually wet and rainy Côte d’Azur…partly to satisfy my curiosity about that famous school on the hill in the chic little ancient village of Villefranche sur Mer I’d heard so much about…and partly to take in a few days of R and R in the spirit of the Riviera with a Capital R.
It’s been a dream for many years to have a pied-à-terre in Nice or its environs and with each visit, I’m drawn closer to the Provençal lifestyle that affords a blend of both Italy and France in color, cuisine and culture. Nice is ‘nice,’ as they say and all that surrounds it is part of the weekend’s discovery…or at least a small taste is all that will be achieved in four fast days.
The first leg of the trip’s agenda was to get a glimpse at the “Institut de Français,” the 40 year-old language learning institution that so many of my friends and readers have raved about for years I’d only known by its reputation. They had ALL come home with a higher level of French and an experience they had an enthu
siastic, but hard time fully expressing.
What really piqued my curiosity had nothing to do its method of complete immersion in the French language. Don’t we all know that basically if you have no choice but to speak the language, you will? It’s like the first time one learns to eat with chopsticks — with no other way of getting the food to your mouth, you’ll learn quickly how to maneuver the little sticks to trap the tiniest grain of rice! And so it is with learning a language…but still there seemed to be more to it than a simple case of ‘sink or swim.’
Nor was it such a wonder that struggling with French, normally a frustrating challenge, can become a true pleasure in an environment of a grand villa surrounded by lush gardens in one of the world’s most beautiful spots overlooking the blue Mediterranean sea on the elegant Côte d’Azur. What I was seeking was the REAL ‘story’ of the individuals whose lives were changed by their four-week (or more) stay there.
Much has been written about the school by journalists and publicists, as well as its own alumni. So many celebrities have attended that a list would take up too much of this little missive, but Fréderic Latty, the school’s long-time Director, confessed that Vidal Sassoon was one of the most charming, funny and delightful of all the “élèves” (students) and the son of a very famous American actor (who shall remain nameless) was one of the most difficult. Princes and princesses have taken the immersion, actors and actresses, diplomats and business people, along with just plain ordinary folks like us who have wrestled with learning one of the world’s most complex languages — French.
Go ahead. Do any simple search on the Internet and you will find its Web site very quickly which, of course, tells all the surface details of what you will find there. The Web site is way too modest, in my opinion, as it tells nothing of the real story — the personalities and professors behind the scenes who are responsible for creating the experience and those who experience it.
Of course, it all started with Jean and Madeleine Colbert who first developed the pedagogical and spiritual concept of the program, beginning with only four students after spending one year developing its principles, ideals and marketing plan as long ago as 1969. You might think of them as the “heads” or “masterminds” of the ingenious program.
And one cannot discount the importance of Madame Vicky Greco, the school’s pedagogical director, who like the “spine” or “backbone” of the curriculum from the very first days has perfected the testing to decide how to classify its students into eight different levels (one “débutant,” two “faux débutant,” four “intérmediaires” and two “avancés”).
Ask anyone and they will tell you that the “heart” of the school lies with Fréderic Latty, the Director who had simple beginnings as one of its teachers of ten years and then about ten years later took the entire operations onto his shoulders as if it were his own ‘baby.’ But when it comes down to it, the individual instructors are the “arms” and “legs” of the body that ‘orchestrate’ the personal experience. From what I saw, professors like Julien and Stéphane and the others who they might as well be Leonard Bernsteins with a magic wand.
In the course of a day and a half, I toured the gorgeous villa and grounds that had been abandoned then revitalized by the Colberts and witnessed several classes (eight in progress at once) including an audio lab and a method of learning called an “exposé” where one student must speak on one subject extemporaneously for about 20 minutes.
I attended two “séances pratiques” where at one the students listened to a recording of the days reported news and then had to relate what they had comprehended, and another in which they learned all the phrases associated with making a phone call. At both, I learned things I hadn’t known myself. I lunched with the students on a specially prepared meal by Nathalie Champion, “Chef Extraordinaire,” in the communal dining room and that evening partied on a grand buffet with the entire student body (of 65 — the school has a maximum capacity of 78). For an extra-curricular activity, I took a guided tour in French and English of the charming ancient village of Villefranche sur Mer with anyone who wanted to attend…all in a rare cold and rainy Riviera.
We weren’t allowed to speak anything but French except during ‘free’ time. Anyone caught using another language can be ‘fined’ one euro per word! That can get awfully expensive if you’re a ‘lazy’ learner. It’s all part of the immersion method…that really works.
The students have come from all over the world to attend, although about one-quarter are Americans. The nationalities seem to come in waves depending on mood and season and certain American cities send more students than others. Madame Greco has seen it ALL — and can confirm that the Russians learn easily, but they have a problem using articles; the Spanish learn quickly, too, but make mistakes; the Germans have good French accents and the Danish don’t hear the subtle differences in the sounds. These are broad generalizations, as universally, those who come with an open mind, who aren’t intimidated or afraid or embarrassed to make mistakes, progress quickly. The trick is getting them to this emotional and spiritual point so that they can absorb like sponges.
The professors are key to making this happen. If the group is cohesive, they learn more quickly and easily with more fun. If personalities clash, or the students don’t “joue le jeu” (play the game), they all suffer.
Learning a language in this way is akin to one’s infancy when your brain is blank and takes in what it must to learn to crawl, then walk, then run. What I witnessed were middle-aged adults raised (not ‘reduced’) to the spirit of children, living in a warm, safe and ‘womb’-like environment, making friends with the others in the ‘nursery,’ feeling at ease at their own level so that they could progress without hindrances.
When they played “musical chairs” at the “soirée” that takes place at the end of the first week of each four-week session, they didn’t think it silly, stupid or childlike. They played like children and enjoyed every minute of it. In the classroom, they were the same…all these adults who had mastered so much in their professional and personal lives, but who had all been released from that responsibility to just allow French to enter their heads, their tongues and their hearts from every direction.
When one is removed from the real world of everyday problems and stress, whisked away to the blue coast of the posh Riviera to live in a communal but luxurious environment with like-minded souls, where one can forget everything else and think only of learning a new language– French — it’s tough to fail. Very few do.
People have remarked that the school is expensive, but I find it a bargain when one considers all that the fees include, not to mention all that you achieve: the 140-hour course, the 40 meals, the numerous extra-curricular activities and the service they provide free of charge to find you reasonably-price accommodations. Non-beginners may take a course of just two weeks for as little as 1,250€, but I’ll bet you stay on for the full four or more (2,500€ from December through April, 3,100€ from May through November plus a 60€ registration fee)
Before leaving for Villefranche, I asked you readers to write in if you had attended the school at some time in your lives and so many were gracious to accommodate me. The stories were fascinating!
One Irish woman had attended at the very beginning of the school’s existence along with two friends who laughed their way through the course and paid dearly for uttering “oh bugger” in class. Another who knew the word “croissant,” but couldn’t pronounce it correctly when she entered, claiming she had a “BLAST.” A couple from Southern California attended 23 years ago who met a David Niven look-alike who would take them for a spin in his yellow Rolls Royce along the “corniches.” And one who attended during the 9-11 World Trade Center attack who said even Betty “down at Chez Betty” wouldn’t serve the students of the Institut unless they spoke French (the whole village becomes teachers!).
To say I was impressed is an understatement. This isn’t just a “school” nor an “institution.” The Institut de Français is a head and heart with a spinal cord, arms and legs — a ‘body’ made up of a group of people who have one very unified goal…and that is to get the world speaking French! Even my French improved greatly within the 24 hours in their care.
Editor, Parler Paris
P.S. The next course begins March 2nd and every month thereafter. For more information or to register before the high season courses fill up, visit the Web site at http://www.institutdefrancais.com or email Fréderic Latty at [email protected] and be sure to tell him I sent you!
P.P.S. See you tomorrow at Parler Paris Après Midi! Visit /parlerparis/apresmidi.html for time and location to come mingle with readers of Parler Paris!