Fast-track to fluency

Is there an easy way to learn French? Elizabeth Thorold took a 4-day intensive language course in France to find out...

An understanding of French – spoken, written and aural – is key to getting more out of France. Whether the idea is to live there permanently or simply to visit frequently, being able to get by in French will have a huge impact on your cross-Channel experience. But just how much French can one person learn in 4 days? Common sense would dictate not a great deal but if truth be known, I was hoping for a small miracle when I checked into my residential course at Le Poiron Bonjour in Vend�e.I wasn’t starting from scratch as I studied French at university – but time passes and along with it, le temps pass� as well as many other verb conjugations, vocabulary and grammatical sticking points seemed to have taken temporary leave. Even with more than 10 years of study under my belt, holding a conversation in French with a native speaker in France was starting to seem like a daunting affair and I was keen to kick-start my language with an intensive course.There are a lot of things one can do from the comfort of the UK such as watching French films, arranging conversation classes with French people, tuning into a French radio station or watching French television online but I wasn’t feeling motivated enough for that; I wanted an injection of pure French to reignite my enthusiasm and make me fall in love with the language all over again.A residential language course was the obvious option: I wanted to speak French dawn till dusk, be surrounded by French people and have structured lessons that I could then put into practice – but it is imperative to pick the right course.Total immersion is effective at any level; however, for complete beginners, it is important to have some down time. It’s mentally exhausting and demands a lot of effort, patience (with yourself and others) and resilience to keep plugging away. One of the most important things when choosing a course is to make sure that you find yourself with people of a similar level.A conversation around the luggage carousel at La Rochelle airport introduced me by chance to one of my two fellow students and, in what turned out to be a seminal moment, Romilly had the foresight to suggest that we only converse in French from that point on.Anyone who has ever had a go at learning French will know just how painful a prospect that is: to converse in a foreign language with someone who shares your mother tongue. There’s the fact that you’re going to make mistakes, the fact that you sound like a completely different person in a foreign language – one who affects different mannerisms to boot – and most of all, the fact that the flippant offthe- cuff comment that you would come out with in English, the one that would break the ice and give an immediate insight into your character, is not at your disposal in French… The French-only rule verges on the boot camp but it is much easier to implement between complete strangers and it turns out that this very grown-up decision was the making of our stay. Vast estateThe Ch�teau du Poiron is nestled in a green landscape of fields and forest, peace and tranquillity in the department of Vend�e and is owned by Fran�oise who grew up in neighbouring Niort and her British-born husband Mark. It’s a vast sprawling estate of a place with outbuildings and land enough to make them quite the lord and lady of the manor and they are quick to remark on how different life is from High Wycombe.Mark has expertly converted much of the main residence himself as well as the two chambres d’h�tes, the studio and the grand g�te that sleeps up to 29, and their business interests now lie in Fran�oise running language courses and the bookings and Mark helping out where necessary while still taking on building jobs in the local area and further afield.We were there for the language though so over a relaxing evening meal, we set about getting to know each other – in French, bien s�r – in preparation for a hard day’s work the next day. It was quick to see that we were all of a similar level: Romilly taught French to adults in the UK and Pat was deputy head at a primary school and would be dusting off her degree-level French to teach her young pupils starting in September. What was interesting as well was that we all had our own strengths and weaknesses and so were able to learn from each other as much as from the teaching itself.By enforcing our French-only rule, even dinner became a learning curve. We forced ourselves to have conversations that although somewhat stilted and involved a slight satellite delay, were nevertheless stimulating and interesting and not dissimilar from those we would have had in English. The course structure at Le Poiron Bonjour remains the same whatever the level of French and Fran�oise mixes classroom-based sessions with field work’ and alternates taking the class herself with handing over to guest speakers.The result is a varied mix that would see us writing a resum� of a news report in the morning and cooking local food with neighbour Marie-Paule in the afternoon; we would be at Niort market with a shopping list the next morning and putting the pluperfect tense into practice back in the classroom by the afternoon.Varied contentA varied programme is another factor of huge importance when choosing a course. The novelty of being back in the classroom soon wears off and a week spent in a room with the same people would quickly become uninspiring, no matter how much fun your classmates are. Also, it doesn’t take long for frustration to creep in as adult learners have much higher demands on themselves and their progress; small doses of classroom-based teaching interspersed with putting what you’ve learnt to the test in the real world is Fran�oise’s tried and tested method and it proved to be a good model.There is a lot to see and do in this green and peaceful corner of France. The Ch�teau du Poiron lies on the Vend�e/Deux-S�vres borders and so enjoys influences from Pays-de-la-Loire as well as from Poitou-Charentes. The For�t du Mervent lies on the doorstep of the domain with inviting dappled trails to follow, and from the pool you can watch horses frolicking in the surrounding pasture. It is an idyllic spot that is perfect for quietly phrasing sentences in your head.One of our trips took in the Abbaye St-Vincent at Nieul-sur-l’Autise and its neighbouring Maison d’Ali�nor museum, dedicated to Ali�nor d’Aquitaine who was born in the small commune. The abbey is a beautifully preserved example of religious architecture and the museum is remarkably modern and forward-thinking. Fascinating interactive applications engage all ages and bring the abbey to life as well as those personages who played an important role in its heritage, including of course Ali�nor d’Aquitaine. The historical detail is quite a test for your French but the advanced visuals fill in most of the gaps for those whose French isn’t quite as advanced.Similarly, the Thursday-morning market in Niort is a quintessentially French affair with all sorts of local seasonal produce on offer from meats, bread and cheeses to plants and patisserie. We were tasked with purchasing four items of varying obscurity, from hunting down one of only two Vend�en cheeses to getting a slice of a local terrine and asking its ingredients. Stallholders, keen to showcase their produce, were the ideal, if unwitting, partners in our real-life French lesson.Going nativeEven though 4 days is not very long, we adopted a routine that very quickly became the norm and seemed to suspend time as we knew it. We were tasked each morning with watching the 8am news bulletin in our rooms before going down for breakfast; this would then provide the topic for discussion over our croissants. Anxiously scribbling down any word or phrase that could be picked out from the torrent of news that first morning (even though I knew that my notes would mean nothing to me when I re-read them in 10 minutes’ time) miraculously transformed into relaxed note-taking by the last morning. Similarly, French became the natural language choice from day one and, as the 4 days progressed, any occasional English that was spoken jarred increasingly with our French-attuned ears.There is an element of risk in signing up to such an intimate and intensive language course; it pays to make sure you respond to your teacher’s chosen teaching methods and to ensure that the course content is what you’re expecting. It is important to ask as many questions as possible and to get a detailed breakdown of what is to be covered in the syllabus to ensure that you will get the maximum possible out of a short space of time. You cannot guarantee the personalities of your fellow students but as you are all there for the same reason, it is likely you will make some chums along the way; such a course engenders a certain camaraderie and if you leave your pride at the airport you can learn a lot from everyone in the classroom, not just the teacher.So how much French did I learn in 4 days? A surprising amount is the answer. But, critically, it is not handed to you on a plate and it was the decision to speak French outside of teaching hours that consolidated our learning. Which just about sums it up: someone can teach you all they know but a huge individual effort must be made to then put it into practice. Given that there is no quick fix, it pays to enjoy the process of learning and where better to enjoy it than deep in the French countryside?