French immersion: More than just language
By Kim Gamel, Associated Press
SANCERRE, France (AP) — En route to France for a language immersion course, I decided to get started by watching a French movie on the plane. “Manon des Sources” was about a girl who avenges her father’s death by cutting off the town’s source of water _ at least that’s what I figured out from reading the subtitles.
After two years of sporadic study, I tested at intermediate level, but understanding French spoken at a normal pace by somebody other than my Berlitz instructors was another matter. I was in for a long two weeks, but the program was paid for and there was no turning back.
Sancerre, a medieval town of 2,000 people, traces its history to a 12th-century castle overlooking the Loire Valley. It’s in a region best known for dry, white wines and sharp goat cheese. But the husband-and-wife team of Gerard and Marianne Chartrand have made it a destination for foreigners seeking to learn or improve their French.
I was drawn to their Coeur de France (Heart of France) language school by its user-friendly Web site, which opens with a beautiful panoramic view of the hilltop town surrounded by vineyards. The reality doesn’t disappoint.
To get there, I flew to Paris, then took the train about two hours south to the town of Cosne-sur-Loire, where the always-cheerful Marianne was waiting to drive me and two other new students – also American women – to the school, 15 minutes away.
Coeur de France, set in an elegant 16th century mansion, has a rolling enrollment and flexible programming to fit the needs of single tourists, business people and families alike. Among the other students were a pharmaceutical marketing researcher from Chicago who had minored in French and an English couple who had bought a villa in the area.
The French-only rule began immediately with Marianne pointing out sites along the way, including the best place to buy a croissant and the few stores that would be open on Sundays.
She spoke slowly and I understood much of what she said, but I kept my responses simple, noting often that the scenery was indeed “tres jolie” – very pretty.
English was limited to a single piece of paper explaining local business hours and pleading with students to only speak French, even outside of class.
After a quick tour of Sancerre, I found myself dropped off at a supermarket at the foot of the hill, where I understood I was to buy groceries for the cottage where I would be staying a few miles from Sancerre. The other two students were taken to their housing closer to the school.
I was suddenly nervous about being the only one who needed to stock up on supplies. I was staying in the Maison de Vinon, a two-story cottage near the Chartrand’s house in the tiny hamlet of Vinon. Lodging options for the program – usually part of a package deal with language lessons – ranged from houses like mine in nearby villages to three apartments above the classrooms, each named after Marianne and Gerard’s adorable children, Louis, Margaux and Gabriel.
The village where I was didn’t offer much more than houses and an ancient church with a bell that tolled every 15 minutes. I managed a half-hour walk on Sunday afternoon without seeing another soul.
I realized belatedly that staying in the village might be a better option in the summer, with a rental car, than in the fall, when I was there. Marianne kindly offered to drive me to the school that week and so I piled into her minivan at 8 a.m. with her two older children, who greeted me every day in unison with a friendly “Bonjour, Kim.”
I often stayed in Sancerre for dinner with the other students and relied heavily on the taxi services of Madame Annie Frottier. The program’s accommodations lack telephones, so I made my cab reservations by ringing the doorbell and negotiating pickup times with Madame Frottier and her husband as they leaned out their upstairs window.
Since it was a slow off-season, I was upgraded and spent my second week in the one-bedroom Margaux apartment at the school.
Classes are held in group or private sessions. Marianne, a native of Sancerre who taught French for several years in San Diego, leads a team of four other instructors.
I chose a two-week combination program, which usually includes 40 hours of group class and six hours of private instruction. I ended up with fewer hours because the minimum of three students weren’t available for the group.
Instead, I was paired with Joanne Campbell, a 39-year-old Australian doctor living in London who has a passion for France but never had formal language instruction. We talked about ourselves and acted out scenarios like shopping and traveling, using playclothes and other props. Marianne asked us questions, corrected our mistakes and used them to decide what grammar to explain.
She also taught us mnemonic devices like the unforgettable “Mrs. Vandertramp,” in which each letter starts a verb that takes “etre” in the past tense instead of “avoir” – V for venir, A for aller and so on.
Group classes were about four hours a day, with a break in which students and instructors mingled over coffee. One day, as a special treat, we had wine to mark the debut of the 2004 Beaujolais Nouveau, an event much anticipated by wine-lovers worldwide.
Twice a week I had private 90-minute lessons, which I used to focus on reading and discussing newspaper articles.
Homework was intense but not overwhelming. Marianne’s main method is to keep you talking.
In Paris, so many people speak English that it can be difficult for an American to get a French word in edgewise. But in Sancerre, Gerard and Marianne have drawn many of the locals into their enterprise, and a day of shopping will yield wonderful conversations in French, especially if you mention that you’re one of their students.
I was pleasantly surprised when Catherine Pierre, who makes beautiful hand-painted silk clothing that she sells in a shop on the main square, politely corrected my grammar before I shelled out $60 for a scarf. Madame Frottier also quizzed me on my day and dining experiences during our rides.
The school also offers cultural excursions for an extra fee that range from wine tastings to a tour of the region’s chateaux.
Most of the tours were led by Gerard, an American of French Canadian ancestry who grew up in California and handles the school’s business. He also dabbles in photography and keeps the Web site updated, including a photo of the day.
A weekly cooking lesson by Marianne for $30 was another highlight. We memorized the vocabulary of the ingredients and cooking utensils, donned paper chef’s hats and somehow produced tasty dishes like onion soup, profiteroles (cream puffs), quiche Lorraine and crepes.
Coeur de France doesn’t promise fluency, only that students who work hard will be able to hold their own with a French speaker. I felt my confidence growing daily and went home feeling able to do just that.