Learning French in the Loire
Simon Spilsbury went back to school to improve his dreadful French, and he took the whole family with him.
This is a holiday? Kiah, centre, and Imogen, right, in class (SIMON SPILSBURY)
It is a well-established fact that most of us Brits are dreadful at foreign languages. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to spend this summer’s holiday in France not just pointing and shouting pidgin French, but actually conversing with our fellow Europeans? To be able to ask for a coffee/baguette/train ticket without blank looks all round?
I’ve dreamt of that for years, but my schoolboy French has got rustier and rustier. And so, this year, the plan was to put it right, set a good example for my kids and equip them with the necessary tools so that they didn’t have to stumble into language barriers their whole life.
Potential help was at hand: total immersion. The theory goes as follows: going to a French school, in France, where French teachers refuse to speak anything other than French is an effective way of, you guessed it, learning French. This is not a new concept — but doing it with the whole family is.
The one-week family course at the Coeur de France Ecole de Langues offers tuition for you and your children in one classroom. It sounded unlikely. I haven’t dusted off my dubious vocab since I was 16. My wife, Wendy, got a degree in languages 20 years ago, but the girls — Kiah, aged 8, and Imogen, 6 — are complete beginners. Four people of differing age and ability in the same room. With only one week in hand. But anything was better than nothing.
Convincing the girls that it was a good idea was tricky. We smoothed over the “Girls, what we’re doing this school holiday is going to school” confession with promises about horse-riding and goat-petting — just a couple of the family-friendly excursions on offer at Coeur de France.
After that, we were off, and things started well. The school is not in some prefab classroom on the outskirts of a monotonous town, like my old school. Two hours south of Paris, it’s based in a 16th-century mansion in the medieval hilltop town of Sancerre, in the Loire. Sancerre is a town of witch’s-hat turrets and lute-playing gargoyles, and a great place to get lost in.
We were shown to one of the mansion’s three apartments, elegantly decked out with oak floors and lacy curtains, velvety wallpaper and chandeliers.
Living on the grounds had an obvious advantage — no school run — so getting ready in the morning was a breeze (families know the importance of this). On the other hand, we had no excuse for being late for class.
“Remember to speak French at all times. This is cultural immersion.” That’s what it said at the very top of our programme, in big, bold letters. Seventy-five per cent of us couldn’t speak French at all.
MONDAY MORNING was all-round excitement, as we ran down the stone spiral staircase from the apartment to the classroom. The girls were giggly with anticipation at seeing mummy and daddy in school. This was their domain, and we were the new kids in class.
Bonjours and oui, ouis flew around at an alarming rate (I wanted to show confidence, as an example to the girls). And then: “Bonjour Seemon, est-ce-que vous avez bien dormi?” Marianne, our host and tutor, looked at me expectantly. I just knew I’d be picked first, but my mouth stopped working. We’ve all been there, scrabbling around in every cranial compartment, desperately seeking pre-viously held knowledge. I could only sit there looking blank, sweating profusely.
Wendy bailed me out, but Kiah and Immie had taken note. I’d have to endure their “Oh, poor daddy, couldn’t do it” jibes for the rest of the week. They had nothing to lose: elbows on table and perky little heads in hands, they were into je m’appelle and un, deux, trois in as many seconds, and the pile of exercise books and pens they were given drew big grins. At least part of the family was having a great time.
After that linguistic baptism of fire, we headed straight to the Café des Arts, on the square. French daily life was buzzing, and despite being compromised in class, I was determined to be a part of it. I downed an early pastis (French courage) and took Wendy’s special brand of mocking humour on the chin.
The girls ran to class again next day. I walked. By the time I got there, Kiah and Immie were writing yesterday’s words on the whiteboard before getting stuck in to their “Alex et Zoé” exercises.
“Bonjour Seemon, est-ce-que vous avez bien dormi?” Oh, no, not again.
“Seemon, en français.”
“Oui, oui. Pardon.”
Marianne was brutal with the “no English” rule. Today, it was domestic stuff. La maison and les vêtements. Great, I could remember this. With a pile of dolls’ clothes and a till, we had a session of pretend retail therapy. A touch embarrassing selling a pair of pantalon rouge to your wife, but necessary for the children.
“Papa, avez-vous une chemise?”
“Maman, avez-vous une jupe?”
There were plenty of très biens for Kiah and Immie. We felt proud of their speedy progress. I managed to buy a fetching plastic cowboy hat from Wendy.
Après l’école, Wendy and the girls had a kip while I squeezed in an hour’s wine-tasting with Gérard, our other host, at one of the many vineyards. All work and no play…
By day three, the in-at-the-deep-end tuition was beginning to work. “Oui, j’ai bien dormi. Le lit est très confortable,” I answered this morning.
“Salut, Marianne, ça va?” chirped the girls. But there was an air of distraction about Kiah and Immie today. Not through lesson fatigue — today was goat day.
Not only is the Sancerrois famous for its wines, it enjoys global recognition for Crottins de Chavignol: small, lozenge-shaped goat cheeses, varying in colour from white to black, depending on how long they’ve been rotting. As a cheese-loather, the goat-farm excursion held little excitement for me; but as serial animal-cuddlers, the girls couldn’t wait.
The graft they’d been putting in in the classroom was more than repaid by being allowed to pick up one-day-old goats. They also saw, for the first time in their lives, baby animals being born.
“Ergh, daddy, what’s that hanging out of its bottom?”
“The afterbirth, Kiah.”
Thankfully, we’d eaten.
We were obliged to continue the tour to the storeroom. I managed to wriggle out of the tasting, but the smell was invasive and, by the time we’d left, my stomach was churning enough to make my own cheese.
FINAL DAY, final lesson.
My determination not to be compromised in the last session prompted Wendy to call me a goody-goody for doing a bit of homework. By the time we got to class, the girls were tucking in to their Alex et Zoé exer- cise books.
We completed our tasks more confidently today, and Marianne decided we were ready for the real world. She took us shopping. Kiah ordered croissants and a baguette at the boulangerie, Immie bought stamps at the post office and I bought six eggs, pronounced “seezeuh” not “seezoof”, at the épicerie. Later, some of the shopping went into our last activity — learning to cook French. We shared our quiche meal and a drop of the local with Marianne and Gérard, all with chefs’ hats on. Our kids played with their kids, unselfconsciously using both languages, and we discussed our personal achievements, mostly in French.
The big positive about this crash-style of learning was the amount of one-on-one tuition. It gives you the confidence to ask the things you sometimes struggle to ask in a full classroom, so you learn more quickly. Without all their mates to distract them, the girls found it easier to focus, and bottom- shuffling and daydreaming were kept to a minimum. They lapped up all the vocabulary, and thought it was great having two words for everything instead of one. I think this early introduction to another world of communication will mean that they’ll never see language barriers as a negative.
So, how did it all end? And would those locals still be bewildered? Well, Wendy had a comprehensive refresher course and is back to her old fluency. Me, “Je suis capable de dire des phrases faciles”, and the girls will be able to order all the best treats at their local French deli. Not bad for a week’s holiday.
The Spilsbury family travelled as guests of British Airways and Europcar