Mon dieu! We speak French
Louise Roddon and her family learn French in the Loire.
I am trying out my favourite conversational nugget, used on countless French trips ever since my son was born. “J’ai un petit fils qui s’appelle Felix.”
It’s only 10 minutes into our family course at the Coeur de France Ecole de Langues, but already I have made “un erreur”. Marianne, our teacher, corrects me. Petit fils, she explains, means grandson.
Right. I scroll back through the years. All those polite nods and smiles. Not one astonished look. Not one response of “C’est impossible!” It’s not just my schoolgirl French that’s feeling dented.
But Marianne is proving a gentle teacher. We are sitting in a classroom in the middle of Sancerre – a lovely Loire hilltop town, full of higgledy-piggledy lanes, gorgeous patisseries, and more wine shops than is strictly decent.
There are ancient manoirs, like this 16th-century schoolhouse with its steep slate roof, witches’ hat turrets and gargoyles. Our apartment, on top of the school, is a mere stone spiral staircase away from the classroom, which, as any parent will appreciate, means no hurried school run in the morning.
If this seems a funny way to spend a half term – a week off school in, er, school – our 10-year-old son has thankfully yet to catch on. He is still amused at the sight of his parents playing the role of pupils.
The Coeur de France school insists on total cultural immersion. The theory goes that this method – with a course at a French school and teachers refusing to speak anything but their native tongue – is probably the most effective way to master the language.
Here’s how it translates in Sancerre. An individual tutor to coach each family for four hours every morning. Two hours spent in the classroom, with the remaining two on “practical” work. This is the bit I am looking forward to – the moment when we hit town, and try out our newly honed French phrases on the unsuspecting shopkeepers.
There will be homework, too – and optional afternoons, focusing on the “cultural” side of total immersion. That means anything from wine dégustation, in this a stronghold of viticulture, to visiting a goat farm where the children milk the goats and the grown-ups taste the cheese.
But how will the classroom dynamics work? So far, our skills at French seem in accord with our personalities. There’s my husband, David, a perfectionist, yet keen to crack jokes in French, as long as they are grammatically correct. He can’t, however, quite shake off his loyalty to the Ted Heath method of pronunciation (if you can’t remember, think the Franglified equivalent of “thenks orfully”).
I’m a sloppy, but fairly fast French speaker, having got by on a conversational diet of present, past and future, with none of the added complications of future perfect or subjunctive. But as a natural mimic, I have a passable accent. And Felix can already do those wonderful rolling r’s that sound as though they are about to spit in your face, but has yet to acquire any real enthusiasm for the subject.
But things begin to go swimmingly when Marianne takes Felix off into a corner, and with the aid of coloured alphabet pieces, gets him spelling words and pronouncing correctly. He basks under her praise and encouragement.
“Oui! D’accord – très bien, Felix!” Classes each day continue in this vein – with time spent individually on each family member, before we work en famille – playing either “restaurants” with dolly-sized cups and plates (“Qu’est-ce que tu aimes, Papa?”) or rounds of French Hangman.
We all enjoy our forays into Sancerre, particularly since the whole town appears like an extended schoolroom, with each shopkeeper in on the act. There are no Gallic shoulder shrugs from the smiley lady at the post office when, yet again, she is confronted by an Englishman haltingly inquiring about the cost of sending a parcel weighing 250g by registered post. And the creamy-bosomed girl in the cake shop charmingly responds to our questions about the almond biscuit specialties known as “croquets”.
Even the cheese-seller turns professor for our benefit. I buy six eggs from her, correctly pronouncing them “seeze eugh” and she asks me, “Comment disez-vous pour un?” “Un oeuf,” I reply, correctly emphasising the “f”.
All attempts are met with smiling encouragement, and the enthusiasm is mirrored palpably by our son, who is soon venturing out alone each morning to buy our baguettes and croissants.
One afternoon, armed with our market-bought produce, we don chefs’ hats and pinnies, and cook up a French feast. It’s a clever and fun way to pick up the lingo, and we are joined by four little girls – three of them American – and two mothers. While the girls follow French instructions for making quiche Lorraine, Felix rustles up an apple tart. I am as impressed by his pastry skills as by his ability to guess that “plus de farine” means more flour.
The highlight for him, however, is the visit to the goat farm. We swap the stone buildings of Sancerre for soft green hills and terraced vineyards, driving along quintessentially French avenues of plane trees, towards the village of Veaugue.
Here is the powerhouse of the celebrated “Crottins de Chavignol” – the specialty nutty-hard goats’ cheese of Sancerre. For the children, it is a delightful experience, as they tug free their T-shirts from dozens of hungry mouths and attempt to squirt milk from warm distended udders. The farm cat has taken up position, and is sucking away at a teat. “Zut alors!” says Felix.
It is this breaking into French without prompting that shows us how much our son’s grasp of the language has improved, and how he has begun to see the sense in learning. In fact, we have all made huge personal strides, particularly in our weak areas. Some things don’t change, however. When I moan at the amount of homework I am given, Felix responds: “That’s because you’re a girl and girls do what they’re told.”
Talk the talk
Coeur de France has one-week packages from €1,915 (£1,340) for a family of four, to include tuition, books and self-catering accommodation. For more information or bookings, call 0033 248 793408 or e-mail: email@example.com. Return fares on Eurostar to Paris cost from £59 return. Paris-Cosne-sur-Loire (the nearest station), £36 return. To book, see www.raileurope.co.uk or call 08705 848848. Hertz car hire (08708 448844) is located at Cosne-sur-Loire with car hire rental from £156 per week.