The trials and tribulations of learning a new language in 30 days the French way.
Curiously we get to see the world through our own little keyhole. Mine however is by flying halfway around the world, crossing 13 different time zones or approximately a 13-hour journey from steamy Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia to the breathtaking 14th century fishing village of Villefranche-sur-Mer on the French Riviera. A trip meant to sit side by side with 60 other students from all over the world; only allowed to speak in French and only in French.
We all stared deeply into each others eyes wondering what the other was thinking; speechless and not knowing what to feel on the first day of class at the Institut de Français. Like yachts and cruise ships moored to one of the deepest natural harbors in the Mediterranean, we were close to either raising the sail or sink into the abyss of the undersea canyon of the big blue sea.
Armed with only ten French words in one of the world’s most intensive French language schools, I faced the daunting task of having to craftily mix and match and group them in various permutable fashions. I caught myself twisting my sweet Filipino-Spanish tongue in a manner of pushing it modestly backwards letting in some air to pass as to sound and carry a French nasal accent. Voila! Miraculously, I didn’t choke.
The school’s “total approach” was introduced by a French physicist and avionics engineer, Jean Colbert in 1969. Fascinated in the assimilation of the human innate talent to learn a language and employing the scientific method, the ever charming Colbert integrated a program that gave birth to an intensive total immersion course of eight hours a day, five days a week and two to four week sessions all-year round. Focusing on the simple principle of how children learn to speak naturally – by ear.
The sui generis teaching technique aroused curiosity to the gilt-edged culture including Spielberg wed Indiana Jones actress Kate Capshaw, Oscar winner actress Kathy Bates, hair stylist Vidal Sassoon and perhaps the most celebrated student of all was Queen Sonja of Norway. There were also ambassadors, diplomats, politicians, CEO’s, UN representatives, lawyers, airline crews and artists, all gathered to polish up their french.
Every day after breakfast, our class discussions began with a story telling. As the conversation progressed, questions were thrown in the future, present and passé composé (present perfect) tenses and the tricky part commenced. This would be followed by a listening comprehension drill, wherein we tune-up our ears to become more sensitive and understand spoken French delivered at an extremely rapid pace. All we needed was a 30 minute break to pick our brains that had been scattered on the carpeted floor and a satiating déjeuner (lunch) to put it back into one piece!
The afternoons are always made up of “séance pratique”, charades, poem reading, role plays and amusing games where we had to put our thinking caps on and outwit each other. I sometimes thought that I had to be crazy in order for me to be sane. The teachers, the cook and even the gardeners were endowed with supersonic ears that even the slightest sound can be heard within a certain radius especially if it’s not French. Anyone caught speaking in their native tongue or any dialect had to instantly shell out two euros.
No better way to augment the learnings but through excursions to French culture, wine tasting and visiting the majestic chapel of St. Paul de Vence or taking a stroll in the old town of Tourrettes sur Loup. Yet no one really gets out of school without entering and surviving the speech laboratory, known to many as the “la chambre de torture”. A rite to passage aim to acquiring an outstanding savoir faire. With patience and sheer perseverance, little did I know I started to sound like a blossoming petite French mademoiselle. In the end, after everyone had delivered their exposé, a toast and an extravagant glass of champagne was all it took to celebrate!
As spring came, the month of French total raptness would soon be over. Everyone in the class emerged victorious, that included my ten sporadic words, which increased exponentially to more than 1500. Before we knew it, the curtains started to slowly close as we received our diplomas and in my recidivist mind I can’t help saying déjà? (already?)
Aching, yet proud, some students continued to take a glimpse and promised to come back while others bid au revoir to Institut de Français. And “moi”, I’m holding a chilled glass of wine in one hand and a thick slice of cheese on the other while talking in French to my French neighbors.
It was again another episode of a quest for romance and its meaning. Down in a little village where a handshake is as intimate as a bisou (kiss), the ultimate getaway as true to adoring love is speaking its language. I just hope my verb agrees with my subject. If not, excusez mon français.