What’s it like to do a language immersion course in France?
My friends ask me how I had the nerve, after studying French for only two years, to expose myself to the stress and discomfiture of language immersion. Easy. When I was a girl, I’d linger on the edge of the high diving board until a line of impatient kids formed behind me. Eventually, I made my ignominious way back down the concrete steps, too scared to leap. At age 58, I know that plunging in, before you can talk yourself out if it, is the jump-start to adventure, growth, and happy, unexpected consequences. For me, an immersion course in France was life-changing and brain-changing.
I spent a month at an institute of French in Villefranche-sur-Mer on the Côte d’Azur. The school offered an intensive immersion course with eight hours of intensive practice daily. My French advanced mightily during the eight-hour lessons, but the evenings of rosé drinking with new friends by the moon-lit Mediterranean were all in English. How could it be otherwise? Our French was rudimentary. We’d be bored and impatient after a round of “Quoi de neuf?” “Rien de spécial.”
I yearned to experience the immersion process all day and all night, but worried I was too old to make much progress.
Opportunities abound for home-stay language immersions for adults. I chose a program in the Pays Basque region of southwest France. I knew the region was rich in a unique culture and language, but nothing more. I stayed the first week with Evelyne and the second with Myriam, colleagues who share the same teaching approach and lesson plan. They live in Anglet, smack dab between the ritzy glamour of Biarritz and the medieval riverside calm of Bayonne. With its suburban feel, Anglet offers supermarkets, shopping malls, and a laid-back beach scene.
The first day I was full of anxiety. Alone in a foreign language, in a stranger’s home. I descended from my bedroom for breakfast with Evelyne. I smiled, ate, but hardly spoke. Then the morning class began. I read a journal entry out loud describing my previous day’s activities. Evelyne corrected my work and explained how to fix my mistakes, expanding on flaws with an impromptu lesson. Next, I gave a brief oral exposé on the subject of my choice. I stumbled through a description of my hometown, Kansas City, Missouri. Evelyne jotted down my words and then, again, explained my mistakes and gave a short lesson. That was the first hour. Evelyne next taught a well-planned lesson covering subjects I wanted to improve – we had exchanged several emails previous to my arrival.
We took a break and Evelyne prepared a delicious lunch. Her husband joined us and we chatted in French. After, Evelyne took me on an excursion to introduce me to Biarritz and get to understand the bus system, it was all in French. Back home, I had a break until we dinner and more conversation, all in French. In the evening, I gratefully relaxed alone in my room and prepared for the next day: homework, a journal entry, and notes for another exposé. All In French.
That first day was difficult. No exaggeration. Do you notice the drumbeat of All in French? That’s how it felt. A drumbeat of doom: I was struggling to understand and be understood. The day loomed looooong. No life raft of English appeared. The structured time of journal, exposé, and lesson was a safe haven. But the free-form of breakfast, lunch, and dinner conversation was unnerving. How much silence was acceptable? How should I express my enjoyment of the meal? How did I offer to help with dishes? If only I’d looked those phrases up and committed them to memory. Instead, I racked my brain as I tried to listen to their words, and ended up neither understanding nor speaking.
On the second day, I relaxed a bit. Evelyne listened to my words with kind attention. She corrected my mistakes with a gentle touch. I had the ultimate language-learning aid: a sympathetic teacher and patient listener. The third day was much better. I dove in, speaking often, not trying to be perfect but merely to be understood. I brought my dictionary to meals, and flipped through pages until I found the right word. Or sometimes the wrong word! I discovered that I remembered grammar and vocabulary from the day before and put them to use. When locked into speaking only French, I was forced to improvise, throw out best-guesses, attempt conjugations and blurt out approximations. Talking, talking, talking, I became much less self-conscious. I didn’t worry about my mistakes – instead I reveled in my successes. All in French no longer induced panic. Puzzle pieces were beginning to fall into place.
I also got an off-the tourist-path introduction to the Pays Basque guided by local experts. Evelyne, and later my second host Myriam, showed me the beauty of the region, its steep rolling hills rising to low mountains in the distance, green grass, blue ocean, white buildings with red or green shutters and half-timber details. Local cuisine like sheep’s milk cheese, massive hams hanging from shop rafters, strings of red peppers, frothy hot chocolate and thick buttered toast, sauce piperade, magret de canard, grilled merlu, fried cod, and so much more simply wowed me.
Along the course of the remaining days, here’s what happened. I improved quite a bit. I learned and retained. I literally felt places in my brain itching and tingling – it’s hard to describe the sensation – when new neurological pathways were being formed. It was a bit like performing a new exercise and feeling a muscle you didn’t know you had pulsing with blood and energy. I had never felt that in a classroom setting. The immersion process was changing my brain.
I was also having fun, learning was exhilarating. Conquering the fear of speaking and making mistakes occurred very early-on in the immersion process and carried me through. Swim or sink – I swam.
Would I do it again? Bien sûr. I’m returning to Anglet for another two weeks!
Martha McCormick is a former journalist and handmaiden to two growing daughters, with a love of travel. She works in the retail shop of an award-winning French restaurant, where she gets to practice her “coq au vin” and “foie gras” pronunciation all day long.