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Reap the benefits of immersing yourself in the French language

Frédéric Latty is the teaching supervisor at the Institut de Français in Villefranche-sur-Mer, which offers two to four-week residential courses based on eight levels.

Upon arrival students sit a test and are allocated a group based on the results. He explained that the advantage of such an immersion method – if it takes place in the country whose language you are learning – is that you are isolated from your own world and can devote your time entirely to absorbing the language.

“It is important to create a link between what you are learning and the world around you,” Mr Latty added. Students speak French daily from the minute they arrive until 5pm – and after hours when they go shopping, visiting or off for the weekend the language is all around.

“They hear it, they speak it; it is on the TV in a bar, on the radio in the hairdressers, on signs in shop windows, adverts on the walls... and for many of the familiar English-language adverts there are French translations,” he said. This creates the crucial link between the learning of new structures and the use of the language in reality. Helen Watts, of the Alpine French School in the ski resort of Morzine, agrees that there is no substitute for real-life situations. She said: “However fun and interactive you try and make the classroom, it is never the same as practising your French out and about.”

Short intensive courses at Morzine focus on day-to-day conversational French. Students spend three hours a day five days a week in the classroom and supplement this time with group social and cultural activities such as wine tasting and French film evenings.

Ms Watts said: “We have local partner shops, bars and restaurants where the owners and staff are happy to chat to our students and encourage them to use the language they’ve learnt in class. It makes life in France a lot more enjoyable and you will get more out of it.”

It is a sentiment echoed by Claire Campbell, who offers one-to-one intensive residential French courses in Cucugnan, Aude. She said: “The learning of a language is vital in feeling comfortable in your host country. It’s so frustrating to not be able to take part in community and village events and have to relyon ones organised by the Brits.” Ms Campbell said she adjusts her lessons according to her student’s standard and how intensively they want to learn.$

Mr Latty said that learning French by using Skype or other online methods can work, provided you find a qualified teacher because a presence – be it physical or virtual – to listen and correct you is fundamental. As a teacher, he thinks it is more important
to speak grammatically correct French than to have a “good” French accent. He has an American friend who has an American accent but perfect grammar – and his French ear is much more flattered by that. “It’s always a pleasure to listen to her.”
He has met other long-term French residents who have picked up a good accent but make a pig’s ear of the grammar (“une bonne musique française mais qui parlent comme des cochons”).

So you need to learn grammar rather than plunging straight in? In his view beginners must learn a small group of key verbs – être, avoir, faire, aller, pouvoir, vouloir and devoir. He said if you have not correctly learnt être and avoir you cannot correctly construct the past tense – “it all goes downhill from there.”

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