When I decided to go to a language school in France this year, I had two goals: to become more fluent and to improve my vocabulary. I was excited about attending Coeur de France, a French immersion school tucked away in Sancerre, a tiny town in the middle of the Loire Valley.
The school experience began smoothly when I met Marianne, the woman who ran the school and made decisions about placement in the classes. “You speak much better than your test scores led me to believe,” she told me when I showed up for the first day of class. “I’m placing you in a higher-level class.”
I was thrilled! Yes, confirmation from the “principal” that my French was better than I thought. But after two-and-a-half days of verb tenses that I’d never learned and pronouns I’d never even seen, both my teacher and Marianne moved me to a “more comfortable level” where I could keep up with the grammar. “I haven’t studied French grammar in over 40 years,” I told them,” but still, I felt close to tears and the word FAILURE drummed inside my head.
The new class moved at a slower pace and the other students struggled more with conversation than I did, but at least I could keep up with the grammar. Still, I knew the class was too easy for me and resigned myself to its less than perfect fit. “Just relax,” I told myself, “you’re in France!” Despite my diligent attention to homework and commitment to using French with all of my classmates–in and out of class–I felt my goal of becoming more fluent slipping away every day.
As I rode on the train towards Paris a few days later, I managed to dispel my funk of disappointment. I quickly realized that I needed to adjust my goal of increased fluency. I had learned many new words, and I understood more of the language. Plus, I noticed a great leap in my ability to read in French.
But the biggest lesson for me was how much time, effort, and psychic energy it would require to really become fluent. And I knew more deeply than ever before that I wanted to take that energy and put it into my writing.
My Parisian hosts, Genvieve and Claude, confirmed what I’d suspected about the focus on grammar–I already knew the four main verb tenses that you use in conversation and could use them reasonably well. “Your French is improving,” they both assured me. “You speak much better than last year when you stayed with us, and better than the first visit as well.”
Sitting at cafes, sipping espresso, and musing in my journal nearly every day led me to a solid realization about how I’d managed to re-learn French after 40 years. The program I’d used so successfully–Behind the Wheel French–had two elements that my classes in Sancerre lacked–repetition and practice.
I practiced the verb tenses over and over in different contexts as I listened to the instructor and spoke French during my frequent jaunts in the car. I read the accompanying book every day to refresh myself. And I realized why I’d felt so frustrated at the language school–every day was a new lesson with little to no review or practice of what we’d learned from the day before. And as a teacher, I knew that repletion and practice were essential components for retention.
So, while my classmates may have benefited from the approach used in the school, I knew I needed a different kind of instruction. And as I interacted with my “French family” and the many people I encountered in Paris, I felt batter about my command of basic French. I functioned well in simple conversations, and the rest of the time, I simply said, “Repetez still vous plait, plus lentement.” Can you please repeat that more slowly?