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Tips for Getting the Most out of Your French Language Holiday

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I thought it would be a good idea to start a general thread discussing general trips and strategies for organising a French language holiday in France. I’ve studied at several schools in France, and researched a number of others. Now, my husband and I live in Paris and have been taking lessons from time to time. Here’s my top 10 list of tips. Some of these will work for other countries and languages, too.

(1) There are several “quality associations” for French language training in France. One is called SOUFFLE (www.souffle.asso.fr) and another is FLE (www.fle.fr). Member schools adhere to a “charter” specifying commitments they’ve undertaken; SOUFFLE member schools are subject to inspection. Their websites are a good place to start researching schools, although I’m sure there are other good schools out there. I’ve used them to choose language schools for the three immersion programmes I’ve taken, and plan to use them again.

(2) Look carefully at student-teacher ratios when comparing the prices of various programmes. For example, Alliance Française in Paris has relatively low fees, but my husband found that the general courses there had very high enrolments – more than 20 students in one of his morning classes. (Note, by the way that Alliance Française in Paris is not a member of either SOUFFLE or FLE. The only branch of AF that is a member of either group is AF in Toulouse.) By contrast, I recently enrolled in a relatively expensive programme at Millefeuille Provence, but there were only two other students in my class and I got lots of personal attention – almost the equivalent of private lessons. Be sure to call the school and ask what their usual student-teacher ratio is for your level (e.g. intermediate) and what the actual, maximum ratio they have allowed this year.

(3) Private lessons aren’t necessarily worth the price. I’ve generally found that the private lessons offered, either as part of a package or on their own, are very expensive (e.g. 50 euros an hour or more). If you plan to spend any length of time in the city where you are going to take the programme, you can probably find teachers who offer much more competitive prices (e.g. because there’s no overhead charge or % that goes to the school on top of the teacher’s fee), or you might find that setting up a free language exchange with a French person who wants to practise speaking your native language. In France, one resource for locating a teacher is www.kelprof.com, a website that helps teachers find students and vice-versa. (No guarantees about quality, though: buyer beware.)

(4) If you already speak some French but your knowledge is rusty, invest some time before your course in brushing up your language skills. I restarted French, after a fifteen year break, in London in 2002. Previously, I had taken 5 years of French in high school, a summer of French immersion, and a year of studies at university. But I could hardly remember how to conjugate the present tense of avoir and être. Not surprisingly, when I showed up for my placement test at Alliance Française, they told me I should take the Level 1/A course (i.e. absolute beginner). I protested, and managed to talk my way into 1B. After a week’s worth of classes (5 hours), my teacher recommended that I be moved to 1C. And when I re-enrolled for another session, she placed me in 2A (instead of 1D). I think that, if I’d spent even as little as 10-12 hours refreshing my knowledge of elementary French grammar, I would have been able to start at level 1C or 1D right from the beginning of the course. And, if you are planning to take a short, intensive course (e.g. 1-2 weeks) in France, you won’t want to waste your time and money sitting in a course at the wrong level. There are a couple of books I’ve found that are quite useful for refreshing your knowledge of French grammar and vocabulary, including the “Teach Yourself Series”, Schaum’s Outline of French Grammar (a test prep review book) and the BBC Language series, The French Experience (although that one requires a larger investment of time). (I worked through the Schaum’s Outline of Spanish Grammar on a couple of trans-Pacific flights just before I headed off to a Spanish immersion programme.)

(5) Don’t automatically and meekly accept the class level your language school tells you to take. I’ve often found that the placement tests that most schools administer are very cursory and don’t really measure your capacity. And schools have an interest in placing you at the lowest level, hoping that you’ll re-enrol with them for additional courses at higher levels (and therefore getting more of your money). I’ve successfully argued my way into higher level courses in each situation where I thought I’d been placed at too low a level. You could also sit through the first day or first few days, and then ask to be moved to a higher level (e.g. at the start of the following week. It’s your money. (My husband did this at Alliance Française in Paris.) Or, if you plan to enrol for more than one session, you can ask to skip a level, or to move levels halfway through a course.)

(7) Listen to the radio or watch TV in French. Even if you can’t understand a word that is being said, eventually the sounds will start to sink in. I kept the radio on in my room whenever I was in it, and I often listen to the radio on my way to and from work.

(8) Try a homestay (at least for part of your programme). Now, this is where I must admit that I haven’t practised what I preach. But I know that I would learn a lot more if I completely immersed myself in the language by staying with a family, instead of staying in a residence or hotel. (But I am intermittently somewhat hermit-like and really need to spend time alone every day, so I’ve avoided homestays so far. I’m a wimp who likes 3-4* hotels, not someone else’s bathroom ...) The next best option is to find a school that offers a residential programme, or a programme where you take your meals at school in a French environment. (For example, at Millefeuille Provence, the students stay at the school, which is located in a chateau, and there is a strict “only French” rule in all the public areas, including at mealtimes.)

(9) Start as you mean to go on. In other words, from the moment you get off the plane/train etc until the last day of your course, speak nothing but French to everyone, except your partner (if you brought him or her along – and even then, you should speak French when you are in a group). It’s very hard to switch from your native language to French, if you start off in your own language.

(10) Keep a journal – in French. It can be as simple as you want it to be. Just write a paragraph every day. It can take the form of a shopping list, or your laundry list, a description of what you learned in class, what you saw on TV, what you want to do, etc. All of these descriptions allow you to practise grammatical structures and improve your vocabulary. The exercise will generate some questions that you can discuss with your teacher – and you’ll have an interesting record of your trip.

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