Learn a Language? Moi?

Her school days were far behind her, but Lisa Schwarzbaum was determined to improve her French abroad. Could a woman of un certain âge learn to speak with élan (and in the subjunctive)?

by Lisa Schwarzbaum
Montpellier image
The port of Sète, 17 miles southwest of Montpellier, lies on a ribbon of land between France's second-largest lake and the Mediterranean.
Photograph: Joao Canziani
(I also, by the way, learned the word for contact lens: It's lentille de contact, or verre.) I returned home with a certificate, suitable for framing, attesting to my perfect attendance at the Institut Linguistique Adenet; a temporarily improved French accent; my dense grammar book; and a souvenir wineglass. Those mementos are nice, but they're also, I think, beside the point. I went to France to learn more French, but what I really learned was more about who I am in my own skin. For two weeks I was just another student under the Montpellier sun. I struggled with the learning process—but I flourished in the realization that working to make myself understood and trying to understand others with improved clarity requires lifelong study, not just a couple of weeks or even a couple of years. I plan to continue my studies here at home, both in French and in life. And if one day I'm able to speak French as fluently as Jodie Foster does, well, that would take the gâteau, don't you think? ❦
Lisa Schwarzbaum is a film critic for Entertainment Weekly.
Montpellier how-tos
At the Institut Linguistique Adenet (ila-france.com), the standard course costs about $300 (∈225) a week. An “aparthotel” is ∈260 a week per person. Other comparable language schools include Institut Européen de Français (institut-europeen.com), LSF Montpellier (lsf.fr) and Accent Français (accentfrancais.com).
Air France has one-hour, 20-minute flights from Paris to Montpellier. There are also superfast TGV trains (raileurope.com). TaM operates two tram lines covering the historic city center. For a small-carbon-footprint experience, use the Hérault Transport bus system to visit the fishing villages and historic towns such as Gignac, with its vibrant Saturday market. And there is a bike-sharing system called Vélomagg. For information, visit the excellent Montpellier Tourism Office at ot-montpellier.fr.
Here are some of my favorite things: the Musée Fabre art collection; the Musée Languedocien, with its casually enchanting array of decorative arts; world-class chamber music at the Opéra Berlioz; a night of Gypsy-influenced accordion at a hole-in-the-wall on the edge of the funky, rough, ethnically mashed-up Figuerolles district. At the Jardin des Plantes, founded in 1593, I listened to breezes rattle a grove of bamboo trees. And at the Estivales de Montpellier, the Friday-night summertime block parties, I tasted the work of local vintners, sampled tapas and bobbed to the genial clash of competing pop bands.
Click here for pictures from Lisa's travels in France.
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First Published November 23, 2011

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