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

At 8 am on a Mediterranean-hot July Monday in Montpellier, men buzz their motor scooters through the Place de la Comédie, the city's grand central plaza. Workers in reflective safety vests sweep the streets with witchy brooms. Early-bird tourists order their first cups of café au lait at outdoor bistros. Me? I mean, moi? I sit with nine other students in a bare, square, uncertainly air-conditioned room on the second floor of a nondescript commercial building just blocks from the Montpellier train station, all of us with notebooks open and dictionaries at hand for our first day of school. I've come to speak French and nothing but French in a classroom setting for two weeks—the realization of a long-held dream of improving language skills left untended since high school. And this morning I'm in a situation that might fill a Frenchwoman with horreur: Our teacher, Sandrine—animated, bird slim and, yes, wearing a scarf with French panache—is asking us to introduce ourselves by telling where we're from and how old we are. That's fine for the nine others at the table, from Spain, the Netherlands, Denmark, Italy, Germany and Australia; their average age appears to be 20. I am decidedly not 20. I have decidedly not been 20 for some time. Surely that's all the information I need to share for the purposes of reviewing the use of the subjunctive? Scrounging up the remnants of my high school French, I tell the class a story instead.

The story is this: I'm in Montpellier because of Jodie Foster. Back it up: I'm in Montpellier because I'm a movie critic with the good fortune to attend the Cannes Film Festival each year. And each time I have returned home from that giddy-glam-hectic 12-day movie glut, I've unpacked the same 400 words that I've been using for the past 14 years, along with the resolve to learn more. Each time, I've then filed that notion so far at the bottom of my realistic to-do list that the goal blends in with items on my unrealistic bucket list.
That “someday” thinking changed this past May when, having performed a mime act at a Cannes pharmacy one morning to express my need for contact lens solution, I settled in to do some work in the festival pressroom. When I glanced up at the closed-circuit video screen, Jodie Foster, in town to promote a movie, was chatting in flawless French with a local interviewer. She sounded—and looked—magnificent. That, I thought. That's how I want to be! What am I waiting for? By the time dishy, blue-eyed rising Hollywood star Bradley Cooper popped up onscreen a few days later, also chatting in easy French—a sexy American ambassador for the benefits of foreign-language study—I had already begun researching my study options: university or adult-education classes? A program at the French Institute Alliance Française in New York? A suite of CDs or downloadable lessons requiring headphones? A native-speaking tutor with whom to discuss l'affaire Dominique Strauss-Kahn? In fact, I already knew where I wanted to go.
Montpellier hides in plain sight, smack in the middle of the southern border of France, within biking range of beaches on the Mediterranean. With a metro population of more than 250,000, it's an alluring, forward-looking medieval city as well as the capital of the Languedoc-Roussillon region, anchoring a fertile territory of vineyards that produce 40 percent of the country's wine. To the east are Marseille, Nice, Cannes and better-known, lavender-strewn Provence; to the west are Toulouse, Carcassonne, Perpignan and the piquant influence of Spanish and gitane—Gypsy—culture. Montpellier has a noble history as an important university town (its medical school, founded in the early 13th century, is Europe's oldest), and its people are strikingly young. (Really young: 43 percent of the population is under the age of 30.) It is France's eighth-largest and fastest-growing city; it's wonderfully convenient to nearby sandy fishing villages and artisanal wineries hidden in hills; it has carved out an entrepreneurial niche as a center for the systematic teaching of French as a second language.
 Via Google, I found a selection of schools offering year-round classes in weeklong increments. I booked two weeks at Institut Linguistique Adenet, a well-accredited school with a good international reputation that, according to its promotional literature, enrolls “thousands of students of all different backgrounds and ages from more than 70 countries.” Certainly the intake procedure was hassle free: Having completed a written 50-minute online placement exam in advance, I arrived presorted into a suitable class level. (Running on the fumes of two years of high school French with regular boosters of Cannes attendance, I leaped over Beginner and Elementary and promenaded into Intermediate 1.) The school offers a few lodging options, including housing in a student residence and boarding with a host family; having no desire to relive my university years or engage a chaperone, I picked the third option, a serviceable if bare-bones efficiency room with kitchen in an “aparthotel” a short tram ride away from school in the center of town. Standard classes run for three hours Monday through Friday, and I added a conversation-heavy intensive class to my schedule for an additional two and a half hours on Tuesday through Thursday.
Entre nous, the mélange of emotions I felt in the classroom surprised me—and not because, even when they were drowsy or hungover after a long night of pub crawling, these college-age colleagues (most of whom were enrolled for three to eight weeks) could skip lightly through grammatical obstacle courses that had me stumbling like a toddler. Two reports sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education comparing the acquisition of a second language by adults and children concluded that mature students can master a foreign language just as successfully as younger students, but only if taught with techniques appropriate to the processes of adult learning. And we don't do as well with lightning drills. So I was prepared to blunder during the grammar-intense stretches of our daily lessons, when Sandrine moved around the room challenging each of us to the on-the-spot construction of verbal headbangers such as “I would have visited her on the weekend if I had known that her brother was visiting from Paris for three days.” Lightning drills, the memorization of verb tenses and this woman's mature synapses don't mix.
No, what moved me was the ghost of my own high school and university-age self, who seemed to hover somewhere in the doorway to the Montpellier street below, whispering, “Where did the time go?” What kind of young woman was I when I was the same age as Rikke from Denmark, or Merel from the Netherlands, or 16-year-old Laura from Spain, with dreams of teaching French herself someday? Meanwhile, as ghostly young Lisa haunted me with memories of life paths not taken (let alone conjugations of the verb to be left unmastered), the present-day me who is at home in the world reveled in my own hard-won confidence and curiosity, grateful for the ability and means to explore my surroundings with an open-mindedness not taught in textbooks.
Each day I understood a little more about the world around me. I read newspapers in French. I ordered meals in French—sometimes dining by myself, sometimes with Jackie from Australia. A management-level accountant (and the only other class member over the age of 30), she was a welcome companion—one who could also afford to spend some euros for a tasty meal of local fish and a good bottle or two of cool rosé. I took myself to French art house movies, ridiculously pleased with my ability to follow the French subtitles of an Iranian-language drama that packed a small theater on a Sunday afternoon. (Confession: I understood about 35 percent of a French-language drama about teenage first love. Fortunately, the plot involved a lot of wordless sex.) To keep the sound and rhythm of my chosen language in my ears, I watched French television news each morning and prime-time shows each night—particularly on channel M6, which specializes in reality TV and a parade of competition formats, from chefs mincing garlic to women learning to love their imperfect bodies under the tutelage of a skinny, dramatique man who used to be designer Tom Ford's assistant. (That show, Belle Toute Nue, “Beautiful Naked”: so appalling. And so addictive. Who knew there were Frenchwomen insecure about their imperfect bodies?)
Some days I was acutely lonely for adult company and the conversation of someone from home, someone with whom to share the fascination and horror of Belle Toute Nue; other times I felt tremendously intrepid and free and proud to be a New Yorker–American woman traveler among my fellow humans. For magical stretches of time I instinctively understood every word around me; other times I felt like Patty Duke playing Helen Keller in The Miracle Worker, reaching out, eager to know, What's the word for this, and this, and this? I never did master the subjunctive, but I did learn that the local greeting is a triple cheek kiss, left-right-left—between women, between men, between men and women, doesn't matter. (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 Tue, 2011-11-08 16:49

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