Learn the Lingo on Holiday
Sunday Times Travel Section
The best way to a learn a foreign language? Stop speaking your own. We sent three terrible linguists to sample 'total immersion' in Spain, France and Italy. Three great schools, three beautiful locations and one rule in common: no English allowed.
What are the chief cultural differences between us and our Latin neighbours? Here is one view, from an aggrieved Provençal boulanger: "The British walk into my shop as if they own it. They look around and say nothing, like occupying soldiers. They still think they are fighting the Hundred Years' war";
Recognise yourself? Yes, the man probably has a point – but the fundamental problem is not British bad manners, it's our linguistic ineptitude. We just don't do foreign languages. Instead, we take off every summer to the Med and spend our holidays waving our arms about in a desperate bid to communicate. Whenever we meet locals who can speak our tongue, we immediately apologise for not speaking theirs. It's the nation's annual guilt trip.
It doesn't have to be that way. The best continental language schools now promise to save us from ourselves, with a policy of "total immersion" teaching – no English allowed. Their message: you can conquer French, Italian or Spanish, but you have to be prepared to go cold turkey. We sent our guinea pigs across the Channel to sample three of the best: all of them exponents of total immersion, and all set in inspiring locations where you feel more like you are going en vacances than back to school. Did it work? Here are their reports...
The student: I've spent many happy years learning French and forgetting it again. I got an A-grade at O-level back in the days when not everybody did, but attempts to rekindle my knowledge at night school have been pure misery: endless rounds of ordering croque-monsieur and bière pression from classmates who quite clearly had none in stock. Le crunch came during a holiday in Normandy when, to the lasting amusement of my nine-year-old daughter, I inquired about hat-riding at a local equestrian centre. Also, I now play pétanque for my village team in Rutland, and would like to acquire a suitably bellicose French cry to strike fear into opponents during matches: "Swing your boules, Braunston!"
The school: if it were possible to learn French by osmosis, the Ecole des Trois Ponts would save a fortune on teaching staff. The school is set in a dreamlike 18th-century chateau outside the riverside town of Roanne, which snuggles deep in la France profonde, somewhere west of Lyons. L'ambiance is impeccable, with shuttered stables, cascading ivy and three-dozen acres of wild-flower meadow. The school principal, René Dorel, wears the lugubrious expression of a man who spent decades teaching the subjunctive mood to Japanese civil engineers, but his team of young professeurs are almost preternaturally perky, and the "total immersion" teaching philosophy is cunningly disguised beneath a jolly house-party atmosphere. The bedrooms are neat and simple, and each evening everyone dines at a communal table – no English allowed.
The course: my first mistake comes the first time I open my mouth. I jump out of the car and introduce myself to René – in English. Ouch. "You 'ave come 'ere to speak French?” he glares. It's more of a statement than a question.
My fellow students are an international bunch: four Brits, two Americans, one Aussie, a Canadian and a Swiss. Plus there are assorted spouses, sons and companions, most of whom have enrolled on the chateau's cookery course. Lessons will run from 9.15am till 12.15pm daily, with two evening sessions on top and afternoons free: some spend them in total immersion at the chateau's outdoor pool, others borrow a bike from the barn and visit their language skills upon the townsfolk.
At dinner, I am quietly horrified to learn that the French-only rule is iron, and teachers eat with us to enforce it. Poor old Keith from Brisbane. He is the guy who has to sit next to me at table, and after a traumatic 20-minute "conversation", I have gleaned that his name is Keith and that he's from Brisbane. Already I'm feeling I should have mainlined on Linguaphone before travelling. The next morning's pre-course assessment goes okay, however: I manage to explain that I live in the countryside with my wife, my daughter and a hat named Chestnut. I am assigned to the "false beginner" study group along with a Canadian businessman called Gus, a Californian artist, Christine, and Carole, who is an avocado from Oregon. (Fancy that: avocat means both avocado and lawyer.)
To my relief, it transpires that they too were only pretending to laugh at the jokes over dinner. Our teacher is Pascal, and each session takes broadly the same shape: a little light grammar, some vocab, and lots of halting conversation. We describe our likes and dislikes (I decide to like le weekend, les pique-niques and les Beatles), and interrogate each other about our personal lives. Strangely, we find that slow French promotes fast friendships: almost immediately I know how old Gus is, the number of bedrooms in Carole's house, and that Christine hates avocados (or possibly lawyers). It's a bit like speed dating. There is nothing too surprising about the teaching methods, but the live-wire enthusiasm of Pascal, and his unstintingly sunny response to hearing the world's most beautiful language get horribly mangled, makes it all tremendous fun.
Never one to let lack of aptitude hold me back, I am soon spouting my pidgin French with the larger-than-life panache of Peter Ustinov playing Hercule Poirot. And who cares if fundamental syntax remains a mystery? By Wednesday, I'm bamboozling my classmates with an account of how I once did the Beaujolais run in a bulldozer (which, to be honest, makes no sense in any language). For me, every minute of the course reawakens some musty morsel of schoolboy French. Long-lost prepositions come shuffling back, embarrassed, into my brain.