Tours for the Thinking-Person
By Gregory Curtis
Los Angeles Times
ROANNE, France-"When we get to Paris," I told my wife, Tracy, one evening not long before we left on our trip, "We might think about going to the Comédie-Française. It's supposed to be fabulous, and by then," I concluded casually, "we'll speak French."
That moment haunted me during the two weeks we spent at l'Ecole des Trois Ponts (Three Bridges School) on the outskirts of Roanne, southeast of Paris. We went there to take an intensive course in French: 25 hours of instruction each week and breakfast, lunch and dinner where only French is spoken.
We arrived at the train station in Roanne the first Sunday aftemoon in June, fully expecting that when we returned to the station two weeks later to catch the train to Paris, we would be chattering away in French as easily and comfortably as we did in our dreams. Long ago we had been indifferent language students in school. But several summers ago, on a horseback riding trip through the Loire valley in south central France, we were a little embarrassed to find ourselves able to speak only English and a bit of pidgin French in a group of Europeans who all spoke French, English and German with equal ease. We returned home determined to learn French. Tracy took an introductory course at the local community college white I used instructional tapes in my car and painfully plodded through some of Georges Simenon's inspector Maigret mysteries, with the help of an English translation. We made progress, but it was difficult and slow. And when we tried to speak-once in particular when we ran into a group of French exchange students in an airport-we were given friendly smiles but not understood. Nor could we understand what they were saying to us. We realized the limitations of our haphazard study techniques. If only we could take some time and concentrate on nothing but French. Which is why we enrolled at l'Ecole des Trois Ponts.
We couldn't have chosen a prettier setting, The school is in a 17th century château recently renovated by its present owners.. The château is isolated on 32 acres of land on the outskirts of Roanne. Everything is simple, neat and attractive. Our room on the second floor had a ceiling at least 20 feet high, a gray carpet and prints of French paintings hung here and there on peach walls. Outside our window was a broad walk leading down to a pond and a wide expanse of grass and trees. All we could hear were songbirds and the pleasant, almost musical croaking of frogs at the pond.
Nor, in this pretty setting, did we have to worry about anything but learning French. Each morning while we were in class, a maid cleaned our room. Claude, the chef, a huge man with thick silver hair and a silver mustache and tattoos on each forearm, cooked all of our meals. (The traditional French fare was superb.) He was very fond of Americans. Each morning he would bend the French-only rule and say to me, "Hello, my friend Greg," in what he believed was an American accent. I would answer, "Hello, my friend Claude," in what I believed was a French accent. With our daily schedule all expertly arranged, the only decision we had to make for two weeks was where to go sightseeing on the weekend.
Dinner the first Sunday night was a bit stilted. Tracy and I gamely tried to speak French as we assumed we should, but we were peeved to find that several of the other five students blithely spoke English. Only S., an elderly German woman, spoke solely in French, but she either could not or would not understand my French. When I told her I lived in Texas, she shook her head emphatically, as if refusing to believe that anyone who lived there could have anything to say in either French or English. I gave her the benefit of the doubt and assumed that she must have a hearing problem.
We had a short test the next morning and Tracy and I were assigned to different classes. I walked into mine-in a nicely furnished room with a fireplace and a large window on the first floor - only to discover that it consisted of myself, a teacher and S. I was filied with dread. Was all my time in the car with my tapes going to be wasted on a German woman who couldn't hear ?
I took solace in our teacher, Gabby. He was a short, dark, handsome man who appeared to be in his late 30s. I learned that he had been born near Roanne and lived there still. At one point in his life he had spent several years in the United States and spoke impeccable English, although he rarely used it in class. He immediately gave us our first assignment: S. and I were to talk to each other for a few moments, then we would tell him what we had learned about each other. Gabby left the room. In a kind of gloomy darkness, sitting at a small oval table, S. looked at me and I looked at her. I asked her questions and she asked me questions. She held her hand behind her ear as if she couldn't hear and shook her head. I repeated myself often. She answlered my questions at great length. I couldn't follow her in every detail, which I assumed was because of her poor French.
I did understand that she lived alone in a small town near the Dutch border, just a short distance south of the North Sea. When Gabby returned, she talked on and on about me, even though I had been able to answer her only in short sentences. I then told him about her, proud that I had been able to understand her at all. I expected Gabby to criticize S., but instead he turned to me. I had always thought I imitated quite closely the sounds on the tapes I studied in my car. But my car was evidently made of lead. The reason S. had trouble with my French was not poor hearing, as I had suspected, but my poor prononciation.
Gabby gently but directly informed me that I pronounced each and every vowel wrong, and that French was a language of vowels. "You must change, Greg," he said in French ' "When you pronounce vowels wrong, it's not just a bad accent. You are saying a completely different word." "I" was not " eye," as I had been saying but the pinched sharp sound "ee," uttered as if you had suddenly seen a rattlesnake. I pronounced "de" as "day" when it should be "duh " le" as "lay" when it should be "luh," and I was well into the second week at the school before I was able to shake this habit.
S. sat complacently listening as Gabby went on. I had another problem that was just as important as my mispronouncing vowels. I mispronounced consonants. B, P and T, for example, are explosive sounds in English. In French they are softer, aspirated. L is entirely different, requiring a kind of nimbleness of the tongue that is missing in English.
And, as if bad vowels and consonants weren't enough, I also didn't understand the rhythms of spoken French. Gabby wrote, "Yes, it is." Then he pronounced it in English, sounding a bit like the late actor Peter Lawford. Then he pronounced the sentence as a French person would: "Ye si tis."
We broke for lunch after three hours of class. We resumed at 3:30 for two more hours. We read aloud short articles from a local newspaper about tour packages to Mediterranean islands. I could understand them well enough, but reading them aloud was another trial. There were lots of numbers, and I often misread them. The numeral 954 came out as the French equivalent of ninetyfive four. Gabby kept telling me I was speaking too fast. I was sliding over syllables when I had to give each one its proper weight. "SIVI-LI-ZA-SION" he said, tapping a finger on the table with each syllable.
I tried to imitate him but kept transposing syllables. My longue and brain would not work together. At the end of the class, after five hours, I couldn't say the words in either French or English. It crossed my mind that at the end of two weeks I might not be speaking two languages.
After the first day of language school, I felt as if I had dived to the bottom of a deep pool, and I spent the rest of my stay swimming back to the top. Fach day followed a similar pattern.. class for three hours in the morning, then three or four more hours after lunch, with one afternoon off a week. In class we were drilled on various verb tenses and other points of grammar. I was hungry for that, but there was less of it than I'd expected. Instead, we talked and we talked.
Our homework each evening was to prepare a brief talk for the next day. We chose ads from magazines and explained them, discussed articles from the newspaper and described where we might like to go on vacation. In class we often had to assume roles - a mayor and a city council member, for example-and with budgets and other information, discuss whether our imaginary town should build a new sports center.
On Wednesday, after two days of class, Gabby asked us to pick out a short article in a magazine to read into a tape recorder, after class. I practiced mine several times, then read it into the recorder. The next morning I waited in anticipation as Gabby put on my recording and listened. He kept looking at with a puzzled expression. He still couldn't understand me.
By the third day, I did not believe that I could say a single word in the language that would be understood. I looked forward to 10 more days of frustration, a classroom dunce, while S. prattled on. At meals I spoke less and less, although there were several other students I knew understood less than I did. By that first Thursday, conversation around the table virtually ceased. Margaret and René said it was part of the natural cycle. We were just tired.
By Friday, despite a week's work, I was unaware of any progress. That afternoon I had, a three-hour session with René, one on one. We worked on verb tenses for a while, then he played a recording of a young woman recalling what happened during the student demonstrations in Paris in 1968. When René played it the first time, I missed most of it.
Suddenly I realized my problem: I was trying to translate the words into English as I listened, which made me fall behind. I would translate a sentence in my mind but lose the next two or three. Instead, I told myself to just listen; don't translate. I asked René to play the tape again. I listened. And I understood. After a week, I suddenly understood French.
Later that evening I picked up a story by Balzac and read it as French without translating. Except for some difficult vocabulary here and there, I understood it too. Reading Balzac in French ! Me ? By which I mean moi! And there was still a week to go. I would leave here speaking French after all.
My exuberance did not last. Our assignment that weekend was to watch one of the French movies the school had on tape and report on it. I chose "Trois Hommes et un Couffin," the film that was remade by Hollywood as "Three Men and a Baby." The actors spoke, ran about, waved their arms. I understood hardly a word. In class on Monday I threw up my hands: "I can't say anything about the movie because I didn't understand a thing." Gabby, patient as he was, did not let me get away with this. "You must try harder."
That night's assignment was to tell Gabby and S. about my house. I worked late. I organized my thoughts, I went over my presentation until I could speak with ease. I enunciated my vowels. I spoke slowly. The next morning my talk went well, and I answered the questions with some facility.
That was when I felt I had broken the surface of the deep pool and was breathing again. With just two days of classes left, I found myself able to do what I thought I could do when I arrived: speak simple French and be. understood. After 50 hours of class in 14 days, Tracy and I were weary and ready to move on. We admitted to each other that we were not sure how much we had learned. But we were being too hard on ourselves, If we could not prattle on in French as we had hoped, that was only because learning a language is an exercise in perseverance. What we had really learned was the immensity of the task.
After leaving the school, waiting on the railroad platforrn for the train to Paris, I could understand the announcements over the loudspeaker. I could understand simple things that were said to me in French: the price of a croissant or a newspaper.
Back home, Tracy and I keep studying. We are committed to the dogged practice that produces the small accretions of knowledge that finally result in knowing a second language. During the slow times I keep myself going by a vision I have of a night someday in the future: Tracy and I are strolling along the streets of Paris after an pleasant evening at the Comédie Française. We stop at a cafe for a glass of wine and affectionately recall those two weeks of work.
Curtis is editor of Texas Monthly.
Getting there: Air France and AOM French Airlines offer nonstop flights between LAX and Paris. Advance-purchase, roundtrip fares start at $535.
Take the TGV train from Gare de Lyon in Paris to Lyons and change trains for Roanne. Round-trip fares are $260 for first class and $212 for second class. The Paris-to-Roanne trip takes about 3 hours, one way.
For more Information: Ecole des Trois Ponts, Villa Beaulieu, 645 Rue Maréchal Foch, 42153 Riorges, France; telephone/fax 011-33-477-71-5300;
Web site http://3ponts.edu
Price includes six nights of accommodations and most meals. (Saturday lunch and dinner and Sunday lunch not included.) Combination cooking and French classes are also available.