My skills in French were limited at best – phrasebook French, as I called it. Given that my husband and I have been traveling to France every year for the past two decades, I wanted to move beyond my ability to order a medium-rare steak with a glass of red wine, ask what time the next train left, and expertly say “you’re very kind.” I was also tired of hearing “your pronunciation is so good I thought that you actually spoke French!”
About three years ago, I committed to attending a language immersion course in France. Last month, I did just that. It was a dream fulfilled.
After researching every available option I could find, I selected l’institut de Français, http://www.institutdefrancais.com located on the Mediterranean coast. They were founded 48 years ago with the aim of developing a natural speaking ability in their students through the “Total Approach” method, and they made some audacious promises.
They promised that the four-week course would deliver small classes of no more than 10 people, with eight and a half hours a day of French-only immersion, that the course work would be varied throughout the day, and that at the end of the course, we would be able “to speak correctly and be readily understood in everyday conversation. Total beginners will be able to say much of what they want to say, simply and correctly.” They also promised an on-site French chef who would prepare delicious meals for us daily.
They delivered on every promise they made, and they exceeded expectations.
A few days into the course, I reviewed their website, and a particular sentence jumped out at me: “…from the outset the student is plunged into the French language without recourse to his or her mother tongue.”
I had taken the terminology to be a rather dramatic, classically French, and perhaps exaggerated, turn of phrase. It was nothing but accurate. You literally had nowhere to go in your mind, except to do whatever you could to string together some words and hope you were understood. Moreover, we were asked not to take notes except when the instructor directed us to, as the course was laser-focused on listening and repeating, and then growing our speaking skills with our classmates in guided conversation.
I came in as an “advance beginner” and on the first day, I remember sitting at the breakfast table not knowing what to say after “good morning, how are you, I am fine, please pass the coffee.” On the last day, I was having a basic conversation with one of the advanced students about my work, my plans for returning to the US, and how we might collaborate on a project.
L’institut de Français clearly understands their brand, and the promise that it represents. They position themselves as the best of the best, and everything, from the location, to the physical plant, to the instructors, lives up to the promise.
Though we had one primary instructor for the entire month, each day, a different instructor would meet with us for an hour and walk us through some practical aspect of French life, such as ordering in a restaurant, or having a conversation on the phone. I was fascinated that every instructor used the same language and gestures when correcting our pronunciation or grammar. No matter which instructor you were dealing with, if you needed to truncate the ending of a verb, for example, they all made a scissor motion with their extended index and middle fingers.
When speaking with one of the instructors at lunch, I asked him why he and the other professors chose to teach here. He said it was because of the commitment of the students. He knew the sacrifice that most people had to make: one month away from family and work, airfare, a significant tuition and housing cost, and spending eight hours a day immersed in a language that was not our own. He told me that his commitment was to make sure that every student felt that it was money well spent.
The night before I left, at my hotel at Charles de Gaulle airport, the bartender struck up a conversation in French about how slow things were that evening. After chatting with him for a couple of minutes, I realized how much my language skills had improved. Brand is about promises made and promises kept, and about the emotion evoked when thinking about a company and its associated products or services.
Was it money well spent? It absolutely was.