Il était une fois

Alan mcBride - 08/0713 -
Can a 60-year-old budding eccentric, who hated school, learn French in a four-week immersion course in a classroom in the south of France?
Four weeks at the Institut de Français in the charming, if somewhat hilly, coastal village of Villefranche-sur-Mer was a trial I set for myself and not for the faint-hearted! Still, intensive immersion French for four weeks was the only way this near geriatric was going to learn any French at all.
.Alan McBride - 08/07/13 -
Situated on the terraces above the old town and port of Villefranche-sur-Mer the school was a delightful reminder of school days spent oh so long ago in sunny Lancashire.
With school starting at breakfast around 8.20am every day and continuing through with classes until afternoon tea at 4.45pm you can be sure of getting outstanding value from the course. For our group of ten, our days lessons started with the language laboratory at 9.00am. Now if you ever had the pleasure of a language lab at school I want you to know, nothing has changed. Do not be afraid!
Another hour, another class: then afterwards our morning coffee break taken in the grounds of the school overlooking this stunning French port. A visit to the website will show just what extraordinary views we had to put up with in the breaks each day!  More classes followed by lunch. Now you may think that lunch means a break: not in immersion classes! In fact, the school policy is to fine you 1 Euro if you are heard speaking anything except French! Fortunately they were rather liberal on this point: although that did work against us as the fines are accumulated for the farewell champagne party at the end of the course.
Where was I? Lunch: yes lunch, where you had the pleasure of a different teacher at each table to maintain the integrity of the French language all through lunch. They asked about your background, hobbies, interests, plans for the future and your reasons for being there. A raison d’être, I guess! All of which you confidently (!) responded to in French. Generally a very exhilarating lunch was had each day with much merriment! (Breakfast and lunch are included in the course costing too, and with a chef like Natalie, I was so thankful, the food was fantastic). The afternoon was filled with more lessons and, thankfully, another coffee break.
How was it though?
It’s odd when you think you are at a place and someone brings you crashing back to earth! Such as being placed in Debutante 2, which was a bit of a blow. Although, it helped not being alone in this regard, as I had nine other classmates who all felt they should have been at least Intermediates! Interestingly, after four weeks, we all felt that our placement had been spot on and our comprehension had risen beyond our wildest expectations and almost certainly well into an Intermediate level!
Yes, they know how to effortlessly grade you and what you need to learn. Let’s see: I learned that great interest is placed on knowing verbs and their relationship to each other and to nouns, pronouns and many other words. The whole emphasis for four weeks is on hearing and understanding what is being said by your teacher. So much so that on many occasions I had my pen confiscated! Now I understood why I didn’t need to bring any notebooks! I also learned that these verbs are conjugated depending on what you are saying (or trying to say)! Interestingly to confuse things even further most of these verbs can be added to other verbs called auxiliaries, which are usually the one of the two verbs avoir or être (which use each other as an auxiliary!). These form something called a compound tense.
Now in English you may think this sounds all pretty basic and indeed we all do this without thinking, but, I remind you at this point, it is all communicated to you in French! In fact, even if you have a question, it must be communicated to your teacher in French too. It can get expensive with those 1 Euro fines! Just to help, remember that a verb is where the action is.
Curiously though, the French, God love them (I do too), have nouns which are split into masculine and feminine. Pourquoi? (Sorry). Do let this writer know if you find out why! However it can be useful once you get your ear tuned in to help you answer the question or figure out what is happening and respond appropriately and, indeed, correctly.
As one expects with the French, it’s a very sexy language and this may be due to a lot of this male and female stuff happening all the time. Theirs is a wonderfully simplistic system of speaking and therefore conjugating (!): there are seven simple tenses and seven compound tenses plus the Imperatif! For some unknown reason, the French think this is normal and far worse, simple!
They have some wonderful ways of explaining things with mnemonics such as: un bon vin blanc dans un grand restaurant du Toulon. This is guaranteed to get your mouth going in every which way possible while using seemingly simple words in a sentence!  Apparently, it helps too with your long term pronunciation! Other gems include the sentence: Le petit garçon mange sa soupe, which contains an article, an adjective, a noun, a verb, a possessive and to top it off, another noun! How cool is that, all those things in the one sentence!
.Alan McBride - 08/07/13 -
I also learned early on, j’aime le vin rouge but I suspect that was always the case and being in the superb environs of Nice and Villefranche on the famous Cote d’Azur just helped me understand this more. Villefranche is about a 30 minute walk from Nice and excellent bus and train services are on offer too. It seems strange on the supposedly expensive Cote D’Azur that, at 1 Euro each way, public transport is so cheap and remarkably efficient. Around the third week (I think), we got into les possefifs, also past, present, future, such fun! I was now at the stage where I hoped that by the fourth week I would be able to speak enough French to get the train out of Nice to Carcassonne for a well earned break and the opportunity to practise my newfound skills.
From there a quick Parisian detour and I would take a plane to my Sydney home, where the nouns are generally unisex and the verbs seemingly uncomplicated or, at very least, familiar! Numbers or at least the pronunciation of them in French was interesting. In four weeks, I heard the number 80 pronounced normally as quatre vingt (?) and also as quatre dix, quatre-vingt-dix (?) and even carafe de vin rouge!
As a result of this four weeks of masochism, I now know about regular and irregular, singular and plural, masculine & feminine, simple and compound verbs and structures. It seems in France that everything comes in twos? I wondered for a while if Noah was French?
Still at the end of it all, I did learn: Vouloir, c’est pouvoir (“Where there’s a will, there’s a way”) and the short answer is yes, in four weeks at Institut de français you will learn an awful lot; meet some great new friends; have a lot of fun and a fabulous appreciation of French food and wine culture, country and much, much more!
Alan stayed as a guest of the Institut de français. Institut de français: Language school to the world. Some very famous students have attended, so you never know who will be on your course! For more detailed information on the Institut de Français French language school, please contact

Frederick Latty
Institut de Français
23 Avenue Général-Leclerc
06230 Villefranche-sur-mer

Tel: +33 493 01 88 44 Fax: +33 493 76 92 17

  • Buses (1 Euro) and trains (1.50 Euro) run from Nice to Villefrancesur-Mer approximately every 15 minutes, (30 mins on Sundays).
  • Monaco & Monte Carlo are 20 minutes further on towards the Italian border and again cost 1 Euro on bus and 1.50 on train.
  • Cannes, Antibes, St Tropez a little further on the Nice train.
  • Walk or bus (another Euro) from Villefranche out to St Jean, Cap Ferat and visit the stunning mansion of Béatrice, The Baronness Ephrussi de Rothschild (or Villa Ile de France). You could even see where some of The Rolling Stones used to live!
  • A day trip to Tende was excellent utilising the tourist train Le Train des Neiges Only 6km from the Italian border, great walks in late summer and snow and ski in winter.
  • The school also have outings to local restaurants, boat trips and bus excursions to such places as St Paul de Vence.

Alan McBride - 08/07/13 -

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Alan McBride

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  1. Judy MacMahon Jul 14, 2011 at 2:17 PM - Reply

    Loved this article Alan… it brought back all the congugation nightmares and mistakes I still make. Thanks for becoming a Contributor! Judy

  2. Ian Shephard Jul 28, 2011 at 10:38 PM - Reply

    HI Alan

    I totally get what you love about it all. Terrific story, and thanks for sharing.

    I hope to have a few ‘immersion’ stories of my own, to tell, one day. and some of them from my time in France I hope

    In the meantime, I will remind myself, vouloir, c’est pouvoir!!

    bien cordialement


  3. Sylvie Naux Aug 8, 2011 at 7:20 PM - Reply

    Great article, Alan. You may like this about masculine and feminine words:

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