The gall to go Gallic

1st August 1997 at 01:00
Je suis one of those people - maybe you've met one or are one yourself - who have always had this thing about French. Not food. Not men. Not even frocks. It's the language. It drives me fou.

But what drives me even er, fou-er is that I can't speak it. While my high school Spanish will allow me to be directed to the nearest loo, albeit with gestures (don't ask), my "ooh ay l'twalet" has, without fail, been met with feigned incomprehension by sadistic French folk over many years.

This is one of the reasons I decided to do a week-long intensive crash course at the Institut Franais Language Centre, in South Kensington, London. In the event, it had to be changed to a two-week course running three hours a morning because there were too few takers for the one-week course. It didn't matter much. L'Institut is good at these things. It runs all sorts of courses for all levels of learners all around the world, using the same methods and materials in each place. With such a track record, I thought, they might even make inroads into my thick skull.

So did it work? Un peu. Maybe a look at a few selections from my diary will shed some light on what it was like.

MONDAY

I enter a room full of 11 people, average age about 25, from the four corners of the Earth: Malaysia, Korea, Japan, Italy, Germany, Hungary, Brazil, three from the United States. There is one solitary Brit. And me, a Yank who's been living on this scept'red isle for more years than some of my fellow students have been alive. I look around. Am I the only absolute beginner among us?

Will they ridicule my bungling efforts as they whitter away, dix to the dozen? Will they, hell. The minute the diminutive but effervescent teacher,Christiane, bounces into the room and starts sounding us out, I realise I'm home and dry, safely ensconced with similarly dunderheaded stumblers.

Christiane exudes good humour and tolerance. She blithely introduces us to her language by telling us there are no rules in French. This is terrible news. I need rules. I hate anarchy, now I've reached a certain age. "But don't complain, " she beams. "German's even worse." Small comfort. Despite her admonition, somehow she has us Je suis-ing left, right and centre within half an hour. "Je suis Amricaine. Je suis journaliste. J'habite Londres," I announce to my neighbour proudly. Je suis pretty darn clever, I think to myself. French is a cinch.

I plummet almost immediately. It's grammar time. Suddenly all is darkness and despair. Everyone else seems to have cottoned on to pronouns in seconds while I sit there smiling weakly. We're given a bit of homework from one of the two books we had to buy during the break. I'm determined to be diligent and revise every day. Home time.

TUESDAY

Me and my classmates greet each other like old war buddies. We've been through so much together already. A buzz of suspense as the second teacher, who alternates with Christiane, strides in. Patricia is tall, blonde, vivacious, funny. She'll speak only French, she tells us in French. Oh God.

But it makes sense. She explains things slowly, we listen, and, with luck, it makes sense. If not, we ask "qu'est-ce que c'est?" and she explains until we understand.

We revise the previous day's work. Then she has us all get up and mill around, pretending we're at a cocktail party. The twist is that we have to assume the identity of someone famous, while someone else has to guess who we are by asking questions.

Despite, or maybe because of, the fact that we know no more than five or six sentences, the exercise is a great ice-breaker - as well as a source of great hilarity. I meet a Japanese Gerard Depardieu and an Italian Bill Clinton. Always one to stir things up, I shock and dismay everyone by revealing myself as Margaret Thatcher. Mon Dieu! After that, more vocabulary and (argghhhh) grammar. Three pieces of homework.

THURSDAY

Our first crack at the language lab. We clap headphones on and have to transcribe what we hear on tape. Why do French people insist on talking so fast? I'm sure I don't speak so quickly in English. I feel silly ending every sentence 50 octaves higher than I started.

Crunch time comes when Patricia has us repeat what we hear into the microphone - and then listens in, one by one. How embarrassing. I stumble and, in desperation, make up words.

Suddenly her voice comes through, putting me straight. With relief, we go back upstairs, where Patricia gives us pointers on body language and expression - mercifully in English. "The French are always speaking emphatically, kissing, shaking hands, slapping each other on the back. It's an important part of how they communicate. If you don't act demonstratively, they get the wrong idea about you." Or the right one - that I'm a repressed cold fish.

The rest of the course generally follows the same lines. We use the language lab, we revise, we move on to new vocabulary and grammar.

One morning, Christiane greets us with a test on three verbs we looked at a couple of days before. The very word "test" has me breaking out with the jitters. It is a knee-jerk reaction, hurtling me back to the fifth grade, when all I wanted to do was bolt out of the classroom because I hadn't learned my sums. And I admit it - I haven't learned my verbs. But neither, thank God, has anybody else. "Disaster all around," Christiane announces cheerily after looking over our papers.

Where it all leaves me, je ne sais pas. I know more words and understand a bit about sentence construction, but the grammar eludes me. Whether I'd be able to speak to a French person any better than before, I can't say. But I'm pretty sure that if I were in France for a few weeks, things would start to click.

And I can honestly say it was the most pleasurable learning experience I've ever had, with lots of good humour and cajolery on the part of the teachers, and camaraderie on the part of the students. If ever there were no tears French, this was it.

The Institut Franais Language Centre runs intensive courses a few times a year during the holidays as well as ongoing Saturday and evening classes throughout the year for all levels.

Institut Franais Language Centre, 14 Cromwell Place, London SW7. Tel: 0171 581 2701

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