Bonne Année de la Côte d’Azur!

Just a quick update to let you all know the latest news — Tout va bien au Congo. The election period passed without too many problems, although without a new president, either. The administration and the opposition have agreed to hold elections later this year, although I’ve heard that both sides are missing notable signatories. So we’ll see. In the meantime, everyone is back to work as normal chez nous, and last week they even gave the spouses permission to return. If I hadn’t already paid for a month of French classes, I would have jumped on the same plane as Seb.

We passed a lovely three weeks over the holidays wandering from city to city using only trains, subways, trams, and the occasional taxi as transportation. We started in Paris and ended in Nice, traveling through Brussels, Bruges, Luxembourg, Strasbourg, Bordeaux and Marseille, staying 2-3 days at each stop. The biggest surprise was how much we enjoyed Belgium. I’ve never been much of a beer person, but even I couldn’t get enough of the amazing lambic and Trappist brews there. Our favorite meals and Christmas markets were in Belgium, too.

Not that I’m disappointed to be here in France for the next month, taking my fourth French course in a small town near Nice. Not at all! Though it is a much different experience than my first time here, back in 2011… This time it’s truly winter, cold and windy enough for scarves & mittens. The sun rises late and sets early, as it stubbornly tends to do in the north this time of year. I caught a cold the day before Seb headed home, which made test-taking in French even more exciting. All of these things have made restauranturing in the evenings less than appealing, so I’ve been happy to pass the time in a comfortable apartment instead. Next week, I hope, c’est parti.

I’m back at the same school where I started, the formidable Institut de Français. After trying two other schools, one in Québec City, and one further north in Provence, I knew this is where I wanted — nay, needed — to return.

In fact, I was starting to despair. Don’t get me wrong, I had a fun experience at the other schools, but most of that had to do with the people I met, or the places they were situated, or the activities on the side. The French lessons themselves… well, they had a way of making me feel worse about my speaking ability. The classes were highly academic — often we had to read some fancy text with big vocabulary and then discuss it spontaneously. Each time I had to speak, I tripped over my words and knew I was making a ton of mistakes, but the teachers would just let me go until I saw their eyes crossing. Not just me, but all the students. Sometimes when the assignment was to purposely give a speech (we did that a lot), the teachers would politely give a handful of notes afterwards. Watch your conjugation here, careful with your tense there. But the moment had already passed. I wasn’t always sure about the exact mistake I’d made among the vast quantity of choices, nor exactly how to correct it.

Those schools did help me increase my comprehension and understanding when listening to native French speakers, though. This is a complete flip from where I was as a beginner: confident in my own speech production, however limited it was, but completely lost when someone else spoke in a real-life context. I mean, there’s no limit to the potential words that could come out of their mouths, words I didn’t know yet! For me, this stage lasted for a couple of years, at least. After my second and third courses, the knowledge began pouring in and I could start to make heads or tails of what other people said. With certain people who spoke slowly and clearly, I felt I could happily listen to them forever. But when I spoke it was all a complete jumble. I knew the words were inside me but when I reached for them, they failed me.

After my most recent class, I had every intention of continuing my studies at home. I knew I had a lot of work to do. That was September 2014, and can you guess how much studying I did? Yep. Pretty much zero. I was tired, a little burned out, and disappointed. I do think there’s some benefit to resting after an intensive course like that and letting things marinate for awhile, but before I knew it two years had gone by. I knew things were bad during our travels the past few weeks when I could hardly get anyone to respond to me in French. Often all it took was a “bonjour” or a “merci” in my non-native accent before the hotel receptionist or server would switch to English with me. (Where are we, Montréal??)

I had hoped to end my studies here at the Institute in the most advanced class because if not, I would feel the need to come back yet again someday. But during our vacation I began to set my expectations lower. I felt like I was speaking even worse than I was in 2011. People didn’t switch to English with me then! On top of that, I wasn’t always understanding what they were saying. Better than I used to be but still not great. And forget trying to follow movies or figure out music lyrics!

The day before class started, with a full-blown head cold, I had a minor panic attack about whether I would even be able to test above the level I had graduated from in 2011, which was Intermediate I. For the next 24 hours I worked hard to relax, telling myself that no matter what level I got into, it would be time well spent. I have a lot of faith in this school, and I’ve missed them. I know they can help me.

Monday was breakfast, meet and greet, and the dreaded test taking (six parts on paper and one part speaking with a professor one-on-one), followed by lunch and initiation to the school. The same director, Frédéric, is still there, telling the same jokes. The same professors are still there — a young staff but often with a dozen years or more tenure at this school, which to me is yet another testament to the place. But personally, I couldn’t wait to be excused at the end of the day. I had an urgent date at the pharmacy, followed by the grocery store, and after heating up a box of aubergine gratin from Picard Surgelés in the microwave and talking to Seb who had safely arrived home in Congo that afternoon, I went straight to bed.

Tuesday morning, right after breakfast, the results were announced. Level by level, I watched all the students around us (probably 50) disappear into different classes as they were announced. Beginner I, then II. Intermediate I and then III. (For some reason, no one tested into II or IV this time. Either that or those particular professors were out on vacation!) To my great surprise, Advanced I was announced and I was still sitting there with eight others. We had tested into the highest level: Advanced II.

I’m not telling you this to brag, I’m telling you this because it’s the moral of the story. (A long, six-year-plus story.) Do you know what kind of students test into Advanced II at this renowned school? Students who have been studying for years (one gentleman has attended this school seven times! another very friendly, very sweet gal has lived in France for nine years!) but STILL AREN’T FLUENT. All of us fail to some degree when speaking with native French speakers. None of us can follow the news or a movie at 100%. All of us make very silly, very laughable, and very repetitive mistakes. We conjugate incorrectly, even in the present tense. We mix up our past and present. We tend to throw a plus-que-parfait in when speaking in what should be the simple past, just because it sounds fancy. We constantly get our masculine and feminine articles wrong, and don’t get me started on prepositions.

It’s all basic stuff. We’ve studied these grammar rules a dozen times. But it’s one thing to know the rule, and a completely different thing to use it correctly. It turns out, speaking spontaneously requires a lot of acrobatics involving the tongue, and the tongue very much relies on muscle memory. That’s what was failing me at the other schools — without correction, I was saying all kinds of incorrect things, and over the years it became habit. I found a few lazy ways around my weakest spots (always the passé composé instead of the imparfait, always the futur proche instead of the real future, and for god’s sake avoid pronouns whenever possible) and ingrained those pathways in my speaking, which comes across as robotic and childish and eventually has made me loathe to speak.

And that’s what makes this school so different from all the others. In order to correct these errors, in order to develop or reform the tongue’s muscle memory, we have to focus on just one simple phrase at a time, and repetitively so. As long as it takes to get it right. And once we get it right on Wednesday, it is, without fail, wrong again on Thursday. It means that the professor has to work just as hard as us. (Maybe harder, I often think.) It’s incredibly time consuming. It requires intense focus, and infinite patience on their part. For us, it’s constant drilling, but not just repeat-after-me drilling. It’s repeating with a new subject or a new verb or in a new tense. It’s answering the question “what did your neighbor just say?” which means you have to reform the whole sentence. And it’s fast, almost as if we’re in an army boot camp. You cannot stop listening for one second, and neither can the professor.

Which is why I’m here to sing their praises. Not only do these professors work harder than I’ve seen anywhere else, but they also make it extremely fun. We laugh every few seconds, it seems — at each other’s mistakes, at our own mistakes, at the professor too. Laughter is an incredible learning tool. The things I learned here in 2011 I haven’t forgotten. After that, the track record is shaky. Typical French schools have textbooks or workbooks and lots of stuff to read, but why bother reading a long fancy text if you’re unable to say something as simple as “I don’t see it / I didn’t see it / I won’t see it” correctly? In this school, you need only to listen, and to speak. In fact they discourage note-taking. (Trust me, you won’t have time anyway!) It’s completely revolutionary, in my mind.

So, I’m happy and relieved to be here, winter or not. Warm and rainy Africa awaits, and I will be happy to go there, too, when the time comes. One week in Switzerland with a friend and another back in Arizona to arrange a new travel visa before my return, currently slated for end of February.

In the meantime, I’d better get back to my studies. This is already way too much English for the weekend. Sending you warm wishes for the new year, et, à bientôt!

P.S. This time as opposed to last time, I’m not expecting to leave fluent. Only a bit better, and that’s good enough for me. 🙂


  1. … congratulations on the elevation to advance II and best of luck with your future French language instruction! … thanks for your recent Christmas greeting … now that we have your Phoenix address, am sending you & Seb our Christmas newsletter plus miscellaneous articles, music to observe & listen to!

    As always, safe travels Jennifer!


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