Roanne, France (Fall, 2004)
In late September, 2004, my wife Margie and I spent a week studying French at the Ecole des Trois Ponts, in Roanne, France. We had a great time, and we both made substantial progress in our study of French. This is a report on our experience.
Note added August 2009: L'Ecole des Trois Ponts is no longer in the Château de Mâtel, where we stayed. It has moved from the eastern-edge of Roanne to a location a bit to the west of Roanne, in the Villa Beaulieu, in Riorges, Grand Roanne. For up-to-date information, click just above to see their web page.
Larry's report (Fall, 2005):
The accommodations: All the students live in the Château de Mâtel, and take all their meals there. There are guest rooms of various sizes. We paid a premium for a larger room, and were glad we did, as it was a very large corner room, and it turned out that some of the rooms are considerably smaller. We also had good internet access, a DSL line, and the keyboard could be switched to an English layout. You write down the time you use, and pay a nominal fee at the end, or for a ten euro premium, you get unlimited access (we did that).
We all spoke only French at meals, eating at a communal table with one staff member. The staff member helped us with any linguistic problems, and gently encouraged us to not backslide into English. Breakfasts were "continental" style, but cereal and fruit were usually also available. Lunches were hearty, and although they were less "gourmet" than the dinners, there were interesting local dishes (such as a quenelle, a dumpling, of a type I'd never had before).
The dinners were all very good, and interesting. Two of the students were taking cooking classes in the afternoon, and they were always involved in preparation of the dinner. The cooking classes are usually given in English, but in this case, with only two students who preferred French, they were done in French. The first and main courses were uniformly very good. They were always followed by a cheese course, in which the chef, Daniel, presented five new cheeses each day, giving a bit of background on each, as well as telling us how to cut them. We thus got exposed to 30 cheeses in the course of the week. This was always followed by a great dessert, and assorted wines were served.
There's a refrigerator from which you can get various cold drinks, and extra wine if you'd like wine beyond what is included during the meals. You write down what you take, and are charged at the end. Other than that and the internet, there are no extras. When we settled the bill at the end, all we paid for were two aprons that we had purchased, and the ten euros for the unlimited internet access. There were no other extras. A washer and dryer, including soap for the washer, are provided for free. This allowed us to easily do a laundry just before leaving (we spent the second week of our trip touring Provence), taking care of our laundry needs for the entire trip.
The French courses: We spent a week in their General French course. We each had 19 hours of group instruction in French: three hours on each of five mornings, and two hours on Monday and Thursday afternoon. The other afternoons were free.
There were only nine students our week, about half the maximum capacity. The dollar was not doing well at the time of our trip, and perhaps there was less travel to France for political reasons as well. Six of the students were Americans, two Canadian, and one German. One of the students was taking private lessons, leaving only eight for the group lessons.
We were interviewed on Monday morning by Valérie, and divided into two groups of four. Since there were only two groups, the spread of ability within each group might have been a bit wider than if there had been four groups, but I thought it worked out pretty well in the end (there will always be some compromises in a group lesson). As expected, I was in the more Advanced group, and Margie in the Intermediate group. There were no beginners that week. One of the students in the Advanced group decided after the initial lesson to switch to private lessons. She was clearly the most advanced student, a Canadian who had attended university classes at the Université de Laval in Quebec, and thus was nearly bilingual (although she spoke with a Quebec accent).
I thought the teaching was excellent. My instructor, Pascal, questioned us in the first session to find out what our individual interests were. He referred to these notes frequently during the week, and was careful to hit the areas where we needed help. He typically went around the students systematically on each topic, giving each of us a chance to speak. I'm reasonably fluent in French, but the week exposed many errors I was making, and areas in which I was using constructions that were grammatically correct, but not particularly idiomatic. We also did comprehension exercises from a video as part of each lesson, which helped tune my ear for listening (French is a language in which it's particularly hard to separate the words in a spoken stream). It was a very worthwhile week for me.
We selected this school because it took care of the accommodations, the meals, and the lessons all together, and because of the immersion in French, and the communal château life. We were very happy with our choice - we thought it worked out well. You can check out the school's web site at http://www.3ponts.edu/. In addition to French, you can take cooking classes there in English, or a combination of cooking classes and language study, and other events are organized from time to time (such as wine tours).
Margie's additional notes:
I have been studying French for several years, and have wanted to have the opportunity to become more comfortable with conversation. I am an artist and quite visual - written French is much easier for me than understanding and speaking it. My accent is decent and my grammar is good, but the spontaneity needed to have conversations has eluded me. It was with this objective that I decided to participate in an immersion program.
I was quite nervous when we first arrived and I realized that, indeed, everyone would be speaking French. René, the director, gave our introductory tour in French. I don't know what he would have done if there had been a beginner in the group - I gather things are quite different when that happens.
As Larry said, there were nine students at the school during our week, and I had four students in my class. We were all at somewhat different levels, but we each had our own strengths and weaknesses, and complemented each other well. Each of us had learned our French different ways. For example, one of the students had a purely conversational approach to her learning - she had a private tutor at home, and had learned her French essentially through conversation, sort of Berlitz style. She was able to speak a lot, but did not know many tenses, and needed help with her grammar. Another student was German, and French was her third language. Even with this difference in approach and experience, Valérie, our instructor was able to comfortably organize and run the class. Truly professional, she was well prepared, patient, kind, and just plain fun. She was extremely positive and supportive, and I quickly became comfortable in class. Our class focused on speech (both oral and comprehension) while reviewing grammar and structure. The 3 hours in the morning and the 2 hour evening classes were well paced and enjoyable. We alternated written activities, listening to tapes, and participating in class discussions. There was a little "homework" 3 nights, but it was easily managed and not difficult.
As the week passed, I became increasingly comfortable in class. I began to speak more readily and understood more and more what Valérie was saying. A highlight of the week came when I realized on Thursday that I was no longer completely translating Valérie's French into English - somehow, I was understanding the French directly. It was a pleasant surprise!
Meals were sometimes difficult for me. I am a social and outgoing person, but I found that it was hard to be gregarious in a foreign language. I sometimes became tongue-tied and quite fatigued. I lapsed into English with the other students from my class, but really tried for the most part to stay in French. By the third day, it became easier for me, and a glass of wine at dinner helped. Everyone was patient and supportive and I increasingly became more comfortable. Larry was surprised one day to look over at me and see me conversing in French with a student quite animatedly. The staff member at the table during meals helped and added to the enjoyment of the meals. And the food was excellent- particularly, I thought, the entrée and dessert at dinner (remember that in France, the entrée is the appetizer). I loved the cheese course - 5 different cheeses each night! Of course, Daniel discussed the cheeses in French, so I missed a bit of the discussion, but I got the gist of it all.
René encourages the students to explore and appreciate the area. He has several printed "tours" depending on time and interest. We enjoyed exploring the area and the town. The small art museum is quite good. There was an interesting and attractive show on ceramic animals while we were there. The director of the school arranged an afternoon for Larry and me to visit a local artist at her studio. We sat in her garden under her blooming wisteria, drank tea, and talked about art and politics (the French love to talk politics - this trip was shortly before the US Presidential election). Her art was delightful and interesting, and we passed a truly lovely afternoon there.
The week at Trois Ponts served to energize my interest in French and my capability to speak it. I would recommend the program whole-heartedly. It was a wonderful way to become immersed in French in a safe and comfortable way.