Speaking tongues

Sunday Times – Travel section

CLARE COLVIN finds herself lost for words on a cosmopolitan course in Montpellier

There were many brochures at the French Institute in London but not much to help a would-be student decide where best to go in France to get to grips with the language.

I decided on the Languedoc – for no better reason than that I’d never been there.   Several of the language courses were in modern universities on the outskirts of towns, but the Alliance Francaise de Montpellier was just a few steps from the buzzy cafes of the place de la Comedie, housed in a 19th century residence modelled in reduced scale on the Paris Opera House.   I took the advice of a friend who knows the city.

“There’s no point in going to Montpellier and being stuck in one of the universities outside,” he said.  “You have to be near the cafes.”

So for the next month I led a café-society life.   The May course was full of Erasmus students of various nationalities enjoying their year of fun-to-be-young.   It was like a convention of youthful stereotypes.  The Danish girls were blonde and willowy, the Irish girls in a state of continual hilarity, the Japanese student kept her eyes deferentially down-turned and the Australian looked like Mad Max.  Other nationalities included Germans, Brazilians, Taiwanese, Spanish, and a dour  Dutchman who, like me, was of a different generation from the rest.

The advantage of so many nationalities was that French had to be our common language out of class, as well.   The disadvantage was that until we had mastered it, the range of subject matter was limited.   Anybody listening in would have been bemused at the stumbling conversations in a variety of terrible accents, interspersed with flurries of German, Spanish and English.

The directrice of the Alliance had found me a studio in the old city – up a 14th century stone spiral staircase, into a high-ceilinged room with tall windows that gave on to the street.

A Sicilian pizza restaurant was directly underneath and a selection of restaurants stretched up the rue Pila St Gely, their tables and chairs colonising the street as the weather turned warmer.   At night the buzz of conversation filled the air, followed in the early hours by arguments from residents returning to the Chapeau Rouge hotel across the road.   The extraordinarily noisy street-washing lorry came next, at about five in the morning.  Then the shutters of the boulangerie would go up and another day would begin.

I walked to the Alliance Francaise through the old city, from which cars have been banned, along narrow canyons of medieval and renaissance buildings.   Across the place de la Comedie and past the fountain of the Three Graces, where Montpellier’s crusties hang out, it was a short climb to the second floor of the ersatz Paris Opera House.   The first lesson, led by Claude, began promptly at nine; textbook work and grammar.  After this serious brain-work there was a 15-minute break for a takeaway espresso and a pain au chocolat, followed by Delphine’s 60 minutes of French culture.

Delphine was a trim, attractive young woman who knew better than to succumb to pain au chocolat.  She introduced us to Rimbaud and Baudelaire, as well as the wisdom of Elle magazine’s article on 10 rules to get your marriage off to a good start.   And quite direct it was, too.   In rule two, readers were advised to pretend to know nothing about la cuisine, confessing this: “avec un petit rire de gorge et roule lui un palot de 45 secondes minimum, bien cambree en arriere”.

What’s un palot, Delphine?  She gave an expressive roll of the tongue, as she mimed a French kiss.   Ah yes, back to Rimbaud, who didn’t need to ask.

One of the problems with an intensive French course in a French city is how meet the French – apart from your teachers who disappear from your life at midday.   The directrice was of the opinion that the English are too timid to be comfortable with French families, but being on your own in a studio led to limited communication of an evening.   Discussing the superiority of French/Moroccan doner kebab over the English/Turkish variety with the patron of a takeway or the herbs that had gone into a Roquefort salad with the waiter at Le Vieil Ecu left me well fed but starved of  proper conversation.

During the second week, there was a book fair on the esplanade and I fell, with cries of joy, onto a stand called Bill’s Bookshop.   Its owner, Bill Rees, sells new and second-hand English books in his shop on the rue de l’Universite and provides a valuable service of tea and coffee bar where you can chatter away in English about book matters or anything else.   Until I got to grips with the French language, Bill’s Bookshop, also haunted by an elderly American lady who had known Gertrude Stein and Henry Miller, was a release for the pressure cooker of suppressed conversation that had built up in my head.

And then, at the beginning of the third week, it happened.  One moment I was stumbling around in humiliation – the French give you no help if you can’t get the words out – the next I was understanding and being understood.   Suddenly, I understood Philippe Meyer’s jokes on Radio France Inter, and with a flash of inspiration I finally identified the mysterious American politician always referred to on the radio by the surname of Bilkington.

The month’s difficulties diminished and there was a general feeling of relief among other students who had also been struggling.   We celebrated the end of our course at the Toro Loco, where an Alliance student had found a job as barmaid, about the only place where it didn’t matter which language you spoke as nobody could hear a word anyway.

I left Montpellier with regret, knowing that one more month was needed to fix the language after my breakthrough.  I have sorted out a course in London, but once a week at the French Institute is far from total immersion.  If I take another course in France, I’ll try to enrol on one with mixed ages, for the sake of interest in class as well as outside – and I would avoid the month of May, when there is one public holiday after another and the country closes down.

The problem as a stranger in getting to meet the French is universally acknowledged, not least by the French themselves.  One way is to find a common interest, either in an association or a sporting or cultural course.   There are lists of organisations and courses at the mairie (town hall) that, if you are persistent, you can obtain.  It’s amazing the interests that are catered for – anything from the Institute of Gnostic Anthropologists to the Committee of Twirling Batons.   You could end up learning rather more than French.