View from the terrace of the Institut de Français at Villefranche-sur-Mer. Photo: Mary Kay Seales

Eighty students, 19 nationalities, and 8 hours a day of intensive French language instruction – these are only a few of the factors that have drawn diplomats, politicians, and Francophiles (like me) from around the world to this French language school on the French Riviera since 1969.

The Institut de Français is the brainchild of Parisians Jean Colbert and his wife, Madeleine, who traded in their comfortable south Californian life in the 1960s, where Jean was employed in the aerospace industry, to return to France and start their own language school. “It was her idea,” said Jean. “She is fluent in three languages, and she thought there wasn’t, in France, a type of school of French for adults that had a pleasant atmosphere. So I said, all right, I’ll try.”

Monsieur Jean Colbert. Photo: Mary Kay Seales

As a scientist, Jean wanted to find the most effective approach to language teaching, which ultimately was provided by the French government. Called the St Cloud-Zagreb method, or ‘Total Approach’, it stresses the application of the language – basically, you actually need to use the language in order to learn it.

What this means in practice is that from the moment we walked in the door of the Institut at 8am to have breakfast with our classmates until the end of the day at 5pm, we were not allowed to speak our first languages. Mon Dieu! This wasn’t easy for any of us, to say the least, even the advanced students. And those poor débutants who came to the school with no knowledge of French? “Bonjour” doesn’t get you too far. You start learning fast!

Breakfast at the Institut. Photo: Mary Kay Seales

It’s a strict policy at the school, and we broke the rule at our peril. One day at lunch, we were given a talking to by Monsieur Latty, the Teaching Supervisor, who had overheard English being spoken. I felt a bit like I was back in junior high. But then this is the reason we all came to the school, to really learn the language. The constant and complete immersion truly pays off. I found myself walking along the little streets on the way to the beach each day talking to myself in French. My classmate’s husband even reported that she had been speaking French in her sleep!

Students on the terrace between classes. Photo: Mary Kay Seales

TOTAL IMMERSION

Though there are some 80 students in each four-week programme, the classes are divided up by level, with a maximum of ten students per class. My small class of nine students included me (surprisingly the only American in the group); two lovely Australian women, plus a Tasmanian woman who now lives in a small village in France and who became a close friend; a young Palestinian man who was oh-so cool; a young woman from Turkey who looked liked a fashion model but was actually a human rights lawyer living in London; a brilliant young woman from Venezuela who filled us in on the current situation there (in French); and a beautiful man from Sri Lanka, raised in Italy, married to a German woman, and now working for the World Bank in Washington, DC.

Villefranche-sur-mer at sunset. Photo: Mary Kay Seales

The ninth student in our group was a high-ranking politician from Denmark, from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ms Karen Ellemann. “In the Danish parliament,” she told us, “we are entitled to practise European languages, so we can actually take classes in Copenhagen, and so I signed up for French. One of my colleagues highly recommended the Institut de Français here in Villefranche, and it was arranged for me to come – it’s actually my second time here.”

Our larger group of students also included the Ambassador to France from New Zealand, several more World Bank representatives heading to French-speaking African countries, an orthopaedic surgeon and a videographer/jazz musician.

Holy cow, right?

The author with her classmate, Ruth.

I loved the international nature of the programme, and where else could I have such a group of friends who all found themselves in the same boat?

We were like war buddies in the trenches together, and a deep sense of closeness developed quickly. It was summer camp for adults.

Playing ping pong – in French. Photo: Mary Kay Seales

Our school day was divided into various activities, from individual classes to time in the language laboratory, and an afternoon séance, where several classes are joined together to learn about social language skills such as answering the telephone or being a guest at someone’s home. We advanced students thought we knew how to do these things quite well, but our charming and witty professor, Julien Cassagne, offered something new every time – common expressions we didn’t know and useful information about cultural norms, like how to get away politely at the end of a dinner – simply look at your watch and say “Oh-la-la-la. Je n’ai pas vu le temps passer!” Which (as well as being the title of a Charles Aznavour song) translates more or less into “Oh my, my, my. I didn’t realise how late it was.” It’s good to know these things.

Monsieur Latty. Photo: Mary Kay Seales

THE DREADED EXPOSÉ

In the late afternoon sessions we had the dreaded exposé, where each student was required to speak in front of the class on a topic of their choice for a set period of time. For the advanced classes, this was 20-30 minutes followed by questions from our classmates – all in French, mind you! Most of the students were terrified at the prospect, talking about it as if they were waiting in line for the guillotine.

The lab. Photo: Mary Kay Seales

As a university language teacher myself, I was constantly observing the teaching methods employed. I think I can say with some authority that the teachers at the Institut are masters of their craft, and that their method is highly effective. This is surely due in part to Monsieur Colbert’s insistence on searching for highly-qualified instructors, and the Institut’s continued training of those hired. He asked me to guess how long it took him to find their last new hire. I guessed six months.

“Two years!” he said.

They’re very picky.

Preparing for the exposé. Photo: Mary Kay Seales

Monsieur Colbert does the hiring, but Monsieur Frédéric Latty, who has been with the school for close to 30 years, oversees the training. “We want teachers who have an iron fist in a velvet glove,” he explained, “une main de fer dans un gant de velours.”

As my très excellent teacher, Monsieur Bruno Préau, told me, “When I started teaching here I had to forget everything I had learned about language teaching at university and start over.” I can say that whatever they are doing at the Institut de Français, it has resulted in excellent teaching staff.

Relaxing in the Grand Salon before class. Photo: Mary Kay Seales

The school’s greatest asset, besides teaching French well, is its spectacular setting. The little town of Villefranche-sur-Mer is certainly one of the most picturesque along the Riviera coastline, with its ochre, orange and yellow buildings with blue and green shutters stacked up into the rocky hillside. There are sandy beaches, and an Old Town with winding cobblestone streets filled with shops and open-air restaurants, and, wherever you look, the blue sea.

Add to this the lively Saturday and Sunday markets, an open-air cinema at the Citadelle (a gigantic 16th-century fort that takes up half the town), and convenient access to other towns and cities on the French Riviera by bus or train, and you can see why it is not hard to have a lovely experience here.

Cinema at the Citadelle. Photo: Mary Kay Seales

Though the school arranges extracurricular activities each week – a dinner in town, a tour of the Citadelle, a boat trip to Monaco – you can choose to participate or not. I typically headed to the beach for a swim after class because my head was about to explode from speaking French all day. That said, when my two weeks there ended, I was desperate to get back into it.

My one-bedroom apartment, situated next to the school on the steep hillside of Villefranche, overlooked the sea below. It was a beautifully appointed, modern place with a terrace where I could have my coffee each morning – and finish my homework – before leaving home for class.

The entrance to my apartment complex. Photo: Mary Kay Seales

Of course, hiking up and down the hill each day to visit the town, to shop for groceries (faire des courses), to swim, or to manger au restaurant, you need to be part billy-goat. I thought after the first week I would either have a heart attack by the end of the programme or I would be ready to climb Mount Rainier when I returned home to Seattle. My legs are perfectly toned now, but I won’t miss that hike.

One additional amenity that is provided by the school is two meals each day: breakfast and lunch, both at the school and both requiring that you speak only French, of course. Breakfast was a very light meal, but lunch was full on with an entrée, two main dishes and a dessert of some kind. No wine unfortunately, since they needed us to stay awake for the afternoon classes. The teachers join the students for lunch, which means, you guessed it, more speaking in French. It’s a very strict policy at the school.

View from the author’s apartment terrace. Photo: Mary Kay Seales

The Institut de Français is everything I had hoped it would be and then some. I met amazing people, seriously improved my French, had beaucoup de fun with my classmates both in and out of class, and fell even more deeply in love with the Côte d’Azur.

And although I was enrolled during the height of the tourist season in July, with sunshine and beaches and activities all along the Riviera, I can imagine having an equally remarkable time in any season – in autumn, after the summer crowds have left; at Christmas time, with all the markets and the lovely winter blues of the Mediterranean; during the Carnaval in February; or in spring, when the weather is beautiful and fresh, but the crowds haven’t yet descended upon the beaches. And whenever you come, you will learn French.

As Monsieur Colbert concluded, “It’s the attention to everything. We try to make it all as perfect as possible.”

And for me, at least, it was. Parfait!

For more information about the Institut de Français at Villefranche-sur-Mer, call +33 (0)4 93 01 88 44, email [email protected] or visit www.institutdefrancais.com

From France Today magazine

The Old Town of Villefranche-sur-mer. Photo: Mary Kay Seales
The Institut’s terrace. Photo: Mary Kay Seales
Bruno, the author’s professor, and Fadi. Photo: Mary Kay Seales
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10 COMMENTS

  1. Loved this article, as it brought back fond memories of my October 2012 at l’Institut. Mary Kay has beautifully captured the essence of the experience. It was the very best way to learn to speak and to live in France on our boat. My Prof, Sylvie, is amazing. Tough, skilled, fun! Great staff and fascinating people attending. I have stayed in touch with several over the years. We adored Villefranche-sur-Mer and have now spent many months there, enjoying great old town apartments when we were not out cruising, rented from the incomparable Shelley at Riviera Experience. This is one of those epic life experiences that is challenging, rewarding, and great fun. If you’re considering it, don’t hesitate!

  2. I chose Villefranche sur Mer for an extended holiday 3 years ago. After my roommate returned to the States, I decided to hike up to see L’Institut that I had heard so much of over the years (I was a French major in college.) Finally, I made the hike – it was quite ambitious for a 66 year old with an artificial hip. But, when I reached the top, I was rewarded with a personal visit with M. Colbert. He was charming! He showed me around the entire school (what incredible views). We had a nice conversation about how I had come to visit VSM (he thought I must have been from one of the cruise boats!) All in French, mais, oui! He made many corrections to my words or inflection… a very small taste of what it would be like to be a student there. I would LOVE to go back as a student, but I must confess the thought terrifies me!

  3. The author states that courses four weeks but she was only there two and it would be nice to know if that is an option. I was also very interested to know how she came across an apartment right next to the school. Did or does the school assist with finding accomodation (and I don’t mean financially) or is that totally up to the persons attending. This article is very informative and certainly entices one to give it serious consideration if spending any length of time in France.

    • I really appreciate your comment, Joe, and to answer your question for everyone curious: you can go for a two-week stay, but only if you’re an advanced student. I believe that is the policy. They prefer that beginner/intermediate students to do the full four weeks.

      In terms of the accommodations, the school has many apartments scattered throughout Villefranche, and they will secure one for you if you request it. It is more money, but I found it very reasonable, especially for the wonderful apartment I had, and in July, the high season.

  4. Loved this article and the photos as it brought back sweet memories of my 1999 voyage to this school for my first immersion experience. It transformed my life, and became my home away from home. I eventually bought an apartment down the street from the Institut de Français. My appartment surely is a “room with a view” as seen in Mary’s opening photo.

    Villefranche sur Mer is my idea of paradise.

  5. I love your article, Mary Kay! I will forever feel fortunate to have attended this incredible language course and having met truly amazing people like you. Miss our one and only l’Institut, our exceptional teachers, you guys, and Villefranche.

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