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Last Updated: Tuesday, 25 May, 2004, 12:23 GMT 13:23 UK
Trying a quick fix in French
By Justin Parkinson
BBC News Online education staff

It is a national shame and I am as much to blame as anyone.

Bathers on Nice beach
Is it worth splashing out for a week at a foreign language school?

People in the UK are known for their lack of proficiency at foreign languages. When we go abroad, it is assumed the natives should speak English as clearly as if educated at Eton and Oxford.

Sadly the world is not that simple. I, despite passing (barely) an A-level in French more than a decade ago, still struggle to hold a conversation about anything more complex than the price of ham and the way to the nearest post office.

So a one-week refresher course in Nice, the beautiful capital of France's Cote d'Azur, sounded ideal.

A bit of light conversation, a little colloquial vocabulary and the merest smattering of grammar would have done just fine.

Having paid £150 for 30 lessons, it was with a sense of hope that I arrived at the town-centre premises of the language school.

And what happened first? A written test.

Ego boost

For 20 minutes or so I delved into the deepest, darkest recesses of memory to recall the nuances of prepositions, declensions and the like. It did not bode well.

A brief chat to gauge my conversational skills later, I was placed in the "intermediate", rather than the "beginners'", group.

The ego boost was to prove temporary.

The first lesson started. Why was everyone in the group, except one 35-year-old German man, so young? There were around 10 of us - mainly American, but with a sprinkling of Russians, Japanese, Swiss and Belgians. Weren't the last two supposed to be pretty good at French anyway?

I was, it turned out, the only student doing a one-week course. The others, especially the Russians, were enrolled for ages - up to four months. I was just to sit in for a few days.

The teacher kindly let me know that the French for love handles was 'les poignées d'amour'
Justin Parkinson, temporary student

The first subject was grammar. Not just ordinary, everyday grammar, but that nightmare for all English speakers: the subjunctive. From A-level memories this was an eerie miasma - a "mood" rather than a tense, which seemed to follow no discernible logic. How very French.

It was serious catch-up time. The principles were explained. We took a test. I failed miserably.

Unfortunately, the subjunctive was pretty much all we did, in grammar terms, that week. Very interesting, but not likely to help me when attempting to converse. It was frustrating, inducing an adolescent sense of self-loathing.

It was also 23 degrees Celsius outside and I had enrolled at "school" (which started at 8.45am every day) for a week of my holiday time, at my own expense.

Later in the morning, after a short break ended by the owner walking around the building ringing a bell, came conversation practice.

Monaco Grand Prix
Distractions were everywhere on the Cote d'Azur

Talk about French surrealism. Our first chat was about plastic surgery, or "la chirurgie esthetique".

Almost immediately, in front of a class of 11, mainly teenagers, I was accused by the teacher of preferring artificial breasts ("en silicone", I think) to the more natural variety.

I fumbled and stumbled as I searched for long-forgotten words to oppose this view. Of course, I failed again and was consigned forever to having a liking for surgically enhanced ladies in the eyes of my classmates.

Before the debate ended, the teacher kindly let me know the French for "love handles" was "les poignées d'amour". The equivalent of the preferable "six pack" was "une tablette de chocolate" (chocolate bar - assumedly an undulating example, such as a Yorkie).

Was she hinting that my money might have been better spent at a clinic than on a language course?

The conversations continued in this vein for the whole week.

At various points, I was accused of being an alcoholic, had to discuss the death penalty and played the role of a 1960s feminist, arguing against such characters as "une bimbo" and "un pervert" about women's position in modern society.

Classroom purgatory

But perhaps the oddest activity was spending an entire afternoon learning - in French, of course - the rules of the dice game Yahtzee and playing it against five teenagers. And I lost.

All the while, the sun was shining and Nice beach, although pebbly, was calling me away.

The Cannes Film Festival was raging 20 miles to the west, while preparations for the Monaco Grand Prix were under way 10 miles to the east. It was the classroom equivalent of purgatory, with only a faint promise of linguistic paradise at the end.

During the week, though, my confidence in speaking French did improve.

The teachers were professional, although it was hard to keep up with the other students. Perhaps it would be better had the school made it more explicit in its advertising that I would be taking part for just a week of what was a longer course.

The other students were great fun. Being on average about 12 years younger probably made them more receptive.

Given the time all over again, I would deny my ego its freedom and enrol in a more basic class. I would also have to read up on vocabulary and grammar, to speed up my "progress".

The course was good, but I went in blind as to what was involved.

I still don't really understand the subjunctive, but I'll fight to the grave for my right not to prefer artificial breasts.

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