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On board avec le French lesson

Paddy O'Connell
Right. We're off. Have you got everything? Tickets? Money? Passport? Have you forgotten anything... Like all the French you ever knew? Paddy O'Connell boarded a ferry where you can get some last minute cramming thanks to an onboard language class.

You're on a ferry. You've paced the deck. You've perched near the bow shouting "I'm King of The World". You've poked around in the duty free, and peeked at the food in the café.

Ferry
Allons-y!
Great, only four hours left.

Ferry passengers divide into several different groups. There are the regulars, the truckers and the calm self-contained types who look comfortable and at ease with a book and a drink. There are even those who seem to know exactly where to sit to avoid the crowds. Then there are the nervous and the bored, wondering how on earth can they ever make it for another four hours.

Now a Frenchwoman living in England thinks she has the answer: language classes on board.

"Remember, you know far more French than you think you do," says Babette Kundrat of travel firm Cosmofil. "You don't need perfect French to communicate."

Babette Kundrat
Babette Kundrat: 'You know more than you think.'
I watched as Babette toured the café, offering leaflets to British families heading from Newhaven to Dieppe. It was seven in the morning, so how on earth would people react to being approached and asked about their language skills. "We're doing 50-minute classes today. Will you join us upstairs to top up your French?"

For some passengers this idea was clearly horrific. It wasn't a top-up they needed, it was a transfusion. They might just have been passed a message to evacuate.

Trevor was making his first ever trip to France with his family. He said the population weren't ready for him. "I shall shout at them... in English, and hope that someone gets me out of the hole I've dug for myself."

Most greeted Babette with a laugh and a frank admission they were rubbish at French. "I know baguette, s'il vous plait, vin blanc, and merci," said Jackie who travels four times a year to France. "It's a great idea, and I might join you."

She didn't.

"Sometimes, I have no-one at all, but other times, my table is nearly full." Babette has not lost heart, and tells me with real excitement of a British builder with a house in France. He's been travelling there for four years but came to learn his first French at her floating class. "He told me it had broken the spell and given him confidence."

La famille en vacances
This is not a class for people who have great French skills, it is for the under-confident or the Brit with no French at all. On the journey I made, three generations of two families filled her class, with one other lady. It was a record for Babette. She held up photos asking for the name in French for tomatoes, and wine, and gave a role-playing class asking us all to order in French at a restaurant. There was a lot of hilarity, and the ten year old and the two teenagers agreed it had all been fun, despite their worst fears.

Babette's tips are:

  • Think of all the French you already know: most words ending in tion, ist, and able are the same in French
  • Don't be shy, you don't need perfect French to communicate
  • A smile goes a long way
  • If you can't find a word, mime it or draw it

I noticed something else too. The two ladies who spoke the best French in the class were the ones who appeared the quietest at first. One confided in me that she takes adult language classes, but that some in her group are better than her. She seemed to me to shine amid the family's laughs and confusions.

The English language can get you a long way in life, it can certainly get you to France. But for many heading across the channel, that might not be enough. Babette also tells me of great confusion when she holds up photos of French road signs. But that's another story.

Paddy O'Connell presents Broadcasting House on BBC Radio Four on Sundays at 9am.


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