Prêt à parler! Back to school en français

Is it the bilingual advantage hoopla, or simply the seductive sound of French vowels and intonation? Or a fervent desire, when visiting Paris or Bordeaux, or Brittany, not to be the misunderstood American? No matter the motive, we adults are headed back to school to study our language of choice, or to study other subjects – but en français. Or, to study anything – but in Paris.

I’m one of those seduced by the mere sound (not to mention influenced by a French teacher in my family). My pal, Theasa Tuohy, a journalist turned novelist, finally tired of miming “Can I borrow 150 grams of sugar?” to the lady in the house down the road from hers in the countryside somewhere near Montpellier. Theasa and I both could find our way blindfolded to the French Institute Alliance Française from anywhere in Manhattan, and we don’t bother counting how many hours we’ve spent in the FIAF classrooms, in the thrall of our native speaker profs.

My latest FIAF prof, Normandy-born Loïc Thommeret – an 18th century French literature specialist with a masters from the Sorbonne, a PhD from the University of California at Davis, college-level experience teaching French lit., and two books of lit. crit. to his credit – might be a tad overqualified to teach me grammar. Even the advanced (Level C1/C2) grammar I swore to master this summer. Editor of the critical text of a unique slave novel, Aza, ou le Nègre, written during the French revolution, Loïc is happy teaching at “the most important Alliance” in the U.S. Even teaching nuts and bolts, en français.

No such nuts and bolts for Theasa this summer. Poised to promote her fall 2012 novel, The Five O’Clock Follies, about a truth-obsessed war correspondent, now she’d devote a week to focusing on her next project. Creative writing workshops dot the globe, and she has frequented several – so why the Paris Writers Workshop ? “Because it’s in Paris.” Ah, oui! P.W.W. convened this June, for the twenty-second time, on the American University in Paris campus.


The weeklong master class accepts 12 writers in each of five genres, no writing sample required!

All 12 manuscripts were “pretty professional,” and each 20-page draft got thoroughly analyzed: P.W.W. “lived up to its reputation for excellent teachers.”

Samantha Kleinfeld, 25, (r.) majors in International Security in a two-year Masters program at Sciences Po, Paris.
Samantha Kleinfeld, 25, (r.) majors in International Security in a two-year Masters program at Sciences Po, Paris.

Excellent student, Courtney Nelson (3.8 average at McGill, in Quebec) is decompressing at home now in Milwaukee, after a hectic summer stint here, as an investment banking analyst. Soon enough, she’ll head back to Canada for her senior year on the English-speaking McGill campus. Of course, compared to the two junior semesters she spent at the University at Edinburgh, and then at Sciences Po (L’institut d’études politiques) in Paris – maybe she’s in for a bit of an anticlimax? I’d visited Courtney, age 20, in April, at the apartment she shared with a roommate in the trendy eleventh arrondissement. Half her classes at Sciences Po were in French, the rest in English; her exams in history, economics and philosophy usually took the form of papers. In her leisure time (already having done the Eiffel Tower, etc., on past family jaunts) now she was free to “live independently in Paris,” and, speaking good French, to explore un-touristy markets such as Vanves, savor picnic dinners by the Seine, and enjoy just going to and from the beautiful St. Germain quartier, to classes at the prestigious Sciences Po.

First published 2012 on FrenchCultureGuide

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