lundi 5 mars 2012

Learning French: Immersion Programmes

I have to admit first up that I am a huge fan of immersion programmes for learning a foreign language.  I don't have scientific evidence of their success compared to other methods of learning. Having completed 5 linguistic stays in France metropole and one in New Caledonia I have learnt lots about the French language and culture as well as improving my speaking, listening and writing of French. On top of this I had lots of fun, saw and experienced wonderful things and made lots of new friends.  I have lost much of my nervousness when speaking the language. These things may well have happened without travelling and undertaking immersion courses. I suspect not in my case.

In Judy MacMahon's article Continuing to Learn French Camille Chevalier-Karfis of French Today discusses not only the benefits but also the disadvantages of immersion programmes. It is a sad reality of life that there are scams as well as programmes of dubious quality. I cannot stress enough the importance of thoroughly researching an immersion programme before commiting to it. It should not only be of an adequate standard but needs to suit you and your specific requirements.
Students from Alliance française de Rouen
Selecting an immersion programme:
There is nothing better than a personal recommendation for an immersion programme, especially when it comes from a friend with a similar language ability and interests. This is not always possible so therefore in addition to ensuring that the programme is legitimate, my criteria are:

  • Location: The size of the town tends to influence how busy the locals are and their perserverance in communicating with me in French.  The timing of the programme will also influence how willing the locals are to make the effort to speak to someone learning the language. As Camille says in Thoughts on Going to France to Practice your French, consider going at off-peak times. She also provides a number of other useful tips. On the other hand the town needs to be big enough that there are plenty of cultural activities. I also look for a location which is easily accessible by train so that I can venture further afield independently without needing to hire a vehicle.
  • Homestay option: This is a crucial element of the programme for me. It is just as important for my learning as the classes I attend. How are the families selected? Is there a 'no fault' arrangement where if things don't work out between the family and the student that the school will assist with finding alternative accommodation?  Is there someone who has responsibililty for coordinating the placement of students?  I attended one language school where all admin staff were involved but there was no one person responsible to speak to if there was a problem.
  • Responsiveness to enquiries: I have sent repeat emails to some locations and never had a response back. I prefer timely and comprehensive responses. 
  • Additional activities and classes: Does the school offer excursions and visits in French? Are there some social activities offered?  What language or cultural workshops are offered?
  • Class sizes and levels: What is the maximum and minimum number of students per class? How many levels are expected to be offered when you are planning to attend. Eight levels may be offered in summer but there may be considerably less in the middle of winter. Is it expected that there will be a class run at my level? Most language schools in France use the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages. If you are unsure of your current level of language proficiency, a good starting point is the Test de Charlotte offered by the CNED (Centre National d'Enseignement à Distance) which will indicate your level. You can self-examine online for this, free of charge and the test will take about 45 minutes. How are students assessed and placed in classes? How is progression monitored?
  • Age range of students: I admit to being ageist. I am middle-aged but I don't want to be in a class where there are only 'seniors'. I find the enthusiasm and confidence of students in their twenties infectious and have found that my rate of learning increases when surrounded by them. I am generally less enamoured with those in their teens.  
  • Class times: My preference is to have classes only in the mornings with optional activities in the afternoon. I have found that in the first few weeks of an immersion programme I am brain dead by lunch time. Having the flexibililty to later pick up extra afternoon workshops or classes is invaluable.
  • Payment arrangements: I was nearly not going to include this. If the school is legitimate then the payment arrangements are usually fair and reasonable. I can't define what is fair and reasonable. I would however be wary if students are asked to prepay all in advance.  

I have not included a criteria for teaching staff as I have yet to find a practical way of assessing the school this way.
View from CREIPAC in Noumeea
There are a number of search engines for locating language schools and some of them are included in Isabel Eva Bohrer's Intelligent Travel article: The Key to Cultural Immersion– Learn the Language! – Intelligent Travel.

The Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs, the Ministry of Higher Education and Research and the Ministry of Culture and Communication jointly awards the Qualité français langue étrangère label to French as a Foreign Language centres that meet their guidelines. Their website allows you to search for centres that they have accredited. Whilst the standard of these centres undoubtably would be very high it does not mean that centres that are not accredited don't also offer equally high standard programmes. I will post about my wonderful experiences at the Alliance française de Rouen where I have done 3 linguistic stays and for whom I also worked as a volunteer for a number of years. I have already written about my experiences at the Centre de Rencontres et d'Echanges Internationaux du Pacifique (CREIPAC) in Noumea: Learn French in New Caledonia - August 2012

Finally, I stress the importance of carefully researching whichever centre you choose to ensure its legitimacy as well as to ensure it is a good 'fit' for you and your learning objectives.

2 commentaires:

  1. I am so glad I have found your blog! I am from Brisbane and looking at doing an intensive French course this year and had started looking but was overwhelmed with what was out there. Your suggestion about the Rouen AF looks perfect and being a student of AF in Brisbane it just feels right.

    Would it be possible if I can contact you about some of the finer details as I get closer to arranging everything? Tips and tricks to consider type of things?

    1. Bonjour Wayne. I would be more than happy for you to contact me. If you submit a comment with your email address in the text I will email you (and definitely NOT publish your comment with your address). This will save either of us getting spammed.


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