The time I spent learning a new language in Nice, France was one of the most valuable experiences of my life. Not only did I expand my cognitive, cultural, and social perspective; I learned something very sacred about being successful in life.
I chose to study French because I had already taken three years in high school (which I soon learned equated to about one week of immersion in France). I found a great little boutique school on the internet that had locations in both Paris and Nice. I chose Nice because it was warmer and, from what I heard, more laid back.
Nice is the fifth largest city in France, located in the south on the French Riviera just up the coast from Italy. The city is absolutely gorgeous and the people are very warm. The beach is the centerpiece of the city with a boardwalk that stretches for miles. Although beautiful, the beach isn’t soft and sandy as most people are used to. It’s actually comprised of rounded pebbles, so make sure to bring your sandals if you go.
The name of the school I went to and highly recommend is called L’Institut D’Enseignement Actif. Check it out after you read this article and be sure to tell them that Brian from Austin sent you. I don’t get any sort of commission, but sometimes they cut me a deal if I refer enough people.
The reason I like this school is because it is very small, personal, and noncommercial. French is the only subject they teach, so the atmosphere is very conducive to language immersion and getting to know the teachers and other students.
It is also great because you can come and go as you please with new classes starting every week. There is a place for people at all levels, including complete beginners, and you advance to higher levels at your own pace.
One warning though: there is very little English spoken at the school, but don’t panic! If you don’t speak a word, you will be doing a lot of repeating after the teacher as he or she points to things. After a week or two of that, it will all start to click.
Big Tip #1
Here’s a secret that ranks second only to the main secret of this article: arrange your tuition and lodging through the school instead of a broker. It will save you a TON of money.
In fact, the last time I checked, a week at the school including lodging in an apartment is only about 300 euro per week, which translates into roughly 400 US dollars. The best time to go is in the winter when the rates are lower and it is much less crowded.
You would be hard pressed to find a budget hotel in the middle of nowhere to put you up for less than sixty dollars a day, let alone in a fantastic city abroad with a language school attached.
Most of the apartments I have seen are pretty impressive and right in the middle of the action. You have the option of having a roommate, to save some money, or living with a family to completely immerse yourself. Plus, if you commit to staying for a longer period of time, you can even get the cost down to about 250 euro per week.
You could realistically squeak by, living in Nice and going to school for about 2000 dollars a month including food and entertainment. You could live pretty well for about 3000. What does it cost you to live right now? I’ll bet it costs more than that.
The point I am trying to make is that living in a foreign country to learn a language is very do-able. Although I am only familiar with Nice, I’m sure these types of schools exist all over. It is obviously easier if you are young and lack obligations like a family and a mortgage. If you don’t have any money, get creative! Rent out your home for the summer and get a job while you are abroad to help with the expenses.
Learning the Language
I am so passionate about learning a second language, especially the way I was lucky enough to do it, that I could probably write a whole book about it. For now, I’ll just tell you as much as I can fit into this computer screen.
There are a million different ways to try and learn a language in the comfort of your own country including classes, tapes, CDs, and computer programs; but I have found that most are a waste of time compared to the quality and speed of learning a language by immersion. Instead of taking that two week cruise to the Bahamas, you could easily go to school in Nice for the same price (if not less) and learn more than you would in a year in front of your computer at home with some overpriced language system.
Tip #2: Learn to “Hear” the Language
The first difference I noticed by actually living in France was my ability to “hear” the language. When you are constantly bombarded by a new way of speaking, you start to get used to the tempo, rhythm, and liaisons between words that make up the local language. Since most classes and tapes have been dumbed down for non-speakers, most of these intangibles are lost.
For example, when you try to learn a language at home, you learn individual words and then put them together into a sentence. The problem is that if you heard a native speaker reciting the same sentence in their homeland, you would hardly recognize it. This is because cultures have their own way of mashing words together and using non-verbal forms of communication like voice inflection. These are far more important than vocabulary when learning a new language.
This became apparent to me in my third week in Nice. I had advanced to the first intermediate class just as a group of Americans arrived at the school. Since they started with more French knowledge than I did, they got to start out in the intermediate class.
I could tell that their French vocabulary was much better than mine, even after two weeks of immersion. The interesting thing was that I could understand the instructor and the French in general much better than they could.
Even though they knew more of the words that were being spoken, I could hear the words while they could not. They had spent all of their time learning vocabulary from flash cards while I had been in Nice learning to hear.
Once you learn to hear the language, the vocabulary starts to stick. I would recommend focusing on listening soon after you learn some basic vocabulary. Not only is it more effective, it’s much less boring! No one enjoys memorizing flash cards. Your brain is much less receptive when it is not having fun.
Tip #3: Avoid People Who Speak Your Native Tongue Like the Plague
The first time I went to Nice, I made the fatal mistake of hanging out after school with people who spoke English. This is extremely difficult to avoid, especially if you have a travel partner. The truth is, it’s a lot more fun to crack jokes in your native tongue than it is to stumble all over French until the moment has passed.
When I returned home, I took a proficiency test that would have given me a promotion at the job I had. Because I had been undisciplined, I failed miserably. I promptly started saving for my next trip. This time I was determined to do it right.
If you think that you and your best friend can go live in Nice for a month together without speaking English, you are unfortunately mistaken. While that would be a great vacation, what you gain in companionship, you loose in language ability. If you are serious about truly learning you have to take the leap on your own, at least at first.
Tip #4: Live With a Family
If you have decided to commit yourself to avoiding your native tongue and face the prospect of lonely weeks ahead, living with a host family can be an emotional lifesaver. Your new parents, brothers, and sisters can help you feel at home during a very challenging time.
The main interaction with your new family will most likely be during dinner. You’ll learn how to say things like “pass the potatoes” and “gee, this is good.” More importantly, you’ll get a glimpse of local culture from the inside. It can be quite an eye opening experience when you realize that there are other ways of doing things than what you are used to.
Tip #5: Listen to Children’s Books on CD
When I first went to France, I brought a huge stack of vocabulary flashcards that I had spent hours creating. I tortured myself by flipping through them every night before I went to bed. After a few days, I gave up. I went to a bookstore called FNAC to try and find another way.
What I discovered completely changed my learning experience. Realizing that I had no chance of reading adult books, I started browsing the children’s section. When I came across a whole row of children’s books on CD, it hit me: this was the answer I had been looking for!
I bought two CDs: Le Petit Prince and Le Petit Nicolas. These books not only made learning fast and fun; I loved the stories and still listen to them from time to time!
When you try this technique, check the suggested reader’s age on the back of the book. It is best to start with the youngest age possible to get your feet wet. I started with “Le Petit Nicolas” because it was recommended for six year olds.
It is important to have the hard copy of the book along with the CD so that you can eventually translate the words you don’t understand; but it is best to start just by listening.
I attacked the books one chapter at a time. I would force myself to listen to the story at least three times before opening the book. This is important because it trained my brain to “hear” it first. At this point I would have only a vague idea of what was going on.
After three attempts, I tried reading the chapter. This helped to clear up a few things, but most of the words would still be a mystery. Then, I would pull out my dictionary and write the translation in English next to every word I had trouble with.
Now that I had a pretty good idea of what was going on, I would listen to it again and try to “hear” the words I had just learned. This process takes several hours for each chapter, but there is a real sense of accomplishment when you finally understand.
I found myself getting emotionally invested in the story. I couldn’t wait to figure out what happened next to my new friends in the book. I was having more fun than a six year old.
It was so exciting to walk around Nice the next day and hear some of the new phrases that I was learning. When I recognized something, I would immediately be reminded of the character’s voice and the context of the story. You could never get this kind of associative learning from flashcards. The emotional connection I made with these stories has stuck with me to this day.
The Big Secret
The most important thing I learned in Nice was not a technique or trick to learn French faster. What I learned gave me a huge boost of confidence and security that I carry with me today.
I have been to Nice on several occasions for months at a time. Because of the very open system that allows people to come and go as they please, I have met many people from around the world who traveled to Nice for the same reason that I did. I have witnessed people who have picked up the language in a matter of weeks, and those who never got it, even after months of trying.
What was the difference? One explanation is that some people just have a stronger “language muscle” in their brains than others. While I agree that this may be the case, I think that there is a more important factor that allows a person to access this muscle in the first place.
Language and Acting
The challenges that people face when learning a language are similar to the challenges an actor faces. Self-consciousness is an actor’s nemesis. As an actor becomes aware of what others think of him, he starts to close the door to the place where his performance is coming from.
The same is true when you are learning a language. Going into the unfamiliar territory of a new language can be very embarrassing. You have to make sounds and move your mouth in a way that may seem very silly in the place that you come from. If your friends back home saw you, they would probably laugh at you.
To make things worse, you have to overcome the fear of sounding stupid to the locals. It can be very humiliating to hold up the line at the post office because you can’t get your point across. The process will test your emotional toughness.
Most people can’t handle the pressure. The second they feel embarrassed, they close up and resort to what is comfortable: their own language. Because they don’t want to sound “stupid” they don’t make the appropriate sounds and vocal movements needed in their new language. The result is a bad mix of new words in their old accent.
To really “get it” you have to put yourself out there. You have to take the risk that you might look stupid and just go for it. Nothing worth having in life is easy.
The concept is subtle, but believe me when I tell you that few people have the emotional strength to put themselves out there. In order to develop this kind of strength, it is necessary to work on yourself until you can get your security from within. When you no longer rely on other people for assurance, and instead walk proud no matter what anyone thinks; then you will be ready to learn a language at a really high level.
In my opinion, if you are preparing to go abroad to learn a language, instead of cramming your brain with language classes, CDs, and books, I believe you would be better served to study personal development first and learn to center yourself before you go abroad.
A Priceless Experience
After my initial failure, I resolved to return to Nice and do it right. Although I was often tempted to make friends with the cool kids who laughed together between classes and hung out at the English bars, I stood my ground and stuck to French.
Slowly, I met a few other like-minded people. We formed a small group of friends from different countries who all shared a strong desire to learn. We shared picnics on the beach and walks through town, trying to have an authentic Niçoise experience. It may have taken a little longer for our jokes to get to the punchline, but we had patience and empathy for each other.
My time in Nice produced memories of some really great times as well as some tough ones. I feel a part of a place that I had only dreamed of as a kid. I have a new appreciation for different cultures as well as a renewed appreciation for my own. Not only do I feel more a part of the world, but I also feel more a part of my place in the world.
Most importantly, I grew in a way that helps me in every aspect of my life to this day: I learned to be secure with myself. The simple decision to commit myself to learning a language changed my life forever. Oh yeah, and I passed the test.