I took Spanish classes in high school and college and wouldn’t say I was fluent, but I was comfortable and even spent a summer as a nanny in Madrid, Spain. I enjoyed the challenge of trying to speak, understand and write Spanish, but decided that I wanted to branch out and try a new language. French had always sounded foreign and like it was filled with weird twists of the tongue and slightly nasally ewwws. Why not try it?! Plus, it was all about romance. 😉
Starting French Lessons in Austin
I started my French education with a weekly evening French Beginner Level 1 class at the Alliance Francaise in Austin. On Wednesday evenings for about six weeks, I’d sit in a classroom with four other students and we’d practice introducing ourselves, counting to 10 and asking about the weather.
After our class was over, we’d all go home and not practice again for another week. The teacher was excellent and it was great having a small classroom, but I didn’t feel like 2 hours per week would ever get me anywhere. Ha! So, to keep my practice going through the week, I downloaded the Duolingo app and started doing their free lessons, which included matching words, speaking into my phone microphone and more. Every little bit helped.
Dreaming of Learning French Abroad
During the day, I was working in marketing at a local engineering office and sat next to my boss. She was (is!) adventurous and had recently returned from walking the Camino de Santiago in Spain. I loved hearing her stories about the journey, the people she met and the sights she saw. Her world view had been expanded, yet life had also been simplified at the same time. These little conversations stirred some excitement in me and I started thinking about trying to learn French in the best place to learn…France!
I’d just turned 30 and was in a serious relationship with Jason, but we weren’t married yet and there we no kids or big debts to pay off. It seemed like the time was right and that I had to carpe diem! In hindsight, quitting my job to go backpack (read more about backpacking here) and live in France probably wasn’t the most responsible professional decision, but I can honestly say that I have never regretted it. Living abroad by myself and trying to learn the language was uncomfortable, thrilling, eye-opening and made me realize what a great life I’d left behind in Texas. Anyway, enough mushiness, and back to the adventure.
Making the French Language Adventure Happen
One night after work at the engineering office, I thought, “Hmm, I’m just going to google, ‘best French language schools in France,’ and maybe check out some websites and read some forums. Harmless.” Then, a couple of hours later, I’d decided that, yes, I did want to attend one of the language schools – I just had to decide between Montpellier or Tours. That escalated quickly!
I chose the ILA Language Program in Montpellier because it was slightly less expensive and was near the coast. I was envisioning summer sunsets on the Mediterranean with my French friends, drinking rose and having fluent conversations lol. Plus, I read good reviews on Expat forums and ILA’s Facebook page.
I signed up for a 4-week long intensive program that lasted for the month of September. I’d be going to class M-F from 9am-12pm and there’d be group activities organized in the evenings and on the weekends. The school tuition would be about $400 for a month and I could also pay about $500 and rent a room from an “authentic French family” to keep practicing my skills outside of the classroom. So, $900 to spend a month in France, learning French? That was about half the cost of my life in Austin. I was sold and put a deposit down.
French Immersion Drama in Montpellier
I arrived in Montpellier from Avignon via train and hauled my bags to the host family’s house. This is when things got a bit surprising! It was not actually a family, but a single woman and her cat living in a compact apartment. I was shown to my little room and closet and the bathroom that we were to share together, but I couldn’t keep stuff in there. It was awkward. The twin bed was actually a foldout couch and would flop around when I moved at night. I was expecting an actual family or other students to be there. I felt like I was in her space and that just making coffee or using the toaster would be an inconvenience. It might have all been in my head, but I was used to living on my own and couldn’t relax. And, just when I moved in, a heat wave hit Montpellier and the nights were hot and stuffy, magnified without a fan or AC. I wasn’t sleeping much and decided that I didn’t want to spend my precious France time dreading going home and sweating through the night.
I asked the ILA staff if I could get a refund for a remainder of the month. I said I was just hot and uncomfortable and was going to rent an Airbnb studio with AC. They said no problem. Whew, crisis averted…or so I thought. I gleefully walked back to my host’s apartment, happy that I’d be moving out. I stopped by the grocery store and bought her a bouquet of flowers as a token of my appreciation and apology. As I stuck my key into the lock and opened the door, I was immediately met with her glare as she stood in the kitchen. I froze and got sick to my stomach. The school must have called her and she was pissed.
She waved for me to come to her computer and she pulled open Google Translate and started furiously tapping into the French->English box. She said, “I’m so angry with you. you move out because it’s hot? I will buy you a fan! I do not understand you. Crazy American.” Then it was my turn and I typed into the English->French translate box, “I’m so sorry, but I just changed my mind. I don’t mean to hurt your feelings. Thank you for hosting me for a few nights. I’m going to rent a space with air conditioning. I bought you some flowers to say thank you.” Then she wrote, “I don’t want your flowers. Take them with you when you leave.” Wow, I was in shock. I really didn’t think I’d done anything that horrendous. I packed up my stuff and quickly rented a hotel room for the night and brought the flowers to my French teacher. I felt shameful and spoke to my classmates about the situation. They confirmed that I wasn’t crazy and even shared some of their own horror stories: one host mom wouldn’t share the wifi password, one host family wouldn’t let the guest use the kitchen during normal hours, one host brought home strange men every night, one host couple made the guest feel bad because she was vegetarian. The stories went on and on. I wasn’t alone in this weirdness!
I found a tiny studio on Airbnb with air conditioning and it wasn’t that much more per night. I think I ended up paying $700 for a month, versus the $500 for staying with the French host. It was so worth it! Free use of the kitchen, AC, coming and going without checking in. I could relax.
After sorting out my lodging, I could really focus on learning French and the program. My instructor, Claire, was a spunky French woman with spiked blonde hair and tattoos. She wore platform shoes every day and hauled her wheely backpack down the cobblestone streets. She always liked to say, “J’aime faire du sport.” I like to do sport. I think she was trying to say “I like to workout.” She was patient and helpful and wanted us all to do well. My classmates included a gal from Cambridge in England, a retired Irish couple, a young German man whose engineering company paid for him to attend, and two older men from Austria and Denmark. We were all such beginners with bad accents and we had fun laughing at ourselves. We’d meet up for meals or drinks outside of the classroom. I grew close to a gal from Wales and the Cambridge gal and we took weekend trips together, like going to Lyon.
I also met a French gal, Eve, who actually attended the university in Montpellier, and she invited me out to the local bars and music club a few times. Our conversations were a little awkward since we were both beginners in the other’s language, but we tried.
If I were to do it again, I think I’d sign up for a class in the afternoon too and have a full day of French. I also think I’d attend a school in Tours in the Loire Valley. If you read my blog about the Loire Valley, you probably saw that it was so green and lush and even a little chilly. Refreshing.
What I Liked About the ILA-Montpellier Program:
- The teacher was excellent and I think she spoke 5-10 English words max.
- The staff was really helpful in making sure all of my questions were answered and I was satisfied with the experience.
- I felt like I learned a TON and left with a much better understanding of the language.
- There was homework, but it wasn’t too much and very doable.
- There were regular activities organized, like a walking tour of Montpellier or dinner nights, and they took day trips on the weekends.
- I met wonderful people from Wales, England, Ireland, Germany, and even North Carolina.
- It was affordable, in comparison to the per hour rate at Alliance Francaise, and the lessons were much faster and interactive.
What I Didn’t Like About the ILA-Montpellier Program:
- I didn’t feel like the “host family” program was very transparent. Had I known that I’d be staying with just one person in their house, I would have chosen a different option.
- I wish I’d better understood the school options. For example, I didn’t know that I could take as little as one week of classes or that I could double up and take a morning session and an afternoon session.
What I Wish I’d Known Overall:
- There were afternoon cooking classes, taught in only French, to give you some hands-on learning.
- The majority of other students were either very young (18-21) or quite a bit older than me (50-70). I made friends regardless, but it would have been fun to have someone there who was in their early 30s and was in about the same stage of life.
- Montpellier is freaking hot in the summer and not many places have AC.
- Montpellier is pretty small and definitely a college town…with limited access to outdoor stuff (or only with a car).
- The Montpellier beach is not the Mediterranean. Haha.
- Montpellier is in the poorest region in France and I was often catcalled walking down the sidewalk, but I had no idea what they were saying and that was kind of scary. Also, theft was a problem in the area and our French teacher said to always keep our windows closed (even in the heat) because thieves were known to climb building walls and break into your apartment.
Thanks for reading! If you have any questions about my experience, please feel free to comment or message me. I recommend the experience!