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Miriam: 26 week French Gap Year Course

26 weeks in Montpellier
French Gap Year Course

After volunteering and trekking in Nepal for the first part of my gap year, I studied French in Montpellier for 26 weeks.  I would highly recommend this as a way of keeping your brain alive for university studies whilst gaining a valuable life skill and having great fun at the same time.

I took Maths and Science at A level with the aim to study Physics at university, so I had not thought about languages for 2 years.  The staff at CESA were really helpful in enabling me to find the right course and location.  They answered endless questions by ‘phone and e-mail and nothing was too much trouble.  I knew I wanted to go to the south of France because my aunt is from Nimes – the French language school in Montpellier seemed a good choice because it was possible to stay for an extended period and to take exams at the end if I wished.

Despite an A* at GCSE, I soon discovered this was not very useful.  I started at the beginner level at the college and I learned more French in the first month than I had learned in all of my school French classes.  By the end of my stay, I had passed DELF B2 with plenty of marks to spare (69.5/100), and made further progress by reaching the advanced level 2 class (approaching DALF C1 level).

The French teachers are all fantastic and make learning French fun whilst making sure you understand everything.  I had planned to take the standard course: 3 hours each morning of grammar, vocabulary and language exercises.  I soon discovered that it was preferable to take the intensive course where, for three days of the week, 2 ½ hours in the afternoon were added for practising what I had learnt in the morning, focusing on oral communication.  Without this, my progress would have been much slower.  I found the afternoon classes aided my learning in the morning classes and, far from being “intensive”, were actually more relaxed and included games, TV programmes and role playing.

I found the excursions an enjoyable way to practise my French and to meet other students.  My favourite excursions were the nights out to various restaurants, especially Moules Frites and Crepes!  I also visited local sites of historic interest and rode a Camargue pony around the marshes to see the famous flamingos. I met students from all over the world so that I now have friends in USA, Canada, Columbia, Switzerland, Holland, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Australia, Japan, Vietnam and Zambia.

When new students arrive at the college, they are assigned to the class on the basis of a one hour written test. In most cases this works well, but sometimes students found that their written work was a lot better/worse than their oral communication.

One tip I would give all students is that if you ever feel you have been put in the wrong level, that the class is not right for you or it is time you moved up a level, you just have to tell someone at reception and they will do their best to find a suitable solution for you.  There is no formal evaluation after the first day so you do not have to wait to be told to move class or allow yourself to be moved up if you do not feel ready.  Some students did not realise that the college expected them to be in charge of their learning and to let the senior staff know what they wished to do.

I stayed in a host family for all of my stay.  I liked having a host family to help me when I was more of a beginner.  My host mother would make me ask for things so that I would learn, and practice vocabulary and pronunciation.  One night she didn’t give me a spoon for my yoghurt and she said, jokingly, “Tu dois me demander de t’en donner une, sinon tu ne peux pas le manger!” (You have to ask me for one otherwise you won’t be able to eat it) I replied “Est-ce que je peux avoir un… ce n’est pas une forchette, ce n’est pas un couteau, c’est l’autre truc…argh! j’ai oublié le nom.” (Can I have a… it’s not a fork, it’s not a knife, it’s the other thing… argh! I’ve forgotten the name) “Une cuillère, une cuillère!!” (A spoon, a spoon!!) she shouted and I have never forgotten it since!!

Towards the end of my stay, as I became more confident in French, I found that being in a host family somewhat limited my options. Whilst friends would be going out to the cinema, having decided at the last minute, I would have to go home for dinner.  However, I believe that if I had stayed in a residence from the beginning, I would not have made as much progress.  In a host family you are surrounded by French and it is impossible not to speak French, but I found that in the residences the main language spoken was English due to the large number of students with lower levels of French who found it hard to communicate in French outside of school.  Sometimes students who could speak enough French to communicate would immediately switch to English outside of school.  Occasionally this would annoy me so much that, when asked who I was and where I was from in English, I would answer in Welsh (which caused great amusement to those who already knew me!!)

If you do decided to stay in a residence, make sure you are able to cook with French ingredients – I saw some very odd meals being eaten!

Montpellier has the largest student population of any town in France so there are plenty of things to do (cinema, sports, bars, clubs…).  However, it can be difficult to make friends with the French students, because there was no obvious meeting place or contact persons.  At the beginning, when I was not very confident of my French, it would have been useful for the college to have provided more of an introduction, for example, to sports clubs or student societies rather than just a list of telephone numbers which were not very useful at the level of French that I then had.  As a girl, I could not meet local people in the bars as some of my male fellow students were able to do.  Later in my stay, I was able to find a local church with a student group where I could meet and talk with local people in a safe environment. This was great fun and one of the best ways to improve my French, so that I learned to speak as the local people did, rather than just as a foreign student.

Montpellier is on the main TGV line which makes visiting other amazing places very simple.  I went to Avignon, Carcassonne, Nimes, Marseille and Barcelona, as well as taking part in trips organised by the school.  More locally, it is easy to hire bikes to get to the beach.  The weather is usually sunny but often windy, which can make it surprisingly cold in winter and spring.  In summer, it gets very hot outside and the thunderstorms are short but spectacular.

I really enjoyed my stay in Montpellier and I would definitely recommend the college to all ages.  I hope to return to France and to take DALF C1.  I have applied to take Advanced French as my optional unit at university and look forward to learning another language in the future, something I would never have dreamed of doing before going to college in Montpellier.