August 2003 issue

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Welcoming France

With different regions each offering students a unique experience, a study trip to France promises to be truly memorable. Bethan Norris finds out what makes language students return year after year.

Language students wanting to truly immerse themselves in the French local culture should look no further than the Loire Valley, says Philippe Minereau, Director of Studies at Elit language school in Loches. 'The Loire Valley is well reputed for being the place where you speak [a pure form of] French,' he says, pointing out that the local people are only too willing to help students practise their language skills.

'[We play] a game where students have to come back to school with pre-selected things,' Minereau explains. 'Last year, they came back with a local barman [and] a lady with a specific dog! Local people are willing to participate and they always appreciate our students [who return to the school] every year.'

Practising the language with French speakers outside of the classroom is one of the reasons why students travel to another country to learn a language, and Régis Gendre, from Carel language school in Royan, on the west coast of France, concurs that there are plenty of opportunities for students to mix with local people. 'All our courses are with French adults learning other languages at the same time, and there is a real family atmosphere [at the school],' he asserts.

Carel organises excursions for students to visit local areas of interest, including the nearby town of La Rochelle, a '17th century military arsenal with a splendid Renaissance town hall, picturesque harbour [and a] famous aquarium', according to Gendre. Other popular activities in the area include kite surfing, wind cart competitions, sailing and visits to Futuroscope, a giant science theme park displaying the latest advances in film, video and the Internet.

Students can also make friends with local people who often offer new experiences. A highlight for one student at the school, according to Gendre, was, 'joining a fisherman on his boat and going out fishing for the day, and then sharing a meal of oysters and white wine with him'.

Inland, in the Loire Valley, language schools are also keen to introduce the area's charms to their students. Marie-Claude Moyer, from Eurocentres in Amboise, says that the school offers tours to the nearby chateaux of Chenonceau and Chambourd - 'the best known castle of the Loire Valley', and adds, 'Students like to visit some castles and vineyards and at night to meet at the Shaker, the bar where [they] go to get huge cocktails beside the [river] Loire.'

In the summer, students can go canoeing on the river, while in winter, wine tasting and pastry cooking are offered as extra-curricular activities. Moyer also points out another attraction of the school's location. 'Mick Jagger has his castle in Amboise and sometimes his Ferrari is parked near the school,' she says.

Lille, in the north of France, is another area popular with students, mainly due to the fact that the city is one of France's largest university towns. 'Inexpensive student-centred restaurants, pedestrian malls and large cafés and pubs provide the backdrop to great evening fun,' says Susan MacGregor at the Université Catholique de Lille. In their free time, students can go on weekend trips to Paris or a tour of the champagne region of Reims, which 'provide a wonderful experience for foreign students', says MacGregor.

A quintessential experience while in France is sampling the local cuisine, which varies from region to region. In the south, the Centre International des Langues in Manosque incorporates the gastronomic attractions of the Provence area into its courses. '[There is the] 'Truffle Festival' [programme] in February, 'Cheese, Olives and Wine' in May and the 'Taste of Autumn' in October,' relates Renée Mathieu-Rouvier at the school. These week-long courses involve meeting and talking to local producers of foods as well as tasting the produce.

The school also arranges excursions for its students to visit the lavender fields of Provence in June and July, when the lavender is in flower. Lavender oil has been produced in Provence since the 16th century, when it was used by the local people to heal wounds. Today, it is cultivated commercially for use in perfume, soap and, when dried, for cooking.

Students studying in Provence are within reach of the beautiful beaches and coastline of the Côte d'Azur, which is a popular haunt of celebrities and has a reputation for a lively nightlife. William Rubinstein, from International House in Nice, points out that this is not all the area has to offer. 'Most people associate Nice with its beaches and nightlife, however, many are not aware that after Paris, Nice has the highest number of museums,' he says.

Rubinstein adds that the area's mild climate makes it popular with language students and Nice's location provides opportunities for numerous activities outside the classroom. 'It takes only 90 minutes to go [to] a ski field, which gives you enough time to return to Nice and have a swim later that day in the Mediterranean sea,' he says.

At the other end of the country in Normandy, where evidence of France's rich history is abundant. Rainer Dimter, from Cefa Normandie in Lisieux, says that popular student excursions are to Mont Saint Michel and the D-Day landing beaches of the Second World War.

Mont Saint Michel is France's most popular tourist attraction outside Paris and is a church mounted on a mound of granite rock, attached to the mainland by a causeway which is covered by the sea at high tide. The first abbey was built on the mound in the 8th century and it has since been home to numerous churches, towers and fortifications.

Dimter reports that one US student became so interested in French history during his stay at the school that he became a history professor in Chicago, specialising in the history of Lisieux. 'He came back in April [this year] to give a lecture for the Société Historique de Lisieux [and] his former French host family were present,' says Dimter.

Agent viewpoint

'Students like France because of its culture - museums, architecture, etc - its gastronomy and way of life. Most are particularly enchanted by Paris, the French riviera, the Alps and the chateaux of the Loire Valley. Some students find that their experience is not sufficiently long to learn as much French as they would like, so they are interested in returning to France at a later date to continue learning and to visit another area.'
Michael Giammarella, Learning Destinations, USA

'The majority of Italian students require English courses but people who already have a good level of English or who need French for special purposes come to us to arrange stays in France. The young students prefer the south of France as it is quite easy to reach from Italy and also because they can easily combine their French course with a summer holiday on the beach. Cannes, Antibes and Nice are favourite destinations [for this age group]. Our adult clients require Paris or other destinations that can provide good cultural stimulation, such as Nice or Tours. Paris remains the best selling point as far as France is concerned. Our clients interested in studying French want to get to know every aspect of the French culture, including food and wine, but the artistic treasures of the country are the main attractions.'
Laura Vico, NewBeetle Tour Operator, Italy

'France is very popular as a destination with our students. French is the second most popular language after Spanish. The top three destinations in France are the Côte D'Azur, Paris and the Loire and students always ask for the Riviera. Most British students are already familiar with France as they have invariably visited before on holiday so we don't need to tell them what to expect. Students like the fact that the weather is infinitely better [than at home], the proximity of beaches and the general sense of holiday combined with their language course. They like to immmerse themselves in the Mediterranean culture which has a different, more open-air feel than that in the north of Europe.'
Katherine Brand, Cesa Languages Abroad, UK

'[Students] like the French lifestyle, food, wine and beaches in Montpellier, Antibes and Monaco. They also like the culture and the Provencal cooking courses [they can take] in Aix-en-Provence. [France] is also easy to get to as there are lots of cheap flights from all London airports. The most popular activities involve spending time with other students, discovering new towns, sampling the cuisine in restaurants and going out in the evenings to local bars.'
Laura Woodhead, Cactus Worldwide, UK

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