I am writing from Belgium (the wonderful town of Spa, to be precise), where I have come for a five day French immersion course.
My problem is that I have to give a big lecture in Paris in June. 10 years or so ago I used to get by lecturing and (even more crucially) answering questions in French, but I haven't done it for years, and "rusty" would be too polite a term. My first instincts were to start taking regular conversation lessons in Cambridge, but realism soon intervened. I would be bound to end up cancelling them when something apparently more interesting came my way and frankly I couldnt see myself sitting round the kitchen table (or at the desk at the Alliance Francaise) jabbering away in French "en plein Cambridge" ("en Cambridge profonde"?).
So I decided to opt for the (re-)baptism of fire and go for a total immersion course. The pricey option. My Faculty and college (thank you) both contributed a bit to the cost, but I'm still spending more than I will get in the fee. But look on the bright side. I will know French a lot better by the end of this.
I chose a place from the web...in fact I picked about the only language school which I could find which actually talked about helping academics with lectures to give (rather than just a business deal to make). And I committed myself to a regime of 6 hours one to one lessons a day, plus social interaction (with language correction) entirely in French.
As the date got nearer, I got progressively more scared. My fantasies ranged from the idea that the whole thing might have been a scam (set up to trap Anglophone lecturers in France) to the thought of a "hell is other people" scenario, locked up with assorted and unknown students and teachers for 5 days... with no escape.
In fact I have fallen on my feet.
It's turned out to be everything that I could want. I have practised all those French vowels that noone has ever made me practise before (I have spent several hours on "u" and "ou"... "Le Sud Soudan" has been a particularly tricky phrase to practise at speed). This afternoon (with the admirable Stephanie) I went through part of a French tv documentary on Rome, actually writing down every word spoken rather than simply picking up the drift. I can't tell you how useful it was. And this morning I discussed Roman laughter (the subject of the lecture) in French with Raphael, who is both a language teacher AND a classicist .. and he had all kinds of suggestions about how to rethink some of what I wanted to say in a French cultural context (among other things, we looked at a YouTube clip of Coluche). How many language teachers do you find who can talk about Dio Cassius?
So I am dead knackered, but dead happy. And no snobby remarks about learning French in Belgium, as I will argue back with passion.
Actually this turns out to be an amazing area. Jean-Luc and Claudine (the bosses of the place) gave me and my fellow student (an American diplomat) a trip around 8 of the health-giving springs of the area after classes this afternoon.....and I have never tasted such a collection of sparkling, ferrous, sulphorous waters.