Becoming a foreign student in France, many people warned me that it would be difficult to really immerse myself in the language. Lots of students tend to go to Paris to learn French, and I had been warned that, when people detect a foreign accent, they switch immediately to speaking English. My experience in Montpellier however could not have been more different.
It was on my first day here that I began to realise how immersive a stay in Montpellier really is. A friendly professor greeted us in French, and told us that in the French courses, only French would be spoken. At first, this was an intimidating prospect, but it soon became clear that, with a little bit of effort and often a lot of hand gestures, you can easily understand and express yourself.
But it’s not just in the language school that you learn; the French immersion extends way beyond the doors of the classroom. Stepping out into the streets of Montpellier, it is easy to see that this is a city which is really francaise, in all senses of the word. On a sunny day, the French café culture is out in full swing, and if you pass by the Place de la Comédie, or a café tucked away in one of Montpellier’s charming streets, you will see the café terraces full of people enjoying an espresso in the sun. One of my favourite cafes, La Pause Gourmande, is just next door to ILA French language school. Even grabbing lunch there is an excuse to practise my French; the staff are lovely and helpful with students who may not speak French as their first language. Indeed, going about your daily life here in Montpellier, there are opportunities to learn French everywhere. Asking for directions, ordering coffee, buying groceries – all practise is good practise. You will come to realise that no one cares if you make mistakes: the people here are really friendly, and appreciate it when you make an effort to speak their language.
During my French immersion stay, I’m living with a host family, which allows me to really experience la vie francaise. The day that I arrived in Montpellier, my host ‘mum’ cooked me a courgette gratin, a simple but delicious French meal made with potatoes, crème fraiche, and cheese. It was a really comforting end to a long day of travelling, and my first insight into French cuisine. The next day, she was kind enough to bring me fresh tomatoes from her garden, and bread from the boulangerie just steps away from the homestay. Some mornings, before my French courses, I go to buy fresh pains au chocolat from here, and chat in French with the woman who runs the bakery. The longer I stay in Montpellier, the easier these conversations become; I can see that my French is becoming more fluent and spontaneous, and I find it easier and easier to understand the language. My host family only speak French, so chatting with them has been a great opportunity to practise. Even the two dogs, Marchal and Luc, are truly French – though it was a bit bizarre at first telling them to ‘assis’ rather than ‘sit’!
The evenings in Montpellier are also a great opportunity to sample the best of French nightlife. Nearly a quarter of Montpellier’s population are students, which makes the bars and clubs lively pretty much any day of the week. Summer extends well into October here, so in the evenings, the café terraces are still abuzz with French chatter, though people have swapped their espressos for a glass of wine or an aperol spritz. The streets around L’eglise St Roch in particular come alive in the evenings, and wandering around this part of the city, fragments of music and conversation spill out from the many bars and restaurants. I know some foreign students find it difficult to make friends with French people when they study in France, but this is not at all the case in Montpellier. Going out, it’s really easy to start conversations with French students, and I’ve met a lot of people this way. After a week at ILA French language school, I had two lovely French girls tell me on a night out that my French was really good, the highest of compliments!
All in all, I couldn’t be happier that I picked the city of Montpellier to learn French in France. It’s a city where the French language seeps into you almost subconsciously, and you don’t realise how far you’ve come until you’re chatting to someone with ease. Montpellier, je t’aime !