Learning to Speak French at the Sorbonne

It was the Fall of ’76. Paris had just experienced one of its worst heat waves (a forerunner of the 2003 August heat wave) People stepped into the fountains to cool off.
By October, the weather had turned cooler when I arrived at Charles de Gaulle airport. I was shuffled into a taxi with three other fresh red-cheeked corn-fed American girls. Some came from the mid-West, some from Texas and the Carolinas and some from the rust-belt. Most of us were naive about cities in general.
The taxi driver shooed us out of the cab, allez, allez like a gaggle of geese into our new home for the school year, La Maison des Etudiantes on Boulevard Raspail.
The heavy iron doors led to a courtyard, and anyone entering the threshold of the women’s dorm would have to pass the gauntlet of the concierge, a husband and wife team that kept a good eye on the comings and goings of its residents. The front gate locked at 12:30 – so if you planned on staying out later than that, you had to find your own place to sleep for the night.
Each of the American students was paired up with a French roommate so that theoretically we would be forced to practice speaking French, unless of course, like in my case, your roommate wanted to practice her English. Catherine came from the Bordeaux region. She also spoke Spanish – because her Mother was Spanish and she was studying Arabic and Hebrew – a brilliant linguist.
This, of course, wasn’t going to help me speaking French. But five hours a day at the Cours de Langue et Civilisation Francaises would take care of that. There are many French language courses in Paris, but if you’re looking for the rigorous ‘boot camp’ method, the Sorbonne’s program is the way to go.

In the morning we woke up to phonetics, twisting the mouth into every imaginable contortion. Then language lab.
We were introduced to the BIG RED BOOK, a language program that had been used to teach French to Alsatian kids when Alsace was returned to France. Not a word of English for the entire semester with the exception of a nickname awarded to one of our classmates, “Monsieur Nevermind.” I’ll always remember Monsieur Nevermind because after months of intensive language classes, he exited from his oral exam and exclaimed with great relief, “Je suis fini!” which translates perfectly to. “I’m finished and done for.”