(VILLEFRANCHE-SUR-MER, France) — More than half a century ago, Grace Kelly began the arduous process of learning French after she married Prince Rainier and settled into life in the palace in Monaco at age 26. Today, the woman reportedly set to become the next Princess of Monaco, the South African swimmer Charlene Wittstock, 30, is taking the opposite tack.
Wittstock is already ensconced in an apartment at the Palace in Monaco near Prince Albert, 50, and has been studying at the most exclusive — and intensive — French language school in the world, the Institut de Francais in Villefranche-sur-Mer — eight miles west of Monte Carlo on the French Riviera. Wittstock is the latest in a steady stream of diplomats, world financial powerbrokers, actresses (Kathy Bates, Kate Capshaw and Britain's Honor Blackman), athletes and royalty (Queen Sonja of Norway was a recent student) to attend the Institut hoping its unusual methods will help them perfect French.
Housed in a hillside villa overlooking the Mediterranean, the school was founded in 1969 by Jean Colbert, a former French aerospace scientist and Columbia professor and his wife Madeleine. The Colberts based their teaching principles on a scientific survey of the 1500 words used most often by French people in cafes, buses and subways. "We're interested in getting students to open their mouths and speak French," says Frédéric Latty, one of the school's administrators. "We don't spend a lot of time on vocabulary that you'll never use."
Most students, who range in age from 21 to 75, live in school-run apartments scattered on the hillside and walk to the Institute every morning. After being tested on the first day, they are assigned to beginner, intermediate, or advanced classes. Between 75 and 80 students enroll in each month-long session. The course costs 2500 Euros ($3165) during the off-peak season and 3100 Euros ($3920) during high season. Although students come from all over the world, including America, England, Australia, Germany, Switzerland and Scandinavia, they all have one thing in common: They're Francophiles.
Rick Posner, 56, a court reporter from San Francisco who attended the Institute recently, said he fell in love with the French language when he was a 16-year-old high school student. "I even thought I'd eventually become a French teacher," he said. "But then life took over and my French went on the back burner. I lost a lot of it. I always regretted it." When he came to the Institute recently, Posner said he was realizing a lifelong dream. "I felt I was finally living out my high school fantasy," he said. "And when I left the school, I was really speaking French." No one is exempt from classes that begin every day at 9 a.m. and do not end until 4:45 p.m., five days a week for a month. Students are fined one euro if the teachers them speaking any language other than French. Even beginners have to deliver an oral report in French.
"We get many people who are used to being leaders in their field," says Jean Segarra, the school's principal teacher who has been there for more than 25 years. "Then suddenly they are in a situation where they are not in control and are in the same boat as everyone else. It can be a humbling experience."
Students spend 45 minutes a day in a language laboratory or "chambre de torture." But the tougher sessions are made more palatable by afternoon "séance pratiques" during which, for example, students learn the history of various French cheeses and wine or how to make chocolate crepes — and partake of what they've just learned at the end. For many, the school is so addictive (and the perfection of French so tantalizingly out of reach) — that they return over and over again. The record is held by a San Antonio couple, Margie and Charles Kilpatrick, who have taken the Institute's course 11 times. A number of wealthier American alumni have even bought homes in Villefranche. As for Wittstock, whose engagement to Prince Albert is said to be imminent, she is making rapid progress.
"She has the ear," Latty said simply. "It's just a matter of time." Nadia Lacoste, who served as the spokeswoman for Grace Kelly and Prince Rainier for almost 50 years, said the princess, in contrast, struggled with her second language.
"She was not truly comfortable speaking French for many years," said Lacoste, who now lives in Paris. "When they started getting older, Albert and Caroline would correct her all the time. She never lost her American accent but many people found it charming."