French Camp III: Learning French

Friday, Jun 26, 2009 7:00 am
William Barnes

This is potentially the least exciting subject (with only one picture), but perhaps one day a prospective Sainte Anne student will stumble across it and find it useful: what was the learning experience like?

The day after I arrived I took a two-part (written and oral) placement exam. There are four major levels (Debutant, Intermédiare, Avancé, Perfectionment) the first three of which have a few sub-levels. That evening I was placed in Intermédiare 1.

The Class

I had two 1.5 hour long classes each day. I must admit that I didn’t learn much in class. I was an exception. The majority of people I talked to above Debutant stated that they could speak and understand much better than they could read and write while I had no trouble with writing and grammar but could barely speak. The class work in Intermédiare 1 consisted of articles, futur proche, and passé composé. On the one hand, I thought that it was too basic for me. I knew all the grammar and was really bored by that. On the other, I went in completely unable to speak in French and I’m not sure I could have handled participating in a more advanced class. Perhaps I might even have been better off being a level lower as Debutants focus much more on speaking skills than Intermédiares and I didn’t benefit much from the more advanced written work.

Big Bird

My professor was a musician named Patrice Boulliane. He was a good teacher, but also he was quite the interesting character. At the end of the session I came to the conclusion that probably any teacher could have taught the material but I’m glad I got Patrice for the experience.

Outside Class

While I didn’t learn much new in class, I did learn a lot outside of it. They kept us very busy; meaning that we had no time to sit around on our own. We were always doing something with other people. And when you’re with other people, you talk… or try to talk. I was nearly mute the first week. The Debutants were the same. But with practice everybody got better. By the end, I could understand most of what I heard and reply almost as often. The progress with the Debutants was just amazing. Some people who started out not knowing a word of French were speaking better than me by the end of the session.

The strictness of the immersion was definitely a good thing. I’m told that at some other programs, French is merely suggested rather than obligatory. I know that if I had been allowed, I would have used at least a little English for those really complicated sentences. But being forced to use French meant I had to either learn how to say what I wanted or come up with an alternate way to phrase it.

Moving On

The immersion is over and I’m unlikely to be able to go back any time in the near future. Given that I have a fairly good grasp of all the grammar (I read ahead while I was bored in class), what really remains for me is practicing spoken French and expanding my vocabulary. I’ve found two French podcasts I like. Learn French By Podcast plays a conversation of about one minute and then discusses key points. Coffee Break French is more focused (so far) on learning little bits of vocabulary and important phrases. It also has much better hosts. The first is too business-like to really enjoy. I’m also thinking of watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer in French since I already know it mostly by heart.

French Camp II: Activities

Wednesday, Jun 24, 2009 12:00 pm
William Barnes

Session d'Information

They really (really, really) kept us busy. A typical day starts around 8am with breakfast followed by two 1.5h classes. Between the two classes is le Session d’Information (see right). Le Session d’Information is like a half hour play put on by the animateurs/animatrices (camp counsellors) that explains the day’s activities and other entertaining things. Then it’s lunch followed by workshops at 2pm. At the beginning of the program, each person chooses an activity (dance, theatre, poi, gardening, etc) and at the end of the session there is a performance or exhibition put on by the members of the workshop. I chose Danse Sociale because I thought it might be useful in the future. I’m not so sure of that now. But maybe (just maybe) there will be an occasion to use the Jive or Polka in court. I really wish I had taken poi. I saw the videos of Danse Sociale and I just looked so bored and spaced out. Do I normally look like that? I was trying really hard to smile at the time.


Anyhoo, after the workshops there is always a trip. The trips have limited space so you have to participate in a lottery. The trips go to exciting and magical places like Foodland, PharmaSave and Frenchy’s second-hand clothing store. I know it doesn’t sound that exciting, but really after a week or two on campus it’s just great. I still remember when my name was picked for the Foodland trip. I was dancing and singing all day and telling people how I was going to catch a leprechaun (Foodland being “un endroit de magique”). Trips are followed by dinner and then some form of show or event. The shows included (French) musical groups like Grande Dérangement (Video), Amylie and Blou. I can’t recommend Grand Dérangement enough. They put on a very good show and the music was great even if I didn’t understand what they were saying. There was also a show put on by Luc Tardiff (the cheerleader on the right in the picture above) and Ryan Doucette. Ryan trained as a mime and is hilarious (Videos). It was probably my second favourite show.

Grand Dérangement

Every Friday and Saturday night there was a themed soirée at the campus pub. Themes included: Halloween, Hawaii, the 50s, and Casino. Most of them were just like going to a club and dancing (to French music) and drinking (on that note, drinks were $3.50). The Casino night was much different. They had blackjack, roulette, and horse racing. It was a lot of fun even though I lost everything. Unfortunately, I didn’t understand the whole theme thing before I left, so I didn’t bring any costumes. Luckily, there are a lot of second-hand stores in Nova Scotia and I was able to buy and make my costumes. The only thing I wish I had done different on that front was bring a few better shirts and a tie. I had only one halfway dressy shirt with me and there were at least four occasions on which I needed to dress up. The soirées were a lot of fun but very tiring. I’m not used to going out practically every night for weeks on end.

Soirée Toge Blackjack Dressed Up for the Casino Tex Mex Soirée Louisienne Jive Competition Cinquantaines Soiree Hawienne Cactus the Dragon Halloween!

Next time, I’ll write about learning French.

French Camp I: Université Sainte-Anne

Tuesday, Jun 23, 2009 2:41 pm
William Barnes

I just returned home from the bizarre world that is French camp (technically the immersion program at Université Sainte-Anne). It was absolutely fantastic. I started writing this as a single post, but it started getting really long so I’ve split it up into a couple of shorter posts that I’ll put up over the next few days. In the first post, I’ll just talk about the campus and the environment at Université Sainte-Anne.

The University

Sainte-Anne is located in a majority francophone area on Baie Sainte Marie in Nova Scotia. It’s very small (only about 300 students) and teaches exclusively in French. The area is amazingly pretty. It faces west across the bay, so every night you get a beautiful sunset. It’s bordered by woods (le P’tit Bois) on two sides and a rocky beach on the west. It’s fairly secluded so there’s no noise or light pollution (meaning you can see the stars).

Baie Sainte Marie in Daytime Sunset over Baie Sainte Marie House Over a Cavern Pointe des Roches Beach Gazebo L'Anse-des-Belliveau Sunset Behind Me

The immersion program is very strict: you cannot speak English; if you are caught doing so you get a warning; three warnings and you’re kicked out. This is a good thing for immersion (forcing you to actually speak) but it’s a little tough on your sanity. It’s frustrating to go from arguing constantly in law school to being limited to a first grade level of communication. I like to think that I have great thoughts in my head, but I just could not say any of them. That said, it’s only for five weeks and my spoken French is a lot better. Small price to pay.

It is (as I said earlier) a bit like a bizarre alternate universe. The area is very sparsely populated. It’s a half-hour trip to go to the convenience store so you spend most of the time on campus. And on campus everybody is suddenly talking French (and mostly struggling to talk French). It’s hard to explain. I look back on it now like it was some crazy dream.

The next post will be about activities on campus.