Melissa's Travels

Melissa’s Travels: On Going Back to School — Europe's Top Language School

Ever since I lived in France as a student in high school and college and became proficient in French, I have wanted to take my second-language level up a notch. I was thrilled to be able to read Colette in the original, but I wanted to try to emulate her wit in conversation. Over the years I had heard about French-language schools in Tours and in Villefranche, where adults could enroll for a month. So for many years, at the top of my “one-day-when-I-have-more-time” list was fulfilling this wish. But last spring, when I mentioned this long-held fantasy to one of the travelers on our Tangier Insider Journey, she shared that she had attended an immersive and intensive language school in Belgium that was only five days. “It's popular with diplomats and executives being sent to Francophone countries,” she explained. “They have an auditory method that they have developed over decades; it is centered around conversation and one-on-one learning.” Five days I could find, I thought.

A seed was planted, and a few weeks after the trip, I emailed my travel companion for the name of the school: Ceran. With courses in French, German, English, Dutch, Italian and Spanish, the school is the go-to language institute for many global businesses. After exploring its website and my calendar, I decided to sign up. "Seize the day," as I tell my kids, and travelers, too, especially since the pandemic taught us: there is no time like the present and dreams deferred can haunt you.

At its main campus in Spa, Belgium, Ceran offers residential courses for adults year-round as well as a few weeks of summer youth classes for students (ages 18-22). (It also has training centers in various European cities.) Founded in 1975 by language teachers Monique and René Bastin, the school emphasizes personalized learning programs and oral communication stressing three key elements: question-response instruction; verbo-tonal technique and key phrases. The weekly program consists of a blend of group activities, group classes or workshops and private classes with one-on-one instruction, with prices varying depending on how much private instruction you choose.Once I selected my week and submitted my deposit, I was sent a login to a portal with various placement tests, including grammar, written and oral comprehension ones. The last step in determining my level was an “entretien,” or interview, over Zoom. While Ceran accepts students of all levels, it assembles participants of a similar level in small groups since conversation is a cornerstone of the method and, regardless of level, students must commit to full immersion in their chosen language.

In contrast to preparing for Indagare trips, where I research and scout an experience in depth, I had done very little advance prep before I arrived on the Ceran campus. I knew I would have a single room in a dorm and that my days would be full of non-stop French but not much more. So when the taxi from Brussels wended its way past the châteaux that dot the Ardennes hills outside of the town of Spa and pulled up to the imposing Chåteau du Haut-Neuboison with its lovely landscaped grounds, I was pleasantly surprised. It was here that we would meet for meals. A purpose-built residence hall up the hill housed classrooms on the ground floor, typical dorm rooms on the upper floors and an attached gym facility complete with a sauna, hot tub and massage room.All programs begin on Sunday evening with students’ arrival between 5:00 and 6:00 p.m. and a welcome reception at 7:00 p.m. About 20 of us gathered on the terrace before the chateau on a beautiful late-summer evening for cocktails and hors d’oeuvres. Our French group consisted of six students; there were two participants studying German; a handful learning Dutch and almost a dozen studying English. (There were no Italian and Spanish courses that week.) But the language groups never mingled; each was assigned a separate dining room, so aside from passing each other at the breakfast or lunch buffet or on the stairways in the dorm, we stayed within our language groups.      

As would be the case at all of our meals, tonight one of our four French instructors, Thomas, hosted our cohort’s welcome dinner and made sure to facilitate conversation, which the first night consisted of basic demographics. We were evenly split male and female, married and unmarried; ranged in age from mid-twenties to mid-sixties; and came from five countries: the Netherlands, Germany, Colombia, Bolivia and me from the U.S. Everyone else had come because they needed expert French for work, either in France, Switzerland or Belgium. Each day, breakfast began at 8:00 a.m., with a professor arriving at 8:30 to get the morning chatter started. As I had signed up for maximum one-on-one classes, I met with my morning instructor at 9:00 for an hour and a half; then we had a group “pause en Français,” for coffee and conversation, before another hour-and-a-half of one-on-one from 11:00 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.. In our daily opening session, I would be given a topic such as “Discuss a challenge you overcame” or “Share an unforgettable experience” to discuss for 20 minutes or so. Then my instructor would ask questions about it and share alternative ways to express ideas or suggest more colloquial phrasing. One phrase I picked up day one was the French expression for jet lag: décalage horaire. Then we would dive into difficulties with areas of grammar or pronunciation, note them, or study new vocabulary words in an Aide-Memoire booklet.

During the pause we would gather in the French department lounge for coffee and snacks. We might discuss our favorite French films or a popular music video “Balance Ton Quoi” by singer Angèle on the Belgian #MeToo movement. We learned that past Ceran students included various royal family members, heads of state and senior executives from brands such as Ferrero Rocher and Chanel as well as retirees who wanted the mental stimulation of language learning. In my second morning session, we would watch short news segments on business or lifestyle topics. I would give a synopsis of what I understood, and then we would go through it line by line, with me explaining what was meant or asking for clarification. As many of these segments contained slang phrases, they were a great way to learn informal expressions. At the end of each morning, we would choose ten phrases clés, key phrases, to review and practice listening to, writing down and speaking.Our group would gather again for lunch and conversation before I had another private session at 1:30 p.m. with a different instructor, who would begin with another topic for discussion and more videos. Speaking, listening and responding was the rhythm—not writing or reading. In fact, when I would ask for a new expression to be written so I could digest it visually, the instructor would refuse until I could repeat it fluently.

A Ceran principle is that language needs to be lodged in the mind and become automated through the ear, not the eye, which is why key phrases and repetition are so important. So my afternoon instructor and I would come up with another ten or so of these phrases. After another collective “pause en Français,” three or four of us would gather for a study hall to review or further examine concepts or grammar with another instructor before retiring to review the day’s phrases clés. It was immersive and intensive, but I found the chance to focus entirely on one mental exercise incredibly gratifying, since my attention is usually so fractured during the day between meetings, emails, calls, presentations and the like.Our only optional daily activity was gathering in the lounge at 6:30 p.m. to watch a pre-recorded version of the 6:00 p.m. world news. An instructor would pause after each segment and quiz us on the content. Then we would walk down the hill for dinner, which was always three courses plus a salad and cheese option, and red and white wine choices. (The chefs provided delicious vegetarian and gluten-free options at each meal and focused on ingredients from local purveyors and farmers.) After-dinner activities included a game night and an evening visit to the small city of Spa, a UNESCO World Heritage Site whose healing waters once drew Romans and Tsar Peter the Great and whose name inspired what was probably the first global health craze.

Our last night, though, included a special Prosecco cocktail and final discours, which, in our case, would be better described as toasts. We had arrived as total strangers with nothing in common but our desire to improve our communication in a foreign language, which wasn’t always easy. What was remarkably easy, though, was our ability to share laughs, kindness and true connection. We stayed on a first-name basis, shared little of our personal history and had no overlap with each other’s hometowns or work. Like children sent tocamp, we were beings with no past, no context and no bonds. Our opinions of one another were formed entirely on the French speakers we were becoming, and yet we would leave with inside jokes, memories, even nicknames that only our accidental cohort would share. As one of our group exclaimed in his final discourse, which verged on French poetry about the universe and the power of constellations, “Tous les contacts ont un impact.” All contacts have an impact.Over the course of our week, we had discussed many global issues and concerns and together watched in horror as a massive earthquake destroyed villages in Morocco and floods decimated swaths of the Libyan city of Derna.

Who knows if we will see each other again, but in exposing ourselves as learners and supporting each other as we stumbled through awkward, immersive and intense days, we all left Spa with much improved French, yes, but, more importantly, with a renewed appreciation for the essential goodness of strangers and the value of forging global connections. Finally, there was something about returning to the role of students, of putting ourselves under the purview of professors, as adults that had been remarkably rejuvenating. It takes a kind of humility and hopefulness to accept instruction and continual correction, and yet, I found I left Spa with a renewed sense of possibilities. A week later, when Chip Conley, the author and philosopher who founded the Modern Elder Academy, mentioned on my podcast Passport To Everywhere that he finds value in the questions: "What do you wish you had done 10 years ago?" And "What will you regret 10 years from now not having done sooner?" I immediately thought of how glad I was that I hadn’t postponed my language dream any longer and how much more attainable the other big wishes on my list now seem.

A five-day program at Ceran including lessons, meals and accommodations starts at 3,500 euros per guest. Learn more here.

Contact your Trip Designer or Indagare, if you are not yet a member, to start planning a language-focused trip to Belgium, France or beyond.  Our team can match you with the accommodations, reservations and activities that are right for you. Plus, explore our learning-focused Indagare small-group trips.

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