In June, I went down to Antibes, a small beach resort town on the Côte d’Azur (French Riviera) and stayed there for a whole week, taking group French classes every morning.
And because I suspect this is going to be one of those “SEO posts” that attracts strangers to my blog, let me quickly lay out my background: I’m American, and I moved to the French-speaking part of Switzerland three years ago. I had no prior knowledge of French, and I had to start learning the language from scratch during the limited time that I had outside my full-time job. This is how quickly I was able to pick up French:
- 6 months in: reached level A1 (could order at a restaurant)
- 1 year in: reached level A2 (could hold basic conversations)
- 2 years in: reached level B1 (could describe my hopes, experiences, and opinions)
- 3 years in: reached level B2 (can work in French)
Nowadays, I work in an office that is heavily francophone, and I frequently need to write emails or conduct meetings in French. Although I can now more or less understand everything and hold fluid conversations, I still find myself constantly messing up grammar, conjugating verbs incorrectly, or grasping for vocabulary words that I don’t know.
I had always dreamed of staying in a beautiful, sunny part of France for a few days to relax, study French, and enjoy the food and culture. Now that I’ve finally reached a position in life where I’m privileged enough to afford an experience like this, I decided to enroll myself in a week of French classes. My goals were threefold: to totally immerse myself in French; to strengthen my grammar; and to enjoy the beach — while also teleworking for my day job.
First things first: why Antibes?
As Switzerland is a landlocked country, I wanted to go somewhere with access to a real ocean and a real beach. I had already been to Nice before, and I was worried Cannes might have been too crowded. The other option I considered was Montpellier, which has an abundance of French training programmes, but my French teacher cautioned me that Montpellier wasn’t actually by the beach — more like 20 minutes away.
I watched a vlog on YouTube in which the vlogger went to Antibes (pronounced “On-teeb”) for a solo vacation, and it seemed like a calm, pleasant getaway. I then found a local French school, le Centre International d’Antibes, through a Google search and found that they offered morning classes for adults, which was an ideal fit for what I was looking for, as I still needed to telework in the afternoons. I paid 319 euros for a “standard” week of classes, which ran from 9am to 12:20pm every day (including a break from 10:30 to 10:50).
When I mentioned to a French friend that I was going to Antibes to study French, they made a face and said, “But why? They have funny accents there!” In Antibes, I did encounter a few people who had a sort of gravelly, nasally accent that I hadn’t heard before, but it wasn’t that hard to understand them. And our French professor had a clear, neutral accent, so it wasn’t an issue at all.
From Geneva, Antibes could be reached within one day by train; I left close to noon and arrived in the evening. Aside from a child projectile-vomiting into the aisle carpet right next to me, it was a smooth, uneventful journey.
Where I stayed
The French school was located near la Plage de la Gravette, just steps from the busy, touristy town center, with easy access to restaurants, shops, and the farmer’s market. (Note: They actually have two locations; the one I was assigned to was sort of a secondary outpost, but the location was much better than their ‘headquarters’.)
For most of the trip, I stayed at Hôtel Josse. I mainly chose this hotel because it was right on the beach. I loved being able to swim in the cool water at 6:30am with only one or two other people around, the sunrise on the horizon, instead of being surrounded by lobster-red holidaymakers and screaming children. I did go back and forth on whether to book this hotel for a long time, because it was on the expensive side, but ultimately I think the beach factor made it worth it.
What I liked: the room was clean, spacious and comfortable. There was also a balcony with sea views, though it was mostly blocked by palm trees and a parking lot. There were basic amenities, including air conditioning, an electric kettle, instant coffee, daily bottled water, an empty minibar, a hair dryer, and a safe.
What I thought could have been improved: the water pressure in the shower head was very weak. The continental breakfast was very limited and the same thing every day. The hotel Wi-Fi network kicked me off every 2 hours and forced me to reconnect, which was not convenient for teleworking. Lastly, there were not many restaurants nearby, and basically no shops or markets, so the location did feel a bit isolated.
I also stayed briefly at Hôtel La Place, which is much closer to the center of town, and also a manageable 12-minute walk from the train station, which is invaluable during the hot days of summer. The room was very comfortable, the location was convenient, and breakfast was varied and of high quality. The only downside was that the entire room only had two electrical outlets: one by the desk, and one in the bathroom.
My commute to school
Every morning, for about 18 minutes, I walked along the beach to school, looking at the glittering blue ocean and taking in the fresh air. It was very healing.
This is what my “commute” to school looked like. Can’t complain!
The demographics of the students
I had a bumpy start dealing with the administration due to their own screw-up, but once I actually got to class, things were smooth-sailing. I immediately liked the professor: he was friendly, energetic, and irreverent, reminding me at times of a French Bart Simpson.
There were around 10 other students in the class. The majority of them were Americans who were spending some time in France for the summer, specifically for the purpose of improving their French through immersion. There were also five Europeans, including two from German-speaking Switzerland. One of them was my regular partner during class exercises; he was very amicable, and we chatted every day.
The students were varied in age, ranging from early 20s to retirement age. Personalities were also quite diverse, and I found that some of the college-aged students were a bit immature and disruptive, but the professor didn’t seem to mind. I learned that I was the only person there who was only spending one week at the school. The majority of the students had been there for at least two, three weeks. Interestingly, two of them were also French teachers in their own countries. When I asked why they were here taking French classes with the rest of us, they told me it was useful for brushing up on their own French skills as well as their pedagogy.
What we did during class
The contents of the class were more difficult than what I had I expected. There was a lot of reading and of doing fill-in-the blank exercises. For instance, for one exercise, we were given a long list of vocabulary words that were the equivalent of trigger, unleash, arouse, raise, provoke, incite, etc… and asked to match each noun to its corresponding sentence. I had to look up most of the words in my translation app, because I had no idea what they meant. A lot of the content we covered was closer to C1 than B2, and the teacher actually acknowledged this several times as well.
The classes were heavily focused on grammar. Regardless of the content, everything seemed to come back to grammar (for instance, when do you use the equivalent of who, whom, to whom, which, to which, etc, keeping in mind that the endings are different for male + singular, male + plural, female + singular, female + plural?). There was also a huge emphasis on verb conjugation.
Since this was a B2 class, we were already expected to know what all the different verb tenses are and how to conjugate them. We were expected to know tenses like futur antérieur, passe simple, conditionnel passé, and more. This was a major weakness for me, since I only had about one year of formal schooling in French, and have learned the language mostly through conversation and exposure, not grammar courses. Most of the other students, however, had learned French through years and years of formal training, and therefore had a much more solid foundation.
We started every class with a mini-competition: we quizzed our partners on how fast we could conjugate different verbs in different tenses. I was very slow at this and always at the bottom of the class, which didn’t bother me. It was more that I felt a bit skeptical about whether it was really that important to commit all these different tenses to memory. At work, the only tenses that we really use on a day-to-day basis are the present (I write), passé composé (I wrote / I have written), futur simple (I will write), and the imperative (please write). Half of the native French speakers I know can’t even use the subjunctive form correctly (e.g., it is important that I write). So personally, I don’t feel that it is that important to invest a huge amount of time and energy into drilling verb conjugations.
Throughout the week, we listened to many oral comprehension exercises; read newspaper articles and summarized them; answered questions about cultural phenomena in our countries; and completed many grammar exercises. Surprisingly, there was no writing element involved, which I felt was another skill that could have been emphasized in the training, as writing is an extremely important part of being able to communicate in French.
Were we all in the right class?
While I think the school was generally correct in placing me at the B2 level, I know that I am not actually at B2 level across the board. My French comprehension and speaking are at B2, sure. My ability to write, maybe B1. Vocabulary, low B1. My grasp on grammar and conjugations, low B1.
Whereas for other students in the class who had taken French for many, many years in school, I noticed the opposite. Ability to conjugate verbs, B2. Vocabulary, B2. But as for the ability to actually string sentences together, speak clearly without a heavy accent, and engage in meaningful conversations — some of them are barely past A1 in this area. To be honest, listening to some of them attempting to speak was an extreme exercise in patience.
I was in the same place two years ago, when I hired a 1:1 French tutor over Skype and was so embarrassed that I could barely say a full sentence to her despite having studied French for a whole year. My point is, you cannot become fluent or even proficient in French if you don’t have the opportunity to speak it constantly, interactively, and at great length. That’s why I think it was a great investment for these students to come to France for a few months and be fully immersed in the environment. I would imagine that staying with a local host family would also be immensely beneficial.
What did I get out of the class, ultimately?
Overall, I would say that my grasp on grammatical concepts and conjugations improved by maybe 5%. Because I was only able to stay for a week and attended only 15 hours of classes, it was not realistic that I could have made any meaningful progress.
How I’d rank this against other forms of learning French
For somebody who doesn’t live in a francophone country and is able to commit at least 2-3 weeks to living in Antibes and taking classes, I would strongly recommend doing a course like this.
For me, since my situation is a bit different — I already live in a French-speaking environment and don’t have a lot of time to spend in class — I did not find this particularly useful compared with other French training that I’ve done. With 1 being least useful, and 5 being most useful, here’s how I would rate my experiences:
- Private in-person French teacher: 5/5
- Assimil workbook: 4.5/5
- In-person group classes in Geneva: 4/5
- Italki: 4/5
- Lingoda: 4/5
- In-person group classes in Antibes: 3/5
- Pimsleur: 3/5
- Online group classes in Geneva: 2.5/5
One thing I did notice: in Antibes, if I was speaking French to someone and messed up maybe two, three times — stumbled on a word or perhaps conjugated the wrong verb ending — the other person would immediately switch to English. Which made me deflate a little: but I’m trying to speak your language! Don’t give up on me!
I’ve always had the opposite experience in Geneva, where I live. When you walk into a store or restaurant in Geneva, you will always be greeted with bonjour and in French. And when I speak in French to someone in Geneva and I mess up or ask them to repeat something that was said very quickly, very rarely do they switch to English — they will just keep talking in French, but a little more slowly for my benefit. This is interesting, I think, given Geneva’s reputation as an international city with 40% of the population coming from foreign backgrounds.
Teleworking during this week was challenging at times
I was extremely naive in thinking that I could go to class in the mornings, eat lunch, and hop online in the afternoons like it was nothing. I would be essentially working from the beach! It sounded like a dream.
In reality, this week was absolutely exhausting. I started off each day swimming in the ocean at sunrise, because it was the only time that the beach was peaceful and quiet. After breakfast, I walked for 18 minutes to class. We usually wrapped up around 12:25, which meant I had about 10-15 minutes to grab a lunch and take it back to the hotel before I started working at 1pm each day. I often ate in front of my computer.
Even though I had activated an out-of-office auto-reply that explained that I was in class in the mornings and utterly unavailable to respond to calls or emails, people still messaged me in the mornings and were somehow surprised when I did not respond to them. In order to meet multiple deadlines, I worked into the evening every day, once until 11pm. My work this week was heavily focused on editing videos, and working with a small screen limited my productivity significantly.
Finally, my hotel Wi-Fi kicked me off every other hour, which was fairly disruptive. I’m just glad it didn’t happen when I had to screen-share and present a new product in front of the director of my 600-people department.
For this reason, I could never be a digital nomad. Waaay too much stress and uncertainty.
My thoughts on Antibes itself
All in all, Antibes is a lovely place to visit if you enjoy lounging by the beach, swimming, kayaking, getting a natural tan, and just doing nothing in general.
There is not a ton to do in Antibes if you’re really big on tourist stuff: there is a Picasso Museum, which I did not visit. There is a very small archeological museum with a few artifacts from Roman times, which I stopped in to visit quickly and saw in about 10 minutes. I also did a very sweaty hike up to an old church / flea market on the hill, and when I came down, Google Maps led me to wander through an exclusive and private neighborhood and peek into people’s fancy vacation homes. As the French would say, ça fait rêver.
There are a lot of restaurants and cafes in town center, the majority being casual French and casual Italian. I also went to a Thai restaurant and a Vietnamese restaurant, both of which were fine. There is a Carrefour City supermarket located in the very center of town, but it’s pretty gross — the grocery section smelled foul, as though something in there were actively rotting, and the food selection is very limited. I’d recommend instead going to the Utile supermarket, which is just across the street and much cleaner.
While I’m glad I was able to have this experience, I don’t think I would do another course like this again. It takes more than one week of intensive courses to really improve one’s French, and being someone who works full-time, I just don’t have the freedom in my schedule to take a sabbatical, as someone else in my class had done.
It was also very expensive to stay in Antibes for a whole week, and I was generally unimpressed by the quality of food. At the same time, the natural beauty of the Côte d’Azur is stunning, and it was nice to be close to the ocean and enjoy the chill, laidback vibe of the town.
In the end, I’m happy I did this, and I look forward to coming back to the region another time for a holiday.