VILLEFRANCHE-SUR-MER, France -- We are seated in a magnificent villa perched on a hillside on the French Riviera with a spectacular view of the Mediterranean in the distance. And we are terrified.
Some of us are expert at not showing fear. Others, like Susan, who works in London as the assistant to actress Hayley Mills, are a bit more transparent.
It is the first day of class at the Institut de Français in this gorgeous fishing port between Nice and Monaco. Most of us underestimated what it would be like to speak French, and only French, for eight hours a day, five days a week. And not just for one week. We've signed on for the school's month-long immersion course, considered one of the best in the world.
Despite the fear factor, the institute is so popular that some people book months in advance and return again and again. Queen Sonja of Norway, actresses Kathy Bates and Kate Capshaw, and assorted diplomats, ambassadors, and international CEOs are also alumni. Word has it everyone loved hairstylist Vidal Sassoon when he was here.
Some couples attend; some come with a parent. Some, like me, are second-generation students. My mother studied here 15 years ago.
In theory, my class has it easy. After being carefully tested in audio comprehension and writing and speaking ability upon arrival, we landed in one of the two advanced classes. We have been deemed superior to the debutantes who can't speak a word or even the intermediates, who are struggling with the basics.
But Susan, at the moment, looks as if she might not make it to lunch, never mind through all four weeks. She is gazing up at our patient, yet sardonic teacher, Jean Segarra, who is standing in front of her expectantly.
All he has instructed her to do is ask a fellow student how he got to school that morning. But the problem is, she has to ask the question in French. No other language is allowed while we are here; in fact, students are fined a euro if they are heard speaking in another tongue.
Right now, nothing is coming out of Susan's mouth except a stream of nervous giggles. Which makes the rest of us laugh . Which makes Segarra crack up.
"Susan," he says in French. "You look as though you're headed to the guillotine. But why? Look out the window, the birds are singing. It's a beautiful day. Everything is fine."
He's right, but I know how she feels. When Segarra turns to me and asks me where I come from and my nationality, I manage to answer. But inside, I'm struck at how scary it is to be stripped in public of the one thing you can count on: your language.
"It's a very humbling experience," says Frédéric Latty, one of institute's directors, who began here as a teacher 17 years ago. "You can't cling to your ego. And we don't promise miracles. But if you play the game here, you will make very, very rapid progress in French."
Fortunately, our group of nine students -- ranging in age from 22 to 66 and hailing from England, Wales, Japan, Switzerland, the United States, Australia, and Morocco -- is in good hands. Segarra has been teaching at the institute for 24 years and is often so hilariously funny that you forget you are in a classroom.
"Our teachers have personality," says Latty. "I can't tell you how many people tell us at the end of their four weeks that they had the best teacher. Then they come back another year and get another teacher and this time say, 'I had the best teacher.' "
The institute was founded in 1969 by Jean Colbert, a science professor at Columbia University and UCLA, and his wife , Madeleine. Colbert used a scientific approach to come up with his teaching method, which is based on adults learning language the way children do: by ear.
After placing microphones in French subways, offices, and stores, Colbert came up with a list of the 1,200 most commonly used words and based the institute's teaching program on that select vocabulary.
"We want you to open your mouth," teacher Vicky Greco tells us on the day we arrive. It is the only time she will address us in English. "Everything is correct. It depends on how you use it. We want you to be able to ask for fish and not for poison." (The word for fish in French is "poisson.")
The day begins around 8 a.m. when students start streaming in from nearby school-run apartments, most of which are also perched on the hillside with exquisite views of the sea. We eat breakfast together in a big, cafeteria-style room. Class begins at 9 a.m. sharp -- and the teachers don't brook latecomers. The day is divided into classroom work, a noon hour spent in the language lab, or "la chambre de torture," a typically long French lunch (teachers are stationed at every table to make sure everyone speaks French) , and post prandial " séances."
The best séances involve adult parlor games or charades, watching and analyzing French movies, or listening to a history of cheese that ends with a sampling of different types and sipping wine. The worst sessions require students to huddle in the salon, listening to news taped off the radio.
Ultimately, the process is a paradox, one of the teachers warns . The more you learn, the more overwhelmed you feel, and the more you think you still don't know.
Then something magical happens. After 10 days of classes, I went to bed one night, and everything I dreamed was in French. I'd walk along the Villefranche harbor at sunset after school and realize I was starting to think in French. It's almost as if the language has gotten into your blood.
"To me learning French opened up a whole new window in my brain," says Greg McNair, 37, of New York, who has attended the institute three times and now considers himself fluent. "I feel like a different person when I speak French. For instance, in English, I'm kind of a serious person. But a flirtatious part of me comes out when I speak French that I didn't even know existed."
That French alter ego develops rapidly as a result of the immersion process. The results become visible quickly when you leave the school grounds.
The school arranges a day trip to the charming hill town of St. Paul de Vence where students visit the Fondation Maeght, the magnificent modern art museum. Students are also encouraged to see a play, usually something by Molière in Nice.
But most of us also took weekend sightseeing trips by bus or train to nearby towns like Antibes or Cannes -- and felt our ease and facility with the language grow exponentially each week.
When our month came to an end, everyone in my class agreed the time had gone by too fast. The fear I felt at the start of the course was replaced by a feeling of angst over having to leave.
Many people enjoy their time at the institute so much that they buy property in the area. They are almost like institute groupies.
"We call it the French connection," says Latty. "The same students keep coming back and coming back. And then they wind up living in the area part of the year. Villefranche and the Institut are the ultimate picture-perfect cliché of the south of France -- and people just can't get enough."
Contact Dana Kennedy, a freelance writer in France, at email@example.com.