Immersion is the best way to learn a language well, and a recent New York Times article reports on a study that shows that the brain patterns of language learners in an immersion course actually begin to mirror those of native speakers (How Immersion Helps to Learn a Language, by Sindya N. Bhanoo, April 2, 2012, The New York Times). One can imagine that the nuances of language and meaning are perhaps more easily recognized when one experiences these in real language settings, such as our boys are in the classrooms and hallways at French public school. Learning the subtleties of French words and phrases is something my spouse and I are facing ourselves, as we embark on our own quasi-immersion educational experience, through French autoecole (driving school). Because auto insurance for foreign licensed drivers in France ends after one year, we must get les permis de conduire français (French driver's licenses). (Some U.S. states have agreements with France to exchange licenses across the board, but not Washington state.) As new driving school students, we have been immersed in driving terms and scenarios as we read and learn about when we may depassér (to pass), rabattre (to reinsert into a lane), ralentir (to slow down), arrêter (to stop), and cedez le passage (yield). We are also learning some other subtle nuances, in French language and culture, from this driving school experience:
1-Getting a French driver's license is expensive: 780 euros per person. This is our school's adjusted plan (as holders of
foreign licenses so we probably won't need as many practical driving lessons because we actually know how to drive...). That's nearly 1000$. Getting a driver's license is truly a privilege here, not a right. And it's no wonder there are almost as many autoecoles in Aix as coiffures (hair salons); they represent a money-making opportunity. There are literally 5 such schools within very short walking distance of our apartment, and they are little more than storefronts with very simple furnishings.
3-Passing both the theoretical and practical driving exams means ignoring or forgetting everything related to actual French driving. One must not rely on one's experiences or observations, or even the suggestions of any French driver. Because parking on the sidewalk, honking the car horn in an urban area, crossing a solid white line to stop or park, using rear fog lights in the rain, and ignoring a vehicle with flashing blue lights, are all actually NOT permitted, even though they are completely regular, common, every day automotive practices in France. I had barely pulled out of our parking garage on Sunday determined to 'practice' driving by following the French rulebook, such as carefully using my turn signals and slowing down as appropriate, when in the space of just a few blocks, a driver pulled out behind me and drove down the one way street in the opposite direction, another one blatantly ignored a yield sign, while a third one used the incorrect lane to enter the roundabout and then cut in sharply in order to exit straight ahead. And all around me were illegally parked cars. The message we are getting, and which most French probably already realize is, "Do as I say [in the Code de la route], not as I do [in real French traffic]."
(Image from http://gestion.v2.permisapoints.fr/templates/frontoffice/infractions/images/infractions/permis-probatoire.jpg)