As it turns 125, the Alliance Francaise de Pondicherry looks to reinforcing its image as more than a language teaching centre.

It is a breezy evening on the terrace when Shrenyesh from Khajuraho mentions something in the newspaper to the group around the table. Khushal Singh, an aspiring tour guide from Rajasthan, leans forward to listen, while Alagiri, an employee with a multinational company, pitches in. Then the retired Parisian professor drops a witty statement and a cackle goes around the table, even as Mary Freedha, a shy housewife, breaks into a smile.

It is not Tamil or Hindi or even English that helps this motley bunch make the connection, but a language they have aspired to learn for reasons of their own — French. The scene is straight out of a casual after-class conversation hour at the Alliance Francaise de Pondichery (AFP), which is all set to celebrate 125 years as an institution on February 28.

Established in 1889, the Alliance, which adds to the French aura of the town, is the oldest in Asia and among the oldest in the world. Besides its longevity, the institution’s unique location in a former French colony is what prompts students like Shreyansh to bypass similar centres of learning closer home. For those fascinated with French, there is perhaps nothing better than learning to speak it in an ambience which is still infused by traces of the country it originated in — as seen in the cuisine, heritage, architecture and customs. The opportunity to converse with native French speakers and French citizens from Puducherry is an added bonus.

The legacy

“As much as the Alliance draws from Puducherry’s legacy, it is keen to give back to the town by enriching the cultural scene here,” says Fabrice Mongiat, director, of AFP.

Standing on the threshold of an important milestone, it is this role of being an essential part of the cultural fabric of Puducherry that the AFP aspires to play in the future. A new auditorium with advanced sound engineering and the newly launched linguistic stays that allow participants to sign up for residential weekly programmes involving yoga, music, theatre and language are a move in this direction.

As Mr. Mongiat says, “The Alliance is not just another centre to learn the French language. Even as we focus on the four fundamental skills of reading, writing, listening and speaking, the fifth skill of cultivating an understanding of culture, is as important.”

The cultural arm of the institution gives students the opportunity to explore Francophone theatre, literature, cinema, gastronomy and popular culture through movies, literary meets, music concerts and more.

“Interviewing a French writer or painting side by side with a French artist (activities which the AFP offered recently) helps taking language learning beyond books,” observes Mr. Mongiat.

An average of 1,500 students enrol with the institution every year. For some it is a gateway to a French university, a credential for jobs that require dealing with European clients or a sheer desire to learn something new.

French on the resume

“But the French language is not just for an appreciation of culture, but is fast becoming a professional asset,” says the director, explaining AFP’s recent projection of the professional scope of French. For more than a couple of years now, the Alliance has been facilitating on-campus job fairs, building the centre as a recruiting pool for Indian companies who need French-speaking employees and French companies established in India.

“Puducherry benefits from the general assumption that most people here speak French, though this is not entirely true,” notes Marie Joelle Primoguet, course director. While there is a huge pool of competent learners at the initial levels, the centre does not always meet the expectations of corporates for high-profile jobs that demand advanced competencies like B1 or B2.

Yet apart from initiation courses for non-English speakers and official diplomas issued by the Ministry of Education, France, there are courses tailored for corporate, tourism and hotel management

Teaching skills

Currently, the institution is revamping teaching methodologies which can further enhance the quality of teaching. In the last five years, teaching has moved from being text-based to integrating technology in the classroom — interactive white boards, French television TV5, the national radio, movie clips and the use of the Internet in the classroom. The role of the teacher will be more like that of a coach who guides the student to explore the language.

With French being offered as a second or third language in many schools, what is the role of institutions like AFP?

“We often get students who can write in French, but are at a loss for speaking. What is the point of learning a language if you cannot communicate?” asks Ms. Marie Joelle. “The emphasis here is on the oral and aural skills.”

While crash courses make easy promises to make speakers fluent in a month, Mr. Mongiat, says that it is possible to ensure a certain level of comfort in speaking in the duration. The Alliance in Puducherry charges the lowest fees among institutions in India and plans to institute more scholarships for needy students. As Mr Mongiat puts it,“You need a lifetime, not three months to learn a language. We cannot sell what we cannot do.”