You remember them: They spent their junior years in Paris or Geneva and came back parlez-ing of "Pa-ree" and "Zhe-nev." Just two semesters abroad -- most of that time spent under striped umbrellas sipping Pernod, from the sound of it -- and all of French culture had unfurled for them like the tricolor in a Bastille Day breeze. Fluency, they assured you with a little Gallic shrug, was aussi simple que cela.

Let me tell you un petit secret: They lied.

Learning a language, and by extension a culture, cannot be accomplished in a sidewalk cafe' unless you are surrounded by people jabbering it to you and expecting you to respond in kind. (Hemingway's French, for example, is said to have been inept.) If those acquaintances came back fluent (did you ever test them?), they probably went abroad with a few semesters of French grammar under their ceintures, and while they were away they studied, hard.

Think about it. It's taken you how many years to get to the point where you can speak English well, if not always with eloquence or style? Why would you expect mastering a second tongue to be any easier?

So if think you might like to achieve fluency in French, be prepared to work at it for years. Or lower your sights: Maybe you want only to be able to order from a menu, or to yell at the idiot at American Express who messed up your reservations. In either case, the best place to learn the language is in France (though Swiss French is very pure, despite what the French French say), and the greatest range of methods and schools (and price ranges) is in Paris.

But be forewarned: The studying -- at least of language programs -- should begin before you go.

After you've decided how fluent you want to become, you should consider the most suitable way of getting to that point. Babies absorb a language for many months before they are expected to say something in it, and even then their mistakes are deemed adorable and gently corrected; a Parisian waiter is not likely to be so tolerant. So you will want to go fast, but not too fast: Distrust a school that puts the subjunctive before the passe' compose', as many do. Be equally skeptical of schools that insist that grammar is less important than conversation, or that you learn a language best through the spoken rather than the written word. It's true that you can't speak a language unless you practice speaking, but you can't understand a language unless you practice writing. Literacy should be a goal even if fluency isn't.

On the other hand, don't expect to learn French without speaking it to people who speak it well. In-class conversation is important; avoid a program that doesn't let you practice with live people (that's less silly than it sounds -- many have you listen to tapes).

Picking an approach requires a glossary in itself. The options available for learning a language include:

The traditional method. Most American high schools teach foreign languages by this method -- with an instructor, a grammar book, homework, written themes. There is much memorization, very little conversation; most oral work is in the form of exercises and drills.

The direct method, originated by Maximilian Berlitz, was revolutionary in its day, but that was a hundred years ago. Now it may seem a little trying, especially for adults who crave more intelligent conversation starters than "This is a pencil" and "What color is that book?" Questions and answers are at the heart of the method; grammatical explanations are avoided until late in the course. The theory is that you learn by repeating the teacher's vocabulary and sentence patterns.

The structural or audio-lingual approach appeared in the 1950s. The idea is that language can be reduced to basic structures, which can then be learned by mimicry and memorization (mim-mem) of patterns. This method puts a lot of stress on tape recorders and language laboratories -- a vestige of the '50s fascination with technology that was then very new. The approach is boring and confusing. But experts hail(ed) it as a return to more natural spoken language -- no more "This is a cup."

The situational or audio-visual approach dates from the 1960s and was at least partly a reaction to the audio-lingual drills. The basic idea is that the way language is used is at least as important as the way it is structured, and the method uses photos, film strips, movies and the like to illustrate situations.

The threshold functional-notational approach and the communicative approach. In the threshold approach, the basic needs of the learner -- is it more important for you to learn to transact business or to order at restaurants? -- are taken into account in the learning process. The communicative approach stresses conversation, and usually takes place in groups of two or three.

As you would expect, most programs combine several of these methods. But many instructors are surprisingly rigid, so it pays to know what "structuralism" is before you put your money down.

Next consider costs. Fees vary widely depending on facilities and teachers and the number of students in each class. But costs bear little relation to quality. Also consider class size. Many former students informally surveyed say that individual tutors, if you can afford them, are excellent, especially in conjunction with formal grammar classes, since they force you to practice speaking. Tutors range from 80 to 200 francs (about $13 to $32) an hour; the Franco-American Commission in Paris can help you locate one, and can help place you in French homes -- another good way to improve your command of the language.

The next step is to select a school. The following programs are among the best known; all are available year-round. The commentary comes from the personal experiences of friends and acquaintances.

Alliance Francaise is probably the best-known French language program in Paris, and among the cheapest, with 10-hour-a-week courses at 950 francs (about $150) a month and intensive, 20-hour-a-week courses at 1,800 francs (about $290). You get what you pay for: Skip it. I've never met a former student yet who had a good thing to say about the school. Classes range to 25 people, far too many for conversation or individual attention, but that doesn't matter since the school describes its approach as audio-visual, with lots of movies and slides. There is also a language lab, a textbook and homework. Non.

ALFA offers a program, run by the imposing Madame Gruet, that is an open secret among journalists and other professionals who need to master the language relatively quickly. Unfortunately, it is quite expensive -- 250 francs (about $40) an hour for private lessons, less in groups of two or three. The instructors -- Isabelle, Denis and Mark are mentioned as favorites -- will ask whether you prefer to stress grammar or conversation or pronunciation, and will follow your request slavishly. If you want to read Camus or acquire a specialized vocabulary, they will help with that too.

Berlitz Language Center offers a method, outlined above, that is controversial; most people I know hate it, especially in groups (no more than four people). On the other hand, the private lessons seem to work. Berlitz is very expensive: a two-month, intensive course of 15 hours a week will cost 17,600 francs (about $2,850); private lessons are 195 francs (more than $30) for 45 minutes.

Eurocentre has the Cadillac of language programs: nice building, big library (with a good selection of French films), field trips, lectures, special courses on writing letters, etc., all for 3,200 francs (about $520) a month. Unfortunately, ex-students say, it tends to attract well-to-do kids who are not always terribly serious about learning the language. Also, the quality of the instructors is said to vary widely, and the size of classes (15 people each) is a bit big. It is wise to apply to this program at least a month in advance, since it is well known in Europe.

Fondation Post-Universitaire Internationale is a big school, adjacent to a youth-hostel complex; its students are a varied lot. But classes are big (15 people) and the teacher tends to get annoyed if you stop to scribble down a phrase or idiom; children don't learn that way, she says, and neither should you. Grammar is not a priority, a problem when you are trying to make sense of the past subjunctive during your hour-a-day session in the language-lab. Cheap (about 1,200 francs -- about $195 -- a month for 15 hours a week), but not worth the price.

Institut Catholique is a traditional Catholic college that teaches students in the traditional French way: by the book. But conversation is encouraged more than at most French schools. The facilities are excellent, and many students find the rigorous, serious approach quite refreshing and useful. Prices are reasonable, too: 1,300 francs (about $210) for an intensive month-long course in the summer; 6,100 (about $990) for a regular school semester (Sept. 28 to Jan. 29) of 18 hours a week. But classes are quite big, the school says -- around 19 people in each.

Langue-Onze is run as a collective by its instructors, and as you might guess, its facilities are minimalist -- no language lab or audiovisual equipment, a very small library. But it gets rave reviews as being "good value for money" (10 hours a week at around 900 francs -- about $145 -- a month; a month in the south of France in summer for 4,300 francs -- about $700 -- including food). And students like the social-mindedness of the instructors, who tend to steer discussions toward philosophical and political subjects -- no tennis talk here. The school prepares its own textbook stressing grammar, and takes reading from sources ranging from Le Monde to "No Exit." Classes will restart in Paris in December; if you call before November, no one will answer the phone.

Universite' de la Sorbonne has a thoroughly traditional program, emphasizing grammar and memorization. There is very little conversation in class, largely because there are so many students -- up to 30 to a teacher. One former student calls this the "spit it out" approach, but others insist that it provides a very good grounding in the fundamentals of the language. One semester (late September through January) costs 3,700 francs (about $600) for 32 hours a week. Apply by early September to the program for Etudes Francaises pour Etrangers.

Nina Martin is an editor with the International Herald-Tribune.


REQUIREMENTS: If you are going to France only to study the language, you will qualify for a student visa. Such visas, or other French identity papers, are required if you plan to study for a semester or full school year at a university such as the Sorbonne or Institut Catholique. (For more information about identity papers and photos, contact the French Embassy, 4101 Reservoir Rd., Washington, D.C. 20007, 944-6000.)

It is to your advantage to get a student's visa, if you qualify, since American students can legally work part-time in France. Otherwise you must hold a passport from a European Community country or be married to someone who does. Also, students are a privileged class in France, and qualify for discounts on a range of items from train tickets to museum fees.

Universities also will ask for your identity photos and for a copy of any college or high school diploma you may have. If you choose a university, for the first semester beginning in late September you often must apply by mid-August. Programs by the week or month have much more lenient requirements, and usually you need only apply a month or a couple of weeks ahead. INFORMATION: "Where & How," a book published by International Where & How (Am Hofgarten 5, Postfach 24 64, D-5300 Bonn 1, West Germany), sums up in more detail the options available for learning a language. The book is available from the Commission Franco Amer'icaine d'Echanges Universitaires in Paris (9 Rue Chardin, Paris 75016, France, phone 45-20-46-54), a good place to go if you have questions about any educational program in France.

For more information on specific schools and programs, contact:

Alliance Francaise, 101 Blvd. Raspail, Paris 75006, France, phone 45-44-38-28.

ALFA, 12 Rue Florentin, Paris 75008, France, 42-96-50-09.

Berlitz Language Center, 10 offices in the Paris area, 47-42-13-39.

Eurocentre, 13 Passage Dauphine, Paris 75006, France, 43-25-81-40.

Fondation Post-Universitaire Internationale, 30 Rue Cabanis, Paris 75014, France, 45-22-99-12.

Institut Catholique, 21 Rue d'Assas, Paris 75006, France, 42-22-41-80.

Langue-Onze, 15 Rue Sambey, Paris 75011, France, 43-38-22-87.

Universite' de la Sorbonne, 19 Rue des Bernadins, Paris 75005, France, 43-29-12-13.