‘A constant flow of language’ with all the comforts of a seaside Maine inn

Julia Schulz, Patti Luchetti and Joanne O’Shea at a planning session for this year’s French Immersion at the Craignair Inn

In 2010, when Joanne O’Shea moved with her family to St. George as the new owners of the historic Craignair Inn overlooking the causeway leading to Clark Island, she was elated to find that she could get a French station on the television. The discovery rekindled a love of French language—and, within a few years, the creation of a unique annual French Immersion weekend at the inn. This year the event will take place June 1-3.

“I have a college degree in French, but I lived in Colorado and never used it—there aren’t a lot of French-speaking people there without really seeking it out. So when we moved here one thing was there was French TV, which of course was Canadian, which I couldn’t understand, but I at least knew it was French so that got French back into my mind. I just always loved French. I started taking it in 7th grade, majored in it in college and my husband and I honeymooned in Paris. Then we began having guests here at the inn who were speaking French.”

O’Shea decided to rejuvenate her by then rusty language skills by taking classes in French at the Penobscot Language School in Rockland—there she met longtime Penobscot Language School teacher Julia Schulz and Patti Luchetti, director of Shalimar’s Studio of Oriental Dance, who now plays a planning and support role for the Craignair immersions. For Schulz, who had co-founded the Penobscot Language School in 1986 in response to requests she was getting from home-schooling parents for language instruction, meeting innkeeper O’Shea opened up the possibility of pursuing a modest dream.

“I’d been doing language immersions for high-school and college students at Tanglewood and Blueberry Cove Camps for a while—French, Spanish, German. But they were big weekends, 60 students at a time staying in cabins with no electricity, no heat, and eating meals that we cooked together. These were great, but over the years I kind of wished for a smaller, more intimate, adults-only thing where you could have wine and really nice food in a beautiful place with a calm and quiet character—a setting like that creates a nice atmosphere for learning.”

Craignair Inn immersion participants last year enjoy a fun interaction—in French, of course.

Comfort, Schulz says, is the operative word. “If I were to come up with a slogan for these weekends it would be, ‘Go outside your comfort zone without giving up the comfort.’ Because it’s hard to be immersed in a foreign language day and night. Our goal is to create an atmosphere where people feel safe and relaxed and comfortable and a big part of that is the inn. The setting is so relaxing and comfortable, we get outside and do things, and the food is so good and you just feel good and comfortable there. It’s the idea of pushing yourself, but still having a really comfortable, safe space in which to do the hard work of trying to express yourself in another language and to understand what people are saying to you.”

This marks the fifth year the trio have collaborated on offering an immersion-style way for students of French to become more fluent in this foreign tongue. Groups have been as small as five and as large as 14. “The participants have been people who have studied French but who haven’t quite gotten to the level of just being able to speak it comfortably,” Schulz observes. O’Shea adds, “Julia never puts anybody on the spot, but she includes everyone. During the weekend you can’t go for more than a few minutes without having to say something in French.”

The key, O’Shea, Schulz and Luchetti agree, is to have something interesting to talk about. To that end during the weekend they highlight a particular region of France and some other French-speaking locale and also bring in special speakers. This year the featured regions will be Bordeaux and the French Caribbean. So the food served in the Craignair dining room is tied into that, as are the topics taken up by the guest speakers, who this year are Kate McAleer, founder and CEO of Rockland’s Bixby Chocolates, speaking in French about sourcing chocolate in Haiti and Crystal Robinson, a former high school French teacher who is now finishing up her studies in “agriscaping,” which involves adding edibles to landscape design.

“We’re all intelligent adults, so you want to be able to talk about your interests in this other language,” Schulz explains. “Immersion is a constant flow of language—that is, language in context, so we talk about the food we’re eating, about the weather, about whatever our guests are presenting.”

O’Shea, Schulz and Luchetti take care to pace the weekend with a variety of activities alongside opportunities for rest and outdoor recreation. “Immersion can be tiring,” Schulz admits. “People learn more and have a better time of it if they are relaxed.”—JW

For more information on this year’s June 1-3 French Immersion at the Craignair Inn go to craignair.com or call 207-594-7644 or email innkeeper@craignair.com. The cost, which includes wine-tasting, meals/snacks, instruction materials, activities tax and gratuity, is $300 plus a discounted rate on lodging at the inn. Special arrangements to participate just for a day or just for a dinner and evening session can also be made. Register online by May 25.

PHOTOS: Top, Julie Wortman, below, courtesy Craignair Inn

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