If you are anything like me and the millions of students who’ve gone through the American public school system, learning a foreign language is nothing short of a joke. Despite our education system’s best intentions, classroom learning is an exercise in laboratory futility. We memorize by rote a few words, we take a few tests, and when language learning is no longer a requirement, we forget everything immediately.
Although experiencing learning a language in an immersion environment is fairly common for some college students who study abroad, it’s definitely far from being the norm. Personally, I took almost three years of Russian language classes in college, and then I spent a semester actually learning the language in St. Petersburg, Russia. This experience differed drastically from my high school Spanish classes. Here’s why an immersion environment, even if only for a few months, is absolutely instrumental.
1. You learn to let your fears go
This was perhaps the most important reason for me in terms of learning in an immersion environment. When you learn a language in a classroom, you do so piecemeal. You memorize vocabulary words, do some conversation exercises, maybe write a few paragraphs. In an immersion environment, you have to speak the language, or else suffer isolation. This was especially true in Russia, where many of my Russian friends hardly spoke English. After awhile, you begin to lose your inhibitions and you become less afraid of making mistakes, grammatical or otherwise. And when you lose this fear, you open yourself up to authentic conversation practice, one in which you learn as you go.
2. You learn the way children learn-naturally
A friend of mine who speaks only English, once told me, rather jokingly, that she finds it remarkably how very young German children can speak a language that seems so incredibly difficult. This conversation made me realize that the quickest and best way to learn a language is to approach the process as a child would. You don’t memorize flashcards, and you don’t complete pages of homework. You just listen, absorb, and speak. Being an immersion environment helps language learners to learn a target language naturally, like a child.
3. You become acquainted with the way the language is spoken in “real life.”
I’m sure Russian language teachers cringe if they would have heard some of the slang that I picked up in my time in St. Petersburg. But there’s more than just youth slang when I talk about learning a living language, as it is actually spoken. There’s learning the way people joke, and the types of jokes that are considered funny. There’s also idiomatic ways of speaking that aren’t necessarily considered slang. For example, in American English, we may say “I’m about to head over to my friend’s house.” No English teacher would correct this construction, but it’s not something you’d learn to say in an English textbook either.
4. You learn aspects of language that cannot be replicated in a foreign classroom
Of course, I’m not in any way trying to dismiss the effectiveness of a classroom education. I probably would have not survived in Russia socially if I had not taken a few years of courses at my home university before departing. But I was astounded by how much more I learned about the Russian language-the pronunciation, the intonation, the vocal and facial emotions appropriate for certain expressions-by just going out for a few nights in St. Petersburg.
Not all language learners, of course, will have the opportunity to spend some time in an immersion environment. But if you can’t actually fly across the world to learn a new language, you can always create an immersion environment. Find native speakers in your vicinity using MeetUp or Live Mocha. Talk to native speakers using Skype. Another great option is just paying a few dollars extra to subscribe to a Russian, Chinese, Spanish, or English language channel through your cable company, like I did when I got home to America. Whatever you do, try to replicate the immersion environment as best as you can. You’ll be surprised at the results.
by Katheryn Rivas
Find out more about the Full Immersion programme for children and teenagers in Cambridge at La Dante International