Photo: Nils via Wikimedia Commons
Photo: Nils via Wikimedia Commons

It is a commonly held view that the best way to learn a language is by travelling to a country where the language is spoken and immersing yourself in the culture. This is arguably the reason why most language courses incorporate a year abroad into their curriculums, but for those who do not study languages at university and indeed even for those that do, the path to language immersion can be a foggy one that is open to interpretation. How does one go about it and is it really that effective?

The answer seems to be yes, and can be validated by a number of students who chose different methods of immersion in order to learn languages. Katharine Lovatt, a second-year French student, au paired in the South of France for a month during the summer holidays and told The Saint that when she came back from being away, she “had a far better command of the language. ”

Ms Lovatt credits this to the fact that language immersion is “much more continuous than the oral classes, which have a whole week in-between” as well as the fact that “hearing French all the time meant [she] started to notice recurring words and phrases so before long [her] comprehension improved enormously.”

Emily Asinger, on the other hand, who had studied enough French at school “to order coffee and that’s about it”, chose a school exchange program for nine months in Rennes, France. She agreed that “talking with her [host] family and friends was an amazing way to learn French,” adding that “after [she] left [she] would definitely say [she] had a strong sense of French.”

Immersion appears to be a successful way for both beginners and those more advanced in their linguistic skills to gain fluency in their language of choice. However, even though it is possible to immerse yourself in a language at beginner level, it is important make sure that you have fully researched the nuances of the language that you are immersing yourself in. Emily Kulesa, whose knowledge of Fijian was “minimal to none” before going to teach English and Maths in Fiji, wished she that she had had “a better knowledge of local dialect because even when [she] was able to converse in Fijian [she] would find it difficult because some of her students only understood the local dialect.”

If you make the plunge and go to a country whose language is completely alien to you, even if you only know a few words it would be worth checking if those words are subject to change due to local dialect or accent!

Then there’s the question of how long you need to go for adequate immersion. A week, two weeks, a month, a year? The students that we spoke to had visited their chosen countries for varying amounts of time, ranging from two weeks to a whole year. However, the overall consensus was that any amount of immersion time is beneficial and should be catered to individual tastes. Ms Lovatt thought that “a month was a perfect amount of time – any longer with just one family (they lived in a very isolated place too) would be quite difficult” while Katie Hurst, whose knowledge of French was enough to “pass a school exam” before going on a school exchange program to France, “loved it so much that she went back for another week.”

All agreed that what improved most was their ability to converse in their chosen language, Ms Hurst even stated that she “began to dream and think in French!.”

Stefana Baukovic, a fifth-year French student who taught English in Burgundy for a year, admitted, “I was really quite shy when speaking French at first, but a few weeks in, I was feeling much more comfortable and capable.”

Ms Asinger added that full integration is very important. “I would definitely recommend full integration like this! It forces you to learn the language and is so rewarding when you can actually understand and respond with ease,” she said.

There are additional benefits to immersing yourself in a country. Ms Hurst said, “I got to explore more and go to places I wouldn’t have gone to” while Ms Baukovic stated that although she definitely improved a lot during her programme, one of the biggest developments for her was in terms of her level of confidence.

When asked why this method of language learning worked, each of the students provided the same answer. In order to learn the everyday language and ways of speaking of a country, it is important to go there. Ms Baukovic summed this up nicely by saying, “although I arrived prepared with [the vocabulary necessary] if I had to make a three minute speech on the environment, I definitely wouldn’t have known as many slang words and common colloquialisms had I not gone to France and learnt by integration!”

Ms Lovatt added “It is a real life situation, so your motivation to listen carefully and pick out words is much higher because it’s necessary to have a conversation.”

Nevertheless, although immersion is a great way to learn a language, that is not to say that it isn’t without its difficulties. Moving to any new place for a long period of time can be unsettling, even more so if the language spoken there is not your native one. Ms Asinger addressed this by advising “Don’t be afraid! It can be intimidating to be thrown into a new country where you can’t understand anything, but it’s so rewarding when you look like a true local and can go around with no trouble!”

So what should you do in order to make the most of what time you may have in a country and to overcome any difficulties? Ms Lovatt suggests that you “use connections and contacts you have to set up a placement as you are much more likely to get friendly people who genuinely take an interest and help you when they can.” She added, that in her experience, “living with a family for a month is quite intense so it was immensely helpful that they were friendly and included me when they were socialising with friends.”

Ms Lovatt also kept a notebook where she wrote down useful words and phrases and would really recommend doing this as it consolidated the vocab she was learning. She added, “I tried to immerse myself in the language at all times by tuning into conversations, radio and TV, and French as much as I could.” She made the most of all the language tools available to her whilst there.

A good place to start for example, is by watching a TV show that you already know and which has voice-overs in your target language.

In order to make things easier for herself, Ms Kulesa had a slightly different approach. She detailed how already having “a knowledge of English benefited her as Fijian has words that are a mix of English.” She give the example that the word for England is Englandia.

However, she added that in order to learn more she would ask her host family to teach her phrases. Ms Baukovic took a similar approach to language learning and said of her time in France that she had “aimed to say yes to every invitation and see everything as an opportunity to gain linguistic experience, whether it was a house party, a date or a trip to the bank.”

As to their overall opinion on learning languages through immersion, the students were very complimentary of the experience. Ms Asinger said that “living in France with a host family and learning the language was, in my opinion, the best way to learn a language. I as fully immersed in the language and culture so I learned very quickly”.

So how do you set up an immersion program? For au pairing Ms Lovatt recommends asking family and friends if they know anyone in need of an au pair, but bear in mind that there are plenty of sites to do this too.

For students with integrated years abroad, Ms Baukovic used the British Council to get her teaching placement. For those like Ms Kulesa without advanced skills in one language, the organisation she went with to Fiji, Think Pacific, was a great way to experience a new language and culture. There are also websites such as TalkTalkBnb.com that are dedicated to helping students organise a period of language immersion. And if all else fails, being in your target language’s country is a start, from there just embrace any opportunity to speak it.

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