I started learning a foreign language like most people: at school. Mine was called Notre-Dame-de-Fatima, an ordinary village primary school in Quebec province, and the language that I learned was English. I memorised irregular verbs lists, wrote down vocabulary in my notebook and repeated what our English teacher told us to repeat. It neither fun, nor complicated. Learning another language was just learning about any other subject. I had math, P.E., art, music, and English. Normal.
Except that learning a new language is everything except just another school subject. But, let me finish my story…
I got pretty good at it. English was everywhere in Canada, even in a French speaking place like rural Quebec, at it was easy to access it. The best TV shows were in English, the best music, the best movies… Everything ! And for a wanna-be-cool-teenager, it was almost effortless to learn it. I got into secondary school and, even though the way to teach English as a second language hadn’t changed much from my primary days, it didn’t matter much. English was everywhere. I could even have managed without school.
Without knowing it, I was already in a situation of immersion. I achieved a high level of English, not because of my schooling, but because I was surrounded by the language, soaking it in naturally. Speaking of which, let’s bring back the old definition…
To immerse / verb / im·merse / i-ˈmərs / : to plunge into something that surrounds or covers; to plunge or dip into a fluid (Merriam-Webster)
In my teens, I couldn’t say that I was completely immersed in the English language (I had water up to my knees, sort of speak), and yet this omnipresence of the language shaped what was to become a strong second language for me. Years later, I would move to South America in search of a similar linguistic bath. I would move to Argentina and my idea was to learn Spanish.
I though: “How hard can it be? I already speak French. Piece of cake !” A month before taking off to Buenos Aires, I bought a Méthode Assimil – Espagnol and meticulously went through every chapter of the book and CD, memorising sentences and rewriting them in my little notebook. After all, that’s the way I did it at school. Then came the big jump. And the big shock!
Buenos Aires, Argentina, 2003. Spanish speakers everywhere. I don’t understand anything. Not a word. To my utmost shame, I even use English to find my hostel. “Like a big tourist” I think to myself, hiding my humiliation in my eight bunkbeds dorm. What had happen to my Assimil method?
I was ready to dive in.
Following my arrival, I enlisted in a Spanish language school, on Calle Lavalle, in the micro centro of Buenos Aires. The class size was mini (three students, one teacher) and the language of instruction was exclusively Spanish. I took the class full time for about three weeks, and, to my amazement, my progresses were phenomenal. After a week, I could get around in the city, ask my way to a place, or how much things cost… At the end of the program, I felt like I belonged in Buenos Aires. I couldn’t believe it!
My days were almost always the same: in the morning, I would go to class. We would have two different teachers, both native Spanish speakers. In the afternoon, I would go out in the city, alone or with friend. In the evening, I would watch television in Spanish. Little by little, I even started to think in the language !
I was immersed !
Two years later, when I left Argentina, my level in Spanish was far superior that the one that I had in English. I have read Garcia Marquez, composed songs in Spanish and had friends (and girlfriends) that spoke only Spanish. I truly felt bilingual.
Immersion at school
Everybody knows, immersion is the best way to learn a language. It seems almost magical: spend a few months in a country and speak like a local in no time ! Practically speaking though, it’s not that easy. You need to really dedicate yourself to the language: leave your home and try to live a different kind of life in a different country. The payoff is great, but it needs a bit of work. And let’s face it, not everybody can take a year abroad to learn a language.
The ideal thing to do would be to recreate immersion in school. But as a foreign language learner turned foreign language teacher, I can think of a few obstacles: the difficulty of a large group of student sticking to the target language, the presence of “outside noises” in the lesson, the dominant language at school, the different levels of proficiency of the students… Recreating immersion in class seems almost impossible. But maybe there is a midway… Here are a few ideas :
- Use only the target language when talking to your students
- Devote one lesson a week when the use of the school main language is forbidden in class
- Use skype to connect your students with native speakers of the language you’re trying to teach
- Use role play and improvisation in a creative way
I will come back on this topic in a later post. There is much to say about immersion in the classroom, and this is only the first of many conversation about it. Stay tuned for more…