Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Language Immersion: Do It Yourself -- at Home!

Overseas programs are exciting. They are like a shiny coin that you just can resist picking up. They are often a young adult's first adventure -- his or her first opportunity to really be away from the nest! Overseas experiences, which generally vary in length from a few weeks to a semester, are essential at some point in any serious student's foreign-language study. They open up new cultural vistas and expand a young person's tolerance for difference and for the points of view of others.

Historically speaking, overseas experiences, as frequently sponsored or endorsed by modern universities and colleges, are a middle-class derivitive of the nineteenth century practice of wealthy English and New Englander students' Great Tour -- which meant going to Europe, particularly Italy. If you've ever seen A Room with a View, you'll recognize this social-class phenomenon.

On the other side of this shiny coin, overseas programs are expensive. As an aside, accredited programs are often much more expensive than going on one's own. Universities charge students a pretty penny. Also, depending on the country and the living circumstances, they can be less safe than most parents would likely approve -- and don't depend on State Department warnings to tell the whole truth. After all, with the exception of health and natural disaster warnings, which can be portrayed clinically, the USA's trade and diplomatic relations, defense treaties, etc. aren't served by speaking the unvarnished truth about the risks involved when travelling to some foreign countries as a citizen of the USA.

Even in the absence of any appreciable risks, one has to consider at what point in one's language study he or she can be considered to be ready to go on a study abroad program. By ready to go, I mean that stage when the student, other than being socially mature and responsible, he or she has arrived at that stage of language study when the most can be derived from the experience. A beginner is not going to get much from the experience -- linguistically. A student has to be at a stage when the simple affairs of daily routine can be communicated in the foreign language (and likely answers understood) with a minimum of difficulty. At a minimum, before going on an overseas program, a student should know how to get around (ask directions), how to exchange money, make phone calls, shop... how to interact with a host family -- and how family structures work, culturally. The most responsible overseas programs require proof of this ability, not in terms of "seat time" in a foreign language class, but by some kind of test. Ideally, this should be oral.

Whether you are a parent, a student or a life-long learner, I offer some observations to enhance your experience, based on experience with overseas programs, the students that return and the ones planning on going. Parents and students (who might be borrowing on their future), need a bluntly honest assessment of the linguistic return on investment (of time, money and effort) before they throw down money to go to a foreign country to study its language.

First, immersion is not a matter of environment. It is a ninety percent a matter of self discipline. As evidence, I offer my observations of students who, while overseas, hang out with their fellow compatriots - or find other speakers of their language to hang out with. They continue to entertain themselves with the music and games they enjoyed at home. They often seek food from home. In other words, they retreat into their comfortable shell, like a tortoise does when it feels threatened. The best among them learn little more than phrases that they recycle in order to satisfy their immediate requirements. At best, they take baby steps into the host culture, either because they have no choice or because they really are trying, but simply went too soon in their course of language study.

How then, should you prepare for an overseas program, to ensure that you'll get the most? Simply put, experiment with the circumstance while you're in your native country. For instance, try only using your target language -- in your own head -- for at least an hour a day. Seek out native speakers of your target language who live in your area (community organizations, churches, clubs, etc.). Listen to the radio: TuneIn and YouTube are marvellous resources - and they're free! Read online articles, blogs and other sites that deal with things you're already interested in. Learn vocabulary that has to do with the things you most deal with. For instance, don't waste time learning about the parts of a car unless you really like cars already. You'll want to be around people who are interested in things you also like, so make a deliberate effort to learn vocabulary about your hobbies.

Seek out information about the country who hope to visit. The CIA Fact Book is too superficial to be of any use. Go to the web and search for sites in both your native language and your target language so you can get exposure to this basic information in both languages.

Finally, do not neglect formal study of the grammar of your target language. Any foreign-language program in an academic institution that does not require considerable serious time to formal grammar is wasting time. You can't communicate unless you are clear.

A good balance between grammar and "free time" for trying to speak the target language is just as important as a good balance between learning the proper strokes for swimming and just having fun in the pool.

To finish with another pool analogy: don't go into the deep end until you can tread water comfortably for one minute!

Happy Language Learning!