Thursday, June 17, 2010

Overseas Programs: Some Observations Before You Go

This is the time of year when high school and especially college students begin to go abroad to study a foreign language for a few weeks, possibly a couple of months or more, in an immersion environment. Let's break that statement down and see what it means.

First, let's look at what it means when we refer to the foreign-language learning experience of US students. By the time a study-abroad decision is made, most of them have been studying their language of choice for at least a half a year, usually a year, before they decide to take the plunge and go abroad. That means a lot of textbook learning in books that, while they discuss "culture" what they really offer are vignettes of (usually) quaint customs, holidays, foods, art and music. But, what they have and haven't learned about their target language, its social culture (and the particular place they are going to be immersed) matters much more than what most textbooks have the courage or the space to impart. Often, teachers are timid about telling the "whole truth" for fear of offending their students, their colleagues, parents and administrators -- of course, the degree of reticence depends on the age group and many other factors. Conventional wisdom works well here, as long as one knows what it entails: The stronger the foundation, the more the student will get out of the experience in every way. That said, there are many students for whom the experience will not pay off linguistically because there is too much they have not learned and most of their time will be spent learning a lot of simple discourse strategies they should have been at least exposed to while in their home country.

In general terms, this means how to engage in verbal give-and-take in culturally appropriate ways in the target culture. They also should learn about taboos -- and a readiness to learn that what is taboo in one culture may not be in another. Students faced with this steep uphill climb often suffer the most from culture shock and will often seek out their fellow Americans, and thus dilute the experience for the group. One solution is to impose a "no English" rule for the group, but this is often hard to enforce, especially under cultural stress.

Successful foreign-language students, of any age, are the bold ones, not necessarily the ones with a 4.0 in every subject.

Next, let's examine how long the student will be overseas and assess its linguistic return on investment (time, money, effort, risk and so forth). The learning curve varies from person to person. The student with a weak foundation will spend his or her time cobbling it together -- such students should probably be discouraged from going on a study abroad program, unless they are eager beavers, very social and have a strong desire to invest a lot of effort. Yet the short duration of study abroad programs should make everyone step back and ask whether student A or student B is ready to benefit from the stay. The best programs are those that involve a serious semester at a foreign university. No, make that a year abroad as a foreign student taking classes with native speakers of their target language.

Finally, what do most people understand when they encounter the word "immersion"? It has a ring to it, like a talisman that will somehow solve a student's previous difficulties. As if one could devise a pill. The one phrase that should disturb foreign-language educators is "I'm going to [pick a country] to pick up [language]." As if one picks up a language like one picks up a cold.

I'm going to say what needs to be said: Immersion is more psychological than geographic. It is quite possible to immerse onself in many language communities right here in the US -- certainly in most large cities. True, there are some languages that don't have large enough communities of speakers for this to work. But remember, if you're going abroad, you need to go all the way. It takes discipline to stay away from friends and make new ones. It is tough when you want to say something and can't find the words to do it, but keep at it and it will pay off.

Stay engaged in the moment. Open up all your channels for absorbing information and communication and you will succeed.

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