Monday, June 16, 2008

Language Immersion

Whenever I read about language immersion, I wonder if we maybe shouldn't teach people to drive by putting them in a car, sending them out on the freeway and seeing what happens. That's what language immersion is the way that some would go about it.

A couple weeks ago, the LinguistBlogger put up his thoughts on the matter. His suggestion: Language immersion is something you do after you understand the fundamentals:
If you don’t have enough desire to get at least to a solid 2 [limited proficiency] in the target language before you start your language immersion it’s doubtful that you will get much better than that. I recommend getting to a 3 [proficiency] which is entirely possible for most languages. Getting to a 3 first will make it so getting to a 4 [advanced proficiency] in the foreign country becomes very doable and even fun and enjoyable.
The problem is that if you don't have a decent handle on things before you go for the immersion, 1) you won't know what to listen for and build on and 2) you'll probably play it safe, avoiding those linguistic situations that will make you grow.

When I went to France, I had a fair amount of French under my belt. And I lived with a family. So I went from, say, 2 1/2 to 4. I had friends in my program with weaker backgrounds who got a little better at everyday stuff but never took it to the next level. For my part, I came to California at about a level 1 in Spanish. While I talk on a regular basis with native Spanish speakers, my Spanish improves or falters based much more on whether I've been studying than the degree of interaction. At my level, language immersion mainly activates what I know latently but I'm not plugged in enough to automatically assimilate things as they come up.

I've been a big booster of Assimil on this page, and I'd toss out this one point: While raw immersion is a bad idea for beginners, it's a slightly different story with guided immersion. Because of the way we learn and use language, the old grammar translation is usually better for laying the foundation to learn to speak naturally than for actually speaking naturally. But if you intend to "pick up" a language, what you pick up will be sorely limited by the sophistication you bring to the operation. Best to find a method where you work with real language but in a format that eases you into it and helps keep you up to speed with what's going on. If you can find a method where the end of the book looks incomprehensible but the level of difficulty between chapters 1 and 2 is negligible, you might just have something that can take you by the hand and lead you into the language at a pace where one day you'll be ready for a real immersion. Then all you need is the will to keep working with it till you get there.

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