Should You Study Abroad or in an Immersion Program?

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It’s (Almost) All in Your Head

The saying “where’s there a will, there’s a way” is very applicable to learning a foreign language. I do not refer to finding the financial means to going on a study abroad program. Most study abroad programs portray themselves as “total immersion” programs, which usually triggers the mental image of dipping a little piece of chocolate into a candy coating and – poof – the student emerges having been linguistically reprogrammed – for X amount of dollars.

Immersion Explained

What is total immersion? Is there such a thing as partial immersion? Is one necessarily superior? The programs that advertise themselves as total immersion, overseas programs (or study abroad) would have you think so. That is the implicit assumption as well as the conventional wisdom.

First, total immersion requires either one of two things: either a tremendous self-imposed discipline on the part of the language learner to never, ever use a word of his or her native language while in the immersion environment (presumably overseas, often while living with a host family) or it requires tremendous big-brother surveillance of the students to make sure they do not use their native language(s) while in the immersion environment.

An immersion environment is any place where no (let’s say) English is used. All radio, TV, magazines, other inhabitants of the space (native speakers or fellow learners) bring nothing into the space that has any English about it. While there, everyone speaks the target language. In naval terms, this is equivalent to the language of command – that language that is common to the majority, whether they are native speakers of it or not.

In the first case, that of the person of incredible self-discipline, one must ask why, with such iron will, they could not be just as successful at home, in a partial immersion environment – that is, a part-time immersion environment created by people of similar commitment and their teacher or teachers? Such partial, or really, part-time immersion does not require a brick-and-mortar solution. It is truly a place of the mind.

Going Abroad

The second scenario is not worth considering as an effective language-learning environment, no matter how “immersed” the participants may be. They will find ways to either subvert it outright or will continually have their heads running in their native language, thus nullifying any benefit that is supposed to be derived from the expensive geographical transplant.

Yes, go overseas, abroad, immerse yourself – but note that last word: your SELF. There is nothing magical about being overseas, abroad or immersed. I taught in an overseas program where most participants could have immersed themselves (adults) as I advised them to do, but they were just so interested in socializing with each other that the environment and living circumstances became an obstacle to their parties. I taught in an intensive program, in the US, where some people could not take the pressure – and we let them out on weekends to play golf…

As an experiment to test the notion of geography versus psychology, I once immersed myself in Spanish while living in Washington, DC. My colleagues were Spanish speakers at a university and at the time, much of my social life revolved around that group. My dry-cleaner was Korean, so I couldn’t speak to him anyway. My grocer was also Korean, but had so many Spanish speakers working for him that he had actually taught himself Spanish! As for my bank, the ATMs already offered Spanish on the menu. TV stations in Spanish, movies and magazines, all were easy to get. I immersed myself for eight weeks, and realized that if one speaks Spanish, even in the US capital, it is possible, even if quite limiting, to live one’s life without a word of English.

Depending on the language you are studying, many of the same conditions that make for successful language learning in a study abroad program can be found – or created – right here at home, and for a lot, lot less – because you don’t have to leave home. As the great Spanish intellectual of the 1600s, Francisco de Quevedo observed, “One does not improve one’s lot by changing one’s country, but by changing one’s habits and ways.”