Sink or swim! There is absolutely no better way to learn a language than to be totally immersed in it. To those who think they are too old to learn a language, just listen to your local Chinese restaurant waiter who is in his 30s and just recently moved to the United States without first learning word one of English. He did it and so can you. Why? He had to. Nothing worth anything in life is obtained without a struggle. I learned to speak French with the most facility when I was in Northern Quebec and had to. I learned to speak Arabic with ease when I was in the middle of the Sahara desert of Tunisia and had to. Being immersed in a language is by far the best way to learn. The problem that most people face, however, is not realizing that they are immersed in the language because once immersed they choose to speak English with those others who speak English. Or, they think that they are not going to spend enough time in the immersed environment for it to make any difference. In both cases, they are wrong.
I did spend over two years of total immersion in French, and there is no question that it is why I speak French well enough to translate. I only had less than a month, however, of total immersion with Arabic. Still, I am highly proficient. Why, immersion is more about concentration of language, than it is about length of time in the language. I know of hundred if not thousands of people who live in an environment where they are surrounded by a different language, but they still don’t speak word one of the foreign tongue. Why? They choose not to learn. Sometimes it can be for political reasons. Ask an English speaking Canadian living in Quebec City why they don’t speak French. Melt down everything they say and the answer is simple: politics. Or, it can be because of personal choice not to learn. Ask an English-only speaking American living in San Antonio why they don’t speak Spanish. The answer is may boil down to a simple excuse of, “this is America.” In either case, people may be immersed in a language for years, yet never learn to speak the language of their surroundings. If, however, by choice, they had decided to try and make a concerted effort at learning something new, they too may be bilingual.
So what do you do if you are not able to travel to France, spend time in Germany, cruise the islands, or ride a camel in the Middle East? The answer is quite simple. Find pockets of immersion in your own town. When my family lived in Washington D.C. we attended a unique church. It was a nice Arabic Christian church. Most of the parishioners were from Lebanon and as such it was very much of a Lebanese dialect, but for that 2-3 hour church experience, my family was totally immersed. Talk about learning a language! My wife was convinced that I was a better man because I walked away from church having truly listened to the sermon. I had to! Without really focusing on what was said, I would not have understood. Going to church also helped me to meet new friends. Now I have even more people that I can communicate with to practice my chosen language. It has also helped my children appreciate other children from different backgrounds. Helping your children to break down the barriers of stereotypes and discrimination early is a win win for your children and our society.
You want an even easier immersion than a church focused on your language? Go out to eat! It may surprise you, but most Chinese restaurants have fluent Chinese speakers working there. Next time you go, and the waiter asks you how the food is, respond, “Hen How!” – “very good!” I’m sure he or she will appreciate it. As they come around again and ask you if you need more water, ask them how to say water in Chinese. Why not? Learning a language is a process. You may forget the word once you learn it, but if you don’t try, you’ll never learn. Besides, how many times does your toddler ask you about something that is new to them? If you have ever dealt with toddlers, you know exactly what I’m talking about. They will talk about something without end. Don’t be afraid to ask how you say ‘water' again and again if you keep forgetting. Sooner or later you will remember.
There are many pockets of immersion in every city in the United States. One way to find such a pocket is to look in your local town for those interested in learning English as a second language or ESL. Many local churches and civic groups offer ESL as a volunteer service. Immigrants wanting to learn to speak English flock to such groups and are very anxious to learn. Regardless of where you are, if you volunteer to help teach English as a second language you will undoubtedly find individuals who will help you to learn words and phrases of their own tongue. The best part is that rarely do ESL teaching groups have enough volunteers. So there is always room for one more. Second, is that you don’t need to speak any foreign language to volunteer as an ESL instructor. True you never know what country the people will be from that are there to learn, but that is half the fun. Regardless, while volunteering your time, it is almost impossible to walk away without learning even a few words and phrases of the languages of the people you are helping.
Check with your local church and or civic group and you are bound to find an ESL group that needs your help. If, however, you are more adventurous about learning a language, and have some time to travel, the sky is literally the limit. While teaching as a professor of foreign languages, my college decided to put together a team of students to compete in an International Humanitarian Law competition. The competition took place in Europe and was attended by over 30 different schools from various countries around the world. The best part was that the competition was done all in French. I immediately volunteered my time to help the team out. We put in our application and I applied as the coach. When we did finally travel overseas, the team spent roughly 10 days debating Humanitarian Law in French! What a tremendous opportunity! It really was the chance of a lifetime. We didn’t make it into the finals, but we did quite well. The most incredible part of the experience though was the interaction between us and the other teams. It was truly an immersion experience. We learned about the many different countries represented there, and they learned that Americans really aren’t the bullies the world makes us out to be. Of the three participants on our team that I had the pleasure of coaching, one of them did not speak French any better than a horse speaks Spanish, but by the end of the trip, she was making out quite well. There is nothing like being put on the spot to learn something.
The competition we were in is known as the Concours Jean-Pictet. It is geared towards law students from around the world and it has an English competition as well. If you have a friend in law school, or if you are attending yourself, you really ought to think about putting a team together. It is not the only competition out there. There are many like it around the world. Whether it is Model United Nations, or just a simple conference overseas. Opportunities like this abound. Take advantage of them. If you are not a student, think about coaching a team. Look around, if you are into cooking, there are many institutes around the world that would love to have you as a student. Why study in a local university if you can study French cuisine in Paris?
Aside from small competitions, conferences, or weeklong classes, which anyone should be able to find the time for. Consider going away for a semester. If you are a student, this is a no brainer. While in college, I was truly as poor as a church mouse and the only way I was really able to fund my education was because I qualified for the pell grant. I really didn’t have a dime to my name, but thanks to good old Uncle Sam, I was able to take out student loans with very reasonable interest rates. In addition most of the money that I was able to borrow I was able to defer any payment on until after I finished college. With this newly acquired cash, I was able to travel to France to study international law. I did this over the summer. And for most students summer travel is really the best way to go. Many programs, however, are available that allow you to do an entire semester abroad. Taking advantage of these programs as a student is so easy that they should almost be required before any is allowed to graduate.
If you haven’t started college yet, why not do the ultimate? Think about going to a university outside of the US? If you are too afraid to travel too far from home, you could consider a college in Montreal. Yes there are 100% French speaking colleges in Canada. What better way to get an education and finish school bilingual? And even if you don’t take the total plunge, attending school in French Quebec alone should put you in an environment where you can truly pick up another language. There are critics out there that will say, “oh but the Quebecois accent is so strange, only other Quebecois speakers will understand my French.” This line is reasoning is non-sense. I found quite the opposite. I cannot only understand Canadian French, but Parisian French is crystal clear for me. I believe I have an advantage over those who learned to speak French in Paris. I have been immersed in a more profound environment and now can more easily understand French-speaking Africans, Haitians, and just about anyone else in the world. For one thing Montreal is truly a melting pot of the world, and so being there, you’ll be immersed with just about ever dialect. There really is no better place for an American to study French.
Immersion is no question the best approach to learning a language, but since learning is a lifetime process, don’t be disheartened if you can’t always be immersed. There are still many other things you can do to improve your linguistic talents. Keep tuned to this blog for other ideas that should help!