Languages Coming Alive: The Power of Full Immersion

by Esther Sánchez, Chair of the World Languages Department

Last April 27, my colleague Vilma Riestra and I attended a wonderful conference at the University of Lynchburg, Enlazando Lengua y Cultura (Connecting Language and Culture). It was sponsored by the University of Virginia’s Center for Liberal Arts with funding from the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations.

There were three different presenters talking in Spanish about music, documentaries, and poetry. The content of the presentations was very enriching and sparked many conversations on our way back to school. But a topic that Sra. Riestra and I talked about repeatedly during the three and half hour ride was the fact that we had spent the six hours of the program surrounded by Spanish, our native tongue, and how wonderful that felt. If we, native Spanish teachers, need to hear our own language and it makes a huge difference in how we value the information that is being presented to us, we can only imagine the impact that full immersion has for the students taking our courses.

We take pride that French and Spanish classes at Foxcroft use the full immersion method (using the target language in the classroom 90% or more of the time is considered full immersion). This method might be a bit intimidating at first, especially for beginners, but once they get used to it, it becomes second nature. I enjoy hearing both languages as I walk the hallway of the second floor of Schoolhouse, and even more when it is our girls doing the talking.

I asked a few of my students about their thoughts regarding full immersion. I know it is good for them. But, what do they think? These are a few of the common themes I heard as they shared their views: “It helps me better understand native speakers;” “It has helped me with my pronunciation, not just with the writing;” “It makes me feel more comfortable and confident talking to others;” “It makes Spanish come more naturally to me so that I am not translating in my head. And sometimes I speak in Spanish without realizing it;” “Before coming to Foxcroft I just read words. Now, I know how to sound them out and use them in a conversation, and if I can’t remember the word, I can explain it;” “I enjoy being involved in the culture.”

Of course, all of those comments were music to my ears because this is exactly what we try to accomplish. There is something, I daresay, magical, when language and culture come together as one. After all, separating them would be like trying to pull apart the two sides of a coin. The two parts make it whole.

Another aspect of the immersion method that I enjoy is that the target language is not used only in the classroom. We talk to our students in Spanish or French in the hallways, the Dining Hall, and the dorms — and they greet us back or hold conversations as well. About a week ago, a few students and I ate at a Mexican restaurant. All the way from the School to the restaurant and back they spoke in Spanish. They also used it to order and to talk throughout our meal. When the owner of the restaurant and I introduced ourselves and did the formal greeting or when they saw that the food they ordered matched what they had requested, they were able to see that this is not just something that we practice in class for the sake of it.

Having a natural, meaningful conversation in an authentic situation makes a huge difference in how a language is acquired. Of course, it is impossible to be in such real life situations that offer opportunities to use a different language all the time. This is why we become creative in the classroom and try to recreate a variety of scenarios.

Connecting language and culture makes any language come alive. And this is how Sra. Riestra and I felt during that conference. I am thrilled to see that our students also appreciate and value being surrounded by the sounds of French and/or Spanish.

¡Hasta la vista!

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