In the classroom or cultural immersion: the best way to learn a language

Helen Wallis writes about different learning styles and offers some guidance on how students can be encouraged to immerse themselves in a new language.

As a language teacher I have had many people pass through my classroom door. Some are just taking their first tentative steps towards learning a language; some are brushing up on their rusty grammar; while others want to take their existing skills to a previously unreached level of fluency.

Although there are now many ways to learn a language including private lessons, online courses and mobile apps, I have found for my own students that the fastest way to fluency is through immersing themselves in the local culture. Being able to send students abroad to live with a native speaking family allows the learning process to move much more quickly, especially if they are able to attend lessons at a local language school.

The reason for this is twofold. Firstly, because they will be speaking the language every day their ability to converse will improve vastly. Out of necessity students will quickly learn how to ask for things, request directions and they will learn to function in society using their newly acquired language. Furthermore, everyday conversation will help to widen the students’ vocabulary considerably.

Secondly, the time in the classroom at a language school will provide students with more structure and importantly it will teach them the rules of grammar. It will also give exposure to the written form of the language they are hearing and speaking every day. It is all very well knowing how to speak a language but to become fluent it is also necessary to learn how to read and write in that language.

The problem that most teachers will have is persuading students to travel abroad to study and not just to go on holiday. However, I find that this is mostly due to a lack of confidence. So the easiest way to get students to undertake study whilst abroad is to inspire confidence through continual praise and recognition of improvement.

There are some additional steps towards language fluency I have found particularly helpful in creating confidence in my own students:

  • Suggest that they should watch television and films in their chosen second language. Being able to apply context will aid learning and allow them to hear the language whilst also being given a visual accompaniment, which will help the meaning fall into place. Watching television is something that people tend to do most days, and can be used as a tool to help with learning and increase exposure to the new language.
  • Ask students to change the language on their mobile phone, tablet or even laptop. This is a method which is becoming increasingly useful as people spend more of their time on the internet and social media. Having to navigate the familiar device in a different language will allow the student to widen their vocabulary, and then apply it to speaking and listening.
  • Students of all levels should be encouraged to read books in their chosen language. Beginners should not be embarrassed to choose books aimed at children; picture books, comics and magazines can be particularly helpful as the images help with the meaning of the text. It can also be quite fun and will quickly build confidence as their vocabulary grows.

When students travel abroad, encourage them to step outside of their comfort zone. Even though this may be especially hard whilst in in a foreign country, it will ensure that they are maximising the time that they spend speaking and listening to a language. Ask students to take up every invitation that comes their way, whether it is attending social gatherings or being the one to speak to staff in a restaurant. Make sure to tell students not to be embarrassed by making mistakes as locals will be extremely appreciative that they are making the effort.

A few years ago I taught a lady who came for her first few lessons before going abroad for work for three months. Before leaving she was just starting out on her journey to learn the language, but, by the time she returned I could hardly believe the improvement in her fluency. Spending three months immersed in the language and the culture of the country she was visiting had allowed for huge improvements to be made.