Perhaps we don’t have to convince you of the benefits of learning a foreign language. But what’s the best way to go about it?
What’s the best way to achieve fluency in the shortest amount of time? Are there really advantages to being bilingual, and are there advantages to full immersion, as opposed to learning via language classes?
If you’re considering a language immersion program for your child, or debating on whether it’s necessary when they could just attend language lessons – or even learn at home from a family member – this post is for you.
There’s practically an infinite number of sources out there that tout the benefits of learning a foreign language. Not only for social purposes or travel purposes (while those are indeed perks), but also cognitively. In short, being bilingual makes you smarter. Want to know more about that? Click here.
If your family is already bilingual, can you still benefit from language immersion? Yes indeed! Even if a language is spoken at home, children tend to regress or even stop speaking the language as they develop socially and academically in an English environment. Moreover, fluency in reading and writing in a language such as Mandarin is difficult to achieve without extensive academic training.
While many of us wait until high school to start taking foreign language classes, hands down the best time to learn a foreign language is when you’re little. Children’s brains are especially adaptable and accepting of foreign languages. They soak them up like a sponge (as they do with all learning) and take to a foreign language quite easily, quickly, and even perfectly, without accent.
At Frontiers Academy, we start teaching Mandarin in preschool. (We also compliment with English language instruction, so all our students maintain a solid English foundation.) The earlier the better for language acquisition.
Language Immersion Versus Language Classes
As stated above, many native English speakers don’t consider learning a foreign language until junior high or high school, when they have their choice of electives. Even children of bilingual parents often do not grow up learning a second language. So what’s the difference? Are the high school classes sufficient?
Well, if you took Spanish or French in high school, what do you remember now? If you traveled abroad, you probably learned a lot more in those weeks or months than you did in a few years’ worth of classes. Why is that?
We found this fantastic article from omniglot.com, written by Katheryn Rivas. It is about her perspective of taking Russian classes in college, then studying abroad and being immersed in the language, and why she believes language immersion is superior to language classes.
Here’s a portion of her article: (Click here to read the full article)
Here’s why an immersion environment, even if only for a few months, is absolutely instrumental.
1. You learn to let your fears go.
This was perhaps the most important reason for me in terms of learning in an immersion environment. When you learn a language in a classroom, you do so piecemeal. You memorize vocabulary words, do some conversation exercises, maybe write a few paragraphs. In an immersion environment, you have to speak the language, or else suffer isolation. This was especially true in Russia, where many of my Russian friends hardly spoke English. After awhile, you begin to lose your inhibitions and you become less afraid of making mistakes, grammatical or otherwise. And when you lose this fear, you open yourself up to authentic conversation practice, one in which you learn as you go.
2. You learn the way children learn – naturally.
A friend of mine who speaks only English once told me, rather jokingly, that she finds it remarkable how very young German children can speak a language that seems so incredibly difficult. This conversation made me realize that the quickest and best way to learn a language is to approach the process as a child would. You don’t memorize flashcards, and you don’t complete pages of homework. You just listen, absorb, and speak. Being in an immersion environment helps language learners to learn a target language naturally, like a child.
3. You become acquainted with the way the language is spoken in “real life.”
I’m sure Russian language teachers would cringe if they had heard some of the slang that I picked up in my time in St. Petersburg. But there’s more than just youth slang when I talk about learning a living language, as it is actually spoken. There’s learning the way people joke, and the types of jokes that are considered funny. There’s also idiomatic ways of speaking that aren’t necessarily considered slang. For example, in American English, we may say “I’m about to head over to my friend’s house.” No English teacher would correct this construction, but it’s not something you’d learn to say in an English textbook either.
4. You learn aspects of language that cannot be replicated in a foreign classroom.
Of course, I’m not in any way trying to dismiss the effectiveness of a classroom education. I probably would have not survived in Russia socially if I had not taken a few years of courses at my home university before departing. But I was astounded by how much more I learned about the Russian language – the pronunciation, the intonation, the vocal and facial emotions appropriate for certain expressions – by just going out for a few nights in St. Petersburg.