Immersion Controversy

I must admit, I’m making this up. There is no controversy. The world of linguistics seems pretty settled that immersion is the best way to learn. But I think they’re all wrong. I think this should become a controversy.

Children see an object and hear the word for it. Association made. Done. They don’t care about parts of speech. They don’t ask questions about the rules of grammar, they don’t fret, they just figure it out naturally. So language experts say, aha! We must mimic this. We must be more childlike if we wish to learn a language. So stop asking so many questions, and don’t try to translate what you’re hearing. Just pick it up, you know, the way children do.

Problem is, that’s not how adult brains work. And neurology proves it. Our passageways are closed, fixed, when it comes to language. And have been since we were about 7 years old, if we were monolingual up until then. We can try to pry them open and we may have some success, but it will be a long, painful road. Thing is, there’s an easier way if we first acknowledge how ridiculous the childlike approach is.

Here’s an example of what immersion looks like. Yours truly gets on a plane back in 2005 and flies to Santiago, Chile, for a week of language training in preparation for a 5-month work project. I’m listening to a Spanish CD on the plane, which helps me remember some of what I learned during my one measly year of high school Spanish. At this point I’ve got the numbers, days of the week, greetings and salutations down. The basic stuff. And I’m feeling pretty good. I arrive in Santiago, alone, and somehow make my way to the hotel, and again the next morning to the office where I meet a few people and lay down some of my awesome greetings and salutations. They seem surprised that I can say a few words. I’m pleased.

Someone helps me navigate to the metro and takes me to the “school” where I’ll be for the next five days, eight hours a day. Just me, all alone, with three teachers taking shifts. (Yes, it takes three of them to get through a day of this exhausting work, despite the way harder job being mine.) The first teacher and I go into a small classroom and she begins explaining something. I say nothing because I have no idea what she said. After another long explanation she looks at me. I look at her. She motions that I’m supposed to say something. I raise my eyebrows. She repeats the long explanation and looks at me again. I shrug my shoulders.

“OK,” she says, finally breaking character. “I’m not supposed to speak any English to you, the school has a policy that everything is supposed to be entirely in Spanish, but I can see that you need some help. So I’ll explain things in English today, ok? But tomorrow back to only Spanish.” As if tomorrow I would be magically transformed into a Spanish speaker.

Evidently she had been asking me to tell her where I was from, about my family, why I was there, why I wanted to learn Spanish. Well, those were words I didn’t have yet, especially when they were all strung together and spoken so quickly. In fact she could have repeated it all at a snail’s pace (and probably did, to her ears) and I still wouldn’t have gotten it. I can also tell you that we didn’t switch to “only Spanish” the next day, nor the next. Not for the entire week was I ready for “immersion.”

Boy did I feel like a loser. They gave me a certificate at the end of the week and asked me to smile for the camera, when really I just wanted to throw it at them.

Really. This is me wondering why they're giving me a certificate, and imagining what I'd like to do with it.

Really. This is me wondering why they’re giving me a certificate, and imagining what I’d like to do with it.

I mentioned in my review of Rosetta Stone that I suspect they favor the “immersion” approach – meaning zero translations or notes – because it’s easier to sell across the world. I think the same is true for certain schools like Berlitz, because they can take any student and hire any monolingual teacher. Or take the teach-abroad movement. Want to teach English in Vietnam? No problem if you don’t speak any Vietnamese, just go!

I don’t buy this. Not as a student, and not as a teacher. I can see a huge difference in my efforts to teach English to Congolese adults when I knew no French at the beginning, versus now. Back then I had to go through all sorts of contortions to try to get them to understand a single word’s meaning. Now I can cut through all the b.s. and just tell them. Then we can move on more quickly to its usage and practice.

I appreciated being “immersed” in French when I took my first class in France. It was a wonderful experience. And it worked because we were actually in France, with an actual French teacher. But I dare say Intermediate I was the lowest possible level where it made sense to do it immersion-style. We already had words that would work as building blocks for others. More importantly, we had already taken the time to struggle with the sounds, those crazy vowels that exist in French but not in English. (Even still I would sometimes stare at my teacher in a daze, studying her foreignness, admiring her accent, wondering how the hell she gets those exotic syllables out so effortlessly, and find I was not actually paying attention.)

I saw the beginners coming out of their classes shell-shocked and looking like zombies. Some were in tears. Their professor looked more and more haggard as the days went on, having a nearly impossible task if he indeed stayed 100% in French. I felt really sorry for them. I also felt it was a colossal waste of money. I would hate having to be stuck learning “bonjour, comment ça va?” for the first two days at the rate we were paying.

Even in our Intermediate classes, there were more than a few moments when immersion became silly. Picture it: Our professor is trying to teach us a new word. She realizes we don’t understand so she repeats it, slowly. We’re still lost. She writes it down. We frown at it. She starts miming the word with crazy, unexplained gestures. We’re all staring at her, completely clueless, with quick glances around the room at each other to see if anybody else gets it. Furrowed brows, heads shaking, another awkward silence after the teacher tries the word again. Finally, she’ll give in and whisper the English translation. “Ohhh!” we all say, relaxing into our chairs, laughing. Learning becomes so much easier after that. Now let’s look at the conjugation or the way it’s used in a sentence. Any attempt before that light bulb went off was, unfortunately, a big waste of time.

So, in my opinion, immersion is a graduating scale. At the very beginning, it just takes way too much time. We’re not children anymore. The better option for an adult is to use some shortcuts. Use the language you already have and draw parallels to the new one. In other words, translate it. Understand it. For any words you’re having trouble memorizing, take a few moments to invent some memory tricks, or mnemonics. (There’s an awesome website called Memrise that I used to memorize all 196 countries and capitals once when I was bored. Here’s an easy example: the capital of Switzerland is Bern, because they have money to burn. Tee hee. Anyway, they have tricks for French learners too.) Don’t be afraid to seek out explanations of what you’re learning, or feel like you’re cheating if you do. Tell Rosetta Stone and Berlitz to shove off if they give you a hard time for it.

Once you get that foundation built, then by all means throw caution to the wind. Immerse yourself. Book a trip to France, settle in for a few weeks or as long as you possibly can, go spice shopping in Provence, buy baguettes and drink wine all day long. Say words like “ooh là là” and “voilà” as if they’re completely natural. (The French really do toss those phrases around. They are also often spotted carrying baguettes.) Celebrate when someone mistakes you for a native, and don’t worry when the charade comes crashing down seconds later. C’est la vie. It’s part of the lovely process.


Post #6 of an 11-part series, the ongoing saga I call The French Tales. This is a piece I started writing a long time ago but never posted. Today, dedicated to the beautiful country and people of France.


  1. But wouldn’t it help if the immersion was done with the help of pictures? I was doing Rosetta for some time and did not have a problem with that. Pictures and photos can be used without really the need to use English during a class.


    1. Yes, totally. Rosetta Stone helped me get my footing before my first immersion class in France. I’m suggesting that it’s a waste of time and money to take a class like that before getting some kind of foundation first, and RS definitely helps with that. But beyond the basics, a little explanation in English can really help avoid a lot of hand-wringing… I recommend Coffee Break French for that. There are probably lots of others, a mix is a good idea, I think.


  2. Love the look on your face in the graduation photo. Have you ever wondered what the teachers talked about between themselves? They probably laughed, all the way to the bank! Personally, I think your French is muy bueno.


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