I had studied French for two years before I traveled to France for a language immersion program. Until that point, French was less a living language than a set of arcane grammatical rules and words whose pronunciations bore no discernable relationship to their spelling.
But stepping off the plane at Orly was like stepping into my French book. There really were kiosks that said Fleurs and Journaux. People really did say things like “bonjour” and “comment allez-vous?”. There were baguettes everywhere! People were actually speaking French.
For me, studying French in France and living with a host family jump-started my French skills and left me with a life-long interest in foreign cultures. I learned French more quickly because my use of the language was not restricted to awkward conversations with my French teacher about my favorite ice cream flavor.
Instead, basic everyday survival necessitated using French. Learning how to say, “No, thank you, I don’t like liver”* saved me more than once! Language learning grounded in the culture also taught me nuances of words I might have taken to be exact equivalents. I learned about le camping, for example, in the classroom. But I didn’t know that, typically, camping à la française does not have the “roughing it” connotation of the American term. Rather, it more often involves living in a trailer with a gas stove or at least staying at a campsite with an onsite brasserie. Being immersed in the culture as a language-learner brought home to me the intimate relationship between cultural attitudes and language.
While in France, I also had the opportunity to form friendships outside of my host family. I found these relationships not only rewarding in themselves, but also extremely useful for language acquisition. I picked up a smattering of slang and had a great incentive to communicate clearly. I have been told that a romantic relationship further maximizes these benefits…
What to Expect
Most language immersion programs have a similar organization. You will pay your program for language instruction as well as room and board for a week or more. The school will set you up with a host family and pay the family themselves. Many programs also offer other residence alternatives, such as an apartment shared with other students or a room in a dormitory. In my opinion, language acquisition happens more quickly when living with a host family, and the student gets an otherwise inaccessible glimpse at everyday life in that country.
Classes in my experience have been small (less than 10 people) and last for half of the day. Many schools organize excursions for their students in the afternoons or on weekends. In immersion programs in Europe, the other students normally come from many different European countries. This creates a “tower of Babel” effect that sometimes results in communication in the language you are there to learn and sometimes results in communication in English as the default.
If you are staying in the country for only a short time, you may find yourself socializing almost exclusively with the other students in your program. As an American, spending time with Europeans from so many different countries was fascinating, though I was aware that I should have been making more of an attempt to make friends with people from the host country. Longer stays make these kinds of friendships almost inevitable.
How to Find the Right Program
A quick google search yields language immersion programs in beautiful locales all over the world, with prices to suit a variety of budgets. Some web sites offer metasearches that allow you to compare different programs.
123teachme.com, for instance, compares programs for French, Spanish, Italian and German.
The Cervantes Institute offers a similar service for students wishing to study Spanish in Spain.
LanguagesAbroad.com appears to have immersion programs in every country imaginable.
A good source for information on which program to choose is often your language teacher.
Depending on the country, you may feel comfortable simply signing up with a program you haven’t researched very thoroughly. In Santiago de Compostela, Spain, for example, I signed up for a program with which I was unfamiliar knowing that I would be able to fend for myself if things didn’t work out.
Younger students, or those going to countries where they would be less independent (China or Iran, for example), would do well to find a program that has been vetted either by friends who have been on the program or a reputable organization like the Cervantes Institute. It makes sense to have a backup plan in case you find that your program (or your family) is a bad fit. Modern technology – especially ATMs – make this a lot easier, since you can simply purchase a ticket somewhere else or book yourself into a hostel.
*Non, merci, mais je n’aime pas la foie de volaille