There are many advantages to traveling to a foreign country to participate in a language immersion program: students learn the language more quickly and gain cultural insights they may not have otherwise.
But the immersion experience may not be for everyone. For one thing, there is the cost of traveling to a foreign country. Depending on your location, this may or may not be an impediment. Many American students study Spanish in Puerto Rico or Mexico, for example: destinations that are relatively close to home. However, if you’re an American looking to learn Swahili, an immersion program may not make financial sense.
Also, while living with a host family can be immensely rewarding, you will find yourself more restricted than if you were simply vacationing in the country. You will be expected to be present at mealtimes, for instance, and your family may look unkindly on your arriving back home very late at night.
Those who prefer to keep their educational experiences and their foreign vacations separate would also not be good candidates for language immersion. Taking time off work to experience a new culture would make an immersion trip feel like a vacation, but morning classes and following your host family’s rules might make you feel more like you’ve taken a trip back to elementary school.
Then there is the issue of the host family itself. I have not personally had this experience, but there is always the possibility that your family will not treat you kindly. In general, I would say there is a low probability of this because your school or organization will have screened the families before sending students to live with them. If you are the kind of person who does not like conforming to others’ schedules, however, living with a host family may not be the best idea.
If you are interested in learning a foreign language without learning anything of the culture, then an immersion experience with a host family would also not be the correct path. Students learning German in order to pass reading comprehension exams, for example, may not necessarily be interested in learning about the importance of the kaffe und kuchen (coffee and cake) hour in Munich. In other situations, traveling to the country may be impractical or dangerous. A student wishing to learn the Iraqi dialect of Arabic to prepare for future aid work may prefer to make his or her first linguistic mistakes in a less volatile environment. But both of these hypothetical students would still benefit from the quick pace of language-learning and fluency acquisition a traditional immersion school provides.
One way to have your cake and eat it too is to attend a language immersion program based in the states. During the summer, some colleges use their campuses for such programs. One of the most respected of these is the Middlebury Summer Language School. For anywhere from two to nine weeks, students live on the Middlebury College campus in Middlebury, Vermont. They sign a pledge that they will only communicate in the language they are trying to learn. This means that even communications with your family should ideally be in the immersion language. Students come away from domestic summer immersion programs with many of the advantages of students who traveled to the country where the language is spoken. Namely, they learn to think and survive in their new language.
Nevertheless, immersion schools can be somewhat artificial and monastic. Middlebury students are discouraged from leaving the campus, and when they do venture into town, they of course do not find shopkeepers or other Vermonters willing to communicate with them in their foreign tongue. In this respect, actually traveling to a foreign country has advantages over domestic immersion programs, since natural interactions outside of class will occur in the foreign language.
Yet for the student seeking the benefits of language immersion without leaving the country, domestic language immersion programs provide the many of the benefits of learning a language on-location with less of the expense and culture shock of an actual trip.
Some popular domestic immersion programs are:
- The Middlebury Summer Language Schools: Students live on the Middlebury campus in Vermont for two to nine weeks and pledge not to speak English for the duration of their stay.
- The Language Immersion Institute at SUNY New Paltz: In addition to two-week immersion sessions, The Language Immersion Institute offers weekend sessions and special “Tower of Babel” weekends at the picturesque Mohonk Mountain House.
For children, there are a number of language immersion summer camps. Two are:
- The Concordia Language Villages in Moorhead, Minnesota: Children (or their parents) can choose a one-week “Exploratory” session, a standard two-week immersion program or a four-week high school credit session, all held at a lakeside camp.
- The Language Conservatory of Dallas: Each camp session lasts one week and is held in a “country club setting” in Dallas.