Why Learning a Foreign Language Requires Complete Immersion

03/11/2015 06:13 pm ET | Updated May 11, 2015
Nick_Thompson via Getty Images

Learning a new language is never easy, but it is especially hard in our current American education system. If you're anything like me (and the millions of other students who have suffered through our public school system), you know that the teaching styles implemented in schools don't really capture the true essence of foreign language.

Students are taught to memorize vocabulary words and verb tenses and then are expected to rely the information back like little robots. Simulated conversation about predetermined topics is forced, and usually the entire learning experience is uncomfortable. Very rarely do you find teachers that show students the passion, history, and culture that can hide behind a foreign language.

My junior and senior year of high school, however, I was fortunate enough to have a teacher who taught me so much more than what is written in the textbooks. She was my Spanish teacher, and to this day she continues to be my driving force in my quest to progress my Spanish speaking abilities.

In her class, we learned how to use Spanish to better ourselves. We learned how to live with passion. We learned about the indomitable human spirit that is present around the world everyday. We were encouraged to use our Spanish to better the community and the people around us. This class inspired me to participate in a seven-week immersion program in Mérida, Mexico. Learning Spanish in Mérida was drastically different from my high school classes, which is why I now believe that complete immersion is instrumental in fully developing a language.

The biggest factor that prohibits people from learning a foreign language is fear. This is especially prevalent in the classroom environment. No one wants to be the person who gets silently judged for forgetting a vocabulary word or screwing up a verb tense in a conversation exercise. In the immersion environment, you have to kick fear to the curb. Making mistakes becomes your sole way of learning. After some time, you begin to stop being embarrassed by making grammatical or other errors. Once this fear is gone, you can open yourself up to authentic conversation practice.

I remember being terrified when I first arrived in Mérida and realized that for the next seven weeks I was only allowed to speak Spanish. Of course I was hesitant to speak openly; I didn't want to make a mistake and have people berate my Spanish. But after making a few grammatical errors and using the Spanish word for "boobs" when I meant to say "lettuce," the fear passed over. I was eventually able to have conversations without worrying about making a mistake.

Of course, I'm sure the local Mérida people cringed every time I spoke, but having the opportunity to converse with the locals allowed me to become acquainted with "real-life" Spanish. There's so much more than the vocabulary and grammar that teachers drill into students. You have to learn the way people joke and use sarcasm. You have to learn the colloquial ways of saying things. You have to be able to use slang in the appropriate context. These skills can only be acquired through real-life interaction, not a textbook.

I don't want to in any way say that the classroom approach to teaching foreign language is not effective. Without the years of grammar and conversational vocabulary I had learned, I know I would not have survived even a week in Mexico. It still amazes me that only seven short weeks in Mérida taught me more than I could have ever learned about Spanish in the United States. The pronunciation, the accent, and the dialect, skills that I cherish now, I learned just by speaking with native Spanish speakers.

I'm well aware that not everyone will have the opportunity to immerse himself or herself completely in a foreign language. If you don't have the chance to travel across the globe to pick up a new language, there are always ways to find immersion opportunities in your local community. Health clinics, churches, and food banks are always looking for volunteer translators. Find native speakers in your area and do whatever you can to stimulate conversation with them. You will be amazed at what can happen.