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Why do Spanish Immersion Programs Work?

Spanish immersion in Costa RicaSpanish immersion programs are a great way to learn because you learn and practice constantly throughout the day.  The limited amount of practice you get in a typical class back home just can’t compare to what you get spending any length of time submersed in the language and culture of a Spanish speaking country.

How many people do you know who studied Spanish in high school or college that actually learned enough to effectively communicate and interact with people in a Spanish speaking country?  In my experience the number is very few, and I would definitely include myself.  Academic language courses consist of hours of instruction on grammar followed by endless memorization of vocabulary.  Don’t get me wrong-  learning the rules of grammar along with vocabulary is a big part of learning to speak Spanish… but to really learn to speak Spanish, you have to live it.

How does a child learn to speak?

Spanish immersion Costa RicaWhen was the last time you saw a baby patiently sitting and listening to someone explain the rules of grammar?  Or a toddler quietly sitting and memorizing vocabulary?  The basic pattern of children in their first few years is to listen, practice and learn.  In most cases the parents are a child’s first teachers, helping the child mostly by talking with  them.  We are born with the capability to make about 40 sounds.  Our brain makes an association between these sounds and objects, actions or ideas.  Think about when a child begins to babble.  What begins as “ma” moves on to “mama” and eventually leads to mother.  The parents continue to repeat the word the child is trying to say until that particular word is learned.  More single words are learned and then comes combinations and phrases.  That in a nutshell is basically how language is learned.  So why would a second language be learned any differently?

How do adults typically learn a second language?

As I mentioned earlier, most adults generally learn Spanish or any second language in a classroom setting such as in high school or college.  This setting does not tend to help very much when it comes to actual conversation.  Conversation is generally limited to the very simple as no one in the class but the teacher actually speaks the language.  Also, once they leave the classroom there are no day-to-day situations where the students can practice what they have learned in class.  One can memorize vocabulary and learn rules all day, but all this means nothing if they can’t actually communicate and make themselves understood.  There are also many DVD’s and online programs.  Some of them are quite good actually and do simulate conversation.  A motivated person can actually learn quite a bit through this method but will eventually need real life situations and settings to practice what they have learned.  Doesn’t it seem like common sense that learning Spanish would be much easier if you were doing it in a Spanish speaking country, or at least in a place where there are lots of native speaking Spanish people?

What exactly does Spanish immersion mean?

Spanish immersion Costa RicaThere are a couple of different ways to look at Spanish immersion.  One is a method of teaching in the classroom in which the class is conducted entirely in Spanish.  The teacher, or professor, speaks and teaches in Spanish and the students speak and ask questions in Spanish as well.  Another way of looking at Spanish immersion is in a broader sense.  Here I am referring to being immersed in a Spanish speaking setting offering you constant opportunities to speak and practice the Spanish you have learned.  You will probably find that you learn a lot of things that you didn’t in the classroom.  These conversational opportunities also let you know what is important to learn.  Think about it.  If you didn’t understand or know how to say something in an everyday situation or setting wouldn’t you say that would be a top priority to learn?  To me it just seems more efficient to first learn practical information needed to converse in day to day life.  This is what Spanish immersion provides.  When you study in a place that speaks the language you are trying to learn, every venture outside your front door is an opportunity to practice and learn more Spanish.

What about a full Spanish immersion learning experience?

Normally, when someone speaks of Spanish immersion from a teaching standpoint they are referring to the method of teaching completely in Spanish.  The teacher uses Spanish to explain and teach and students respond and ask questions only in Spanish.  While this method might be a good idea for someone who is past the beginner level, it can be very difficult for someone that is learning the language as a total beginner.  People claim the method works for beginners but it is very hard to catch on and understand rules of grammar when you don’t understand the explanations.  Some people have a knack for languages and do succeed this way, but for the majority of people it can be a frustrating experience that leaves the student confused and learning very little.  So before you decide on taking full Spanish immersion classes be aware that it will be taught totally in Spanish and all questions and problems will have to be worked out in the rudimentary Spanish you pick up and a lot of sign language and charades.

So what type of Spanish immersion program should you choose?

Each individual has to answer this for themselves after gathering all the facts and information about various programs or methods of learning.  But why not get the best of both worlds?  There are a multitude of Spanish speaking countries where you can choose to study.  School of the World’s Spanish Program is a good example of this compromise here in Costa Rica.  Classes are taught in Spanish and it is encouraged for students to respond and speak in Spanish as much as possible.  However, key rules and lessons can be explained in English which enables the student to really grasp the why behind the concept.  During Spanish labs the classes go on excursions to places such as the farmer’s market so that they can practice their newly learned Spanish in a typical setting.  You can definitely say the lesson is applicable to daily life as everyone has to buy food.  Outside of class there are endless opportunities for practicing and interacting with locals.  C0sta Ricans, in particular, are very friendly people and most are happy to help you and converse in Spanish.  There are situations for everyone from chatting with young surfers while waiting for waves to conversing with some old timer on the bar stool next to you.  When you are in a Spanish speaking country to learn the language, every moment is a potential classroom.

Spanish immersion classes at School of the WorldSo why  do Spanish immersion programs work?  To sum it all up it works because it replicates the natural way of learning a language.  You start with sounds, which move on to words and then to groups of words, or phrases. Your ear picks up on subtleties  that help you understand a variety of people (not just your high school teacher’s accent!). Then you practice this rudimentary, caveman Spanish in your day-to-day activities and conversations as you get over the “awkward phase” of being embarrassed to practice what you know.  People correct you and you learn more.  You learn more by listening to people’s responses, picking up both vocabulary and grammar rules. If you politely ask them to help or correct your mistakes you get multiple teachers.

From the experience I have gained through many years of travelling, living in other countries and being around people learning languages I have learned that at some point of your language education you are going to have to travel and immerse yourself to really  have a full understanding and grasp of the language you are studying.


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