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The immersion effect

Apart from being very well taught at school for seven years, three formative experiences stand out in my mind when I recall my own experience of learning French as a young person.

The first was doing an exchange aged 16 with a lad called Eric, the son of a solicitor. Quite at the last minute, when the local girls' grammar school needed a boy to make up the numbers, I dashed over on a train and boat from my terraced house in not-so-well-off Gillingham to the rather grand home of my partner in Solesmes, near Cambrai, northern France. I just about recall ivy on the walls, high ceilings and the unfamiliar odour of green beans cooked in garlic and butter. After a week in Solesmes we spent a week at their beach house in Brittany.

The second experience was a immersion course in rural Sussex, where about 30 sixth-formers gathered in an enormous house for an intensive weekend of French language with a virtual "no English" rule. Immediately after I had a practice oral exam and my teacher was impressed with my fluency.

The third was one of the best times of my life when I spent the third year of my university course as an English language assistant in Montauban in the Tarn et Garonne. I committed myself to 10 months largely uninterrupted use of French, joining a local choir, playing drums in a band and going tenpin bowling with French antique dealers in Toulouse. "Félix Antiquaire" was our team.

During and after each of these experiences my French came on in leaps and bounds and remains pretty fluent to this day. My French immersion experiences helped form my personal view about second language learning. While I believe that the traditional skill-acquisition model can, when well executed, be effective enough in school settings, it fails to take enough account of the huge value of general exposure to the target language and what goes on at the (for want of a better term?) sub-conscious level.

Many of you will have had the same feeling as me, and observed it in students too after they've done an exchange. It's as though the mechanisms of first language acquisition kick in, comprehension and fluency improve rapidly and motivation rises exponentially. You listen and listen and listen. You speak much less. Then you gain skill in as if walking up stairs, occasionally going back down a step. Good days, then not so good ones.

To me this is when the naturalistic hypotheses of Stephen Krashen and others start to make most sense. Acquisition occurs through understanding messages, he says. It is appealing in its simplicity.

But while most of us would value immersion so highly, is it the way to go in the classroom? Can we recreate to some degree the hugely beneficial effects of the linguistic bath? I think we have to try, while working within a structured "bit-by-bit" approach. Second language learning to my mind is both about learning and practising skills, paying attention to rules and form, and (perhaps more so) about being exposed to language in meaningful settings so that that uniquely human ability to sub-consciously develop highly complex, automated and creative speech can occur.

But, to be fair, the growth of neuroscience has meant that the pendulum in the theory books has swung a bit towards skill-acquisition of late. Some are now even questioning whether Noam Chomsky was right about "universal grammar" and our "Language Acquisition Device" which seems, almost magically, to produce fluent speakers by the age of five. Is learning a language, first or second, really magical or is it just like learning any other complex skill like playing the piano?

I really don't know for sure and no one does, but my sense is that the experience of language immersion suggests there is much more to learning a language than practising skills.




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