Learn a Foreign Language While Traveling

In an op-ed piece I published in the April 10, 2005, issue of the Houston Chronicle entitled, 2005 was made for you, monolingual Americans, I wrote of the fact that the U.S. Senate, on Feb. 17, declared the year 2005 as the “Year of the Foreign Language Study.”

Reader response to that piece was overwhelmingly positive. One person told me, though he had never considered studying Spanish in Mexico as a learning vacation, he was now giving it some thought. He would be a rank beginner. Uh, oh! Red alert.

I say this for a reason. A considerable majority of people believe there is some special magic in coming to the country of your targeted language and engaging in an “immersion program.” This is particularly true of those we run into here in Mexico.

My wife and I are American expatriates in the city of Guanajuato. We have had considerable exposure to many Americans and Canadians who come here wanting to achieve some linguistic miracle in a two to three-week span of a Spanish immersion program. Some of these people learn very quickly the “magic myth” of studying in the culture of your targeted language isn’t working for them nor is it going to work anytime soon–especially for the rank beginner!

Why is that? I mean, haven’t you always heard if you want to become “fluent” (whatever that is supposed to mean) that you should come to the country where people speak the language you are trying to learn and study there? This is an almost universal and pervasive notion. Let’s dispel some myths that will shed a little light on this issue.

Myth One: When you enroll as a rank beginner in a language school, you will be in a class with fellow rank beginners.

Truth: Most language schools in Mexico, for example, will have beginning classes. However, these classes are ongoing and constantly cycling new students in and out. What this means is that you, as a rank beginner, with absolutely no Spanish under your belt, could potentially be thrust into a class of students who have been there for weeks, or longer. There you would be with the rest of the class learning the difference between the verbs estar and ser and you are at the level of needing to know how to pronounce the letters of the Spanish alphabet.

But that is how it works with a class versus private lessons. The class will be cheaper but you will be “inserted” into the class at whatever level the class is at currently. If they are at the midpoint or endpoint of the beginning curriculum then that is where you will be too.

Is this unfair? No, not really. It would be cost prohibitive for them to have group classes for each person at each level of learning. It just wouldn’t be possible. But, they rarely make this known to you before you put down the money for the classes. You could go the private lesson route at $15.00 usd or more per hour.

An even more frustrating scenario is that in the conversational classes, depending on the school, you could conceivably be lumped into one class with all levels-beginner, intermediate, and advanced.
I have seen this happen many times.

This is not true of all schools. However, there are enough that I have seen people who can only say, “Good morning, can I have a cheese sandwich?” and “Where is the bathroom?” lumped in with advanced students who can discuss nuclear physics in Spanish.

Myth Two: Total Immersion is the correct method to use to achieve fluency.

Truth: If this were true, then why don’t you enroll your little toddler, who is beginning to learn his or her first few words, into a total immersion English course?

Just try out this little bit of logic: When your little kid enrolled in first grade, he or she didn’t know a preposition from a deposition. But, they certainly had a high degree of spoken fluency before starting any formal study of the language in which they were ALREADY fluent.

Do you get that?

Long before your child began school, he or she already possessed a high degree of spoken fluency. Think of all that your kid could say before learning formal English grammar.

Now, follow me here closely. The natural method by which your kid achieved the high degree of spoken fluency BEFORE he or she entered formal education is the same method you need to use in learning a second language. And, you need to employ this natural method BEFORE enrolling in a Total Immersion program in a foreign country.

Does this not make a world of sense?

Why spend enough money to end the national debt of some small Latin American country to come to Mexico to enroll in a Total Immersion Course that is, by design, not able to give you a high degree of spoken fluency? Is this not putting the cart before the horse?

Think of the disaster of putting your little kid through a formal English course before he or she was fluent in English. It is ludicrous even to imagine, is it not?

A high degree of spoken fluency comes first and then comes the formal learning of the grammar. The horse is the naturally learned degree of spoken fluency and the cart is the formal learning of the grammar and reading.

Myth Three: The age of the adult learner is major factor in language acquisition.

Truth: “Contrary to popular stereotypes, older adults can be good foreign language learners. The difficulties older adults often experience in the language classroom can be overcome through adjustments in the learning environment, attention to affective factors, and use of effective teaching methods.”

Solution: The use of effective teaching methods, I believe, is the secret of learning a second language. There are methods and approaches that do indeed employ the same natural learning method you unknowingly used to learn your native language. These methods put the horse before the cart and not the other way around.

Studying a foreign language in Mexico is indeed magic. But the magic should begin BEFORE pouring a small fortune into Total Immersion courses. You will progress, in a relaxed environment, if you can achieve a high degree of spoken fluency BEFORE enrolling in any sort of formal grammar approach to learning a foreign language.

Total Immersion courses will work with those who have achieved a high degree of spoken fluency before enrolling.
Here are three natural language learning courses you can find online, in any search engine, under the names of The Learnables, Pimsleur, and Rosetta Stone.

I recommend these courses because they work. To the many who have asked me, “Do I have a financial interest in promoting these courses?” I always respond, “If I did I wouldn’t have to write op-ed and feature articles for a living!”


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