Does Language Immersion Work?

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When I was a junior in high school, a former student visited my Spanish class to talk about his study abroad experience in Spain. He hadn’t taken a Spanish class or spoken the language in two years by the time he decided to go. He’d essentially lost any proficiency in Spanish his high school classes had given him. And yet, he claimed, within two weeks there, it all came back to him. He was basically fluent.

This boy’s miraculous return to Spanish was due to language immersion–spending time in an area whose primary language is the one you want to learn. It’s supposedly the best way to learn a language.

And after five months immersing myself in the Spanish language in Madrid, there comes the inevitably question: did it work?

The Rules

My study abroad program’s language requirement is one of the strictest offered in Madrid. We had to sign an agreement before we arrived that stated we would speak Spanish at all times–like, all times. We had to speak Spanish at home with our host families. We had to speak Spanish in class. We had to speak Spanish when we were out with friends. We had to speak Spanish when we were out with our friends in another country. We weren’t ever supposed to stop speaking Spanish. I spoke Spanish with my host mother while the Spanish news ran in the background. I spoke Spanish with my professor while I asked her a question about an essay I was writing in Spanish. I asked for directions in Spanish, offered my subway seat in Spanish, apologized for forgetting to take my camera out of my bag in airport security.

If we were caught speaking English on more than two occasions, we would be kicked out of the program–and out of the country.

We were allowed to speak English during phone calls home or medical emergencies, of course. And on certain occasions–any former program directors reading this, feel free to skip to the next paragraph–English was more or less unavoidable. Though I switched my phone over to Spanish (and God help me, I’m still too homesick to change it back), every tweet, Facebook post, Instagram caption, and US-based email I read was in English. I’d get halfway through a news article from El País and switch tabs to the NYT version. When it got too late into a weekend evening (or, you know, a weekday afternoon) out, many of us would slip back into English. And once you get to know someone in English–and see their full capacity to be witty, charming, opinionated, etc., for the first time–it’s really hard to keep speaking Spanish and knowingly take their words away from them. And come on, how can anyone expect me to speak stilted Spanish in the middle of Warsaw, or Venice, or Edinburgh?

Despite than the (maybe more than) occasional slip-ups, I was speaking Spanish more frequently than I ever had in my life, maybe more than all of my previous Spanish classes combined. But did it help me learn?

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The Results

Good news first: I am unequivocally better at Spanish than I ever was before.

My host mom admitted that she couldn’t understand me when I first arrived–which is somewhat of a relief, since I had no idea what she was saying either. By the end, I could just about keep up with her fast-talking, mumbling sons when they visited for lunch and argued Podemos versus Partido Popular. Before, I used to spend the entire hour and fifteen minutes of a Hispanic Studies class formulating the question I wanted to ask my professor at the end of it, and by the time I left, I was able to chat with my professors over cocktails at our going-away party. And conjugating in the subjunctive? Nowadays, that’s child’s play.

A big holdup for me with speaking Spanish has always been pronunciation. I would always feel too uncomfortable in my Spanish classes, from middle school onward, to try to emulate a proper accent. Almost none of us were native speakers, and anyone who bothered to roll their r’s or lisp an s was considered a try-hard. By college, I was more willing to put the effort in and use an accent–really, to just give the language its due and pronounce things correctly. But I found that every time I stood up to do a presentation, I could either pronounce the right words incorrectly, or pronounce the wrong words correctly. For the sake of my grades, I stuck with saying the right words the wrong way.

But in Madrid, mispronouncing words is not an option. For one thing, it’s simply embarrassing to speak with an American accent anywhere that’s not America. And for another, in many cases Spanish is the only language your interlocutor can understand. While my fellow bilingual-ish students and the professors trained to teach English speakers can guess what I meant when I butchered a phrase or gave up and slipped an English word into a Spanish sentence, almost no one else could do that. I couldn’t mumble “cortado” at a coffee shop and expect to get what I wanted. I couldn’t tell my host mother a story and say, “pues, se dice ‘spoon’ en inglés” and expect her to know I meant “cuchara.” This is where language immersion becomes very effective–you have to speak correctly, because you literally have no choice. I started rolling my r’s and softening my consonants. I never quite nailed the Castilian lisp, but by the end of the semester, my grammar professor, who shared an endless list of resources and suggested I watch a lot of TV with Spanish subtitles on to learn how to say each word, told me I sounded much better. And who am I to argue with an expert?

And the less good news: I wouldn’t necessarily argue that I’m fluent in Spanish now.

There are millions of words I still don’t know. There’s probably millions of words I don’t know in English, too, but not essential ones. I still don’t know how to say “blueberries” in Spanish. I can’t remember which word means “bathroom sink” and which one means “kitchen sink.” There’s a load of cocktails I can’t ask for; tens of utensils that remain nameless to me. Every time the news mentioned another defamed politician heading to trial, I had no idea what their alleged crimes were.

And there are millions of people I still don’t understand. A language immersion program isn’t necessarily a social immersion program. Unlike some students in my program, I took all of my classes at our Center with the other twenty-five or so of us instead of at the Spanish university. I didn’t do an internship or play team sports with locals. I didn’t approach people at the bar, the park, or the coffee shop. My host family didn’t have young kids or many visitors. So when I talked to native speakers, it was often bare-minimum conversations: a coffee order, check-out at the supermarket. And when I got caught in a lengthy conversation with native speakers–with people my program friends met outside a club, with my host mom’s grandsons, with university students on a campus visit to see my one Spanish friend–I couldn’t keep up. Without the accommodations made by my host family or professors, Spanish flew, rapidly and fluidly, right over my head.

So in sum, I did learn a lot of Spanish, and I learned it more efficiently than I would have at any class taught in the middle of an English-heavy day on an English-heavy campus. I can understand Narcos without subtitles and distinguish accents between Spanish speakers. I could wing a Hispanic Studies presentation without notes and nail it.

But as for the kind of mastery that would push me from just “good at Spanish” to truly bilingual? Perhaps it can’t be taught. I might need to head back to Madrid at least one more time to confirm that, though.

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