Create An Immersion Environment, Wherever You Are…

It is well known that the best way to learn a language is to move overseas and work or study in the country where that language is spoken. To be around a language every day and all day is the best way to learn a language quickly and with possibly much less effort than if you were not there. However, that option is not feasible for most people.  Whether it is an issue of money, time, any other number of possible issues, most people will learn a foreign language at school, with very few opportunities to be around native speakers of that language.  That can pose many problems for people, slowing down the process and making it difficult to stick to it, as well as making fluency very difficult to achieve.  Like most people, I learned French in school, only starting from high school, which is relatively late.  However, I did manage to achieve fluency with a lot of effort, a lot of dedication and many trips abroad.  If you are not studying a language in the country where it is widely spoken, there are ways to create a kind of immersion environment at your home.  To do this though, you will need to really commit to it. Follow these tips and ideas daily or weekly to make the most of your regular practice, as if you were living overseas!

 

Change the language on your devices (iphone, computer) to the language you are studying.  You will not believe all the words you will learn in doing this.  The translation of things we use daily will surprise you.  How is the expression “unlock screen” or “settings” translated into the language you are studying?  It might surprise you. It also might surprise you how quickly you get used to this.  I handed my ipod to a friend to use, and she was so confused by what she was looking at. I had totally forgotten this and had to find for her the thing she was looking for.

Subscribe to newspapers or magazines for home delivery.   It is a wonderful thing to receive newspapers in the language you are studying delivered to your door.  It sometimes makes me feel like I am traveling abroad.  I prefer the printed press to digital media.  It’s easy to carry to a cafe, to read on a bus, train or plane, and it never needs batteries.  Its very presence is a reminder to read it, whereas a newsletter or subscription that arrives in your email box is too easily lost in a deluge of other daily messages and quickly forgotten.  Having an international newspaper is a way to stay informed of the culture and events of the country and at the same time learn new words in the language you are studying.  Languages are always changing and this is one way of staying up to date with new terms and expressions.  It is also really nice to share these newspapers once I am done with them. I receive a newspaper weekly from France. Once I have read it, I usually pass it on to friends and other francophiles who get the chance to enjoy a newspaper in French from time to time.

 

Live stream news on your computer or subscribe to a cable channel in your target language.  There are now so many opportunities to get television programs or news in different languages, especially French, Spanish or even Arabic.  I love France24 because I can live stream the news 24-hours a day on the internet website or even via the app.  This same channel also has an Arabic version.  You can just steam it during the day when you are not working and let yourself get used to hearing the language as if you were living in the country.

There is also, of course, TV5 for French and many Spanish language channels on cable TV.  It can be a good opportunity to see programs or news in the language you are studying.  Additionally there are many TV shows and movies in foreign languages on programs such as Netflix, Hulu or Amazon.  Just ten years ago, this was not possible, and it used to be very difficult to rent movies in a foreign language.  Now these kinds of programs are widely available.  I don’t recommend using translated subtitles, as they are usually paraphrased, and quite often not what the people actually said word for word.  I do recommend trying it with the subtitles turned off or set the subtitles to the original language of the movie. Just remember that the subtitles and what they actually say may not correspond exactly. This has actually confused me from time to time.   Watching movies or television programs in the language you are studying (with or without subtitles) will give you extra practice in the language.  There is one word of caution: this is extremely difficult.  If you get frustrated, maybe it is too soon for you to be trying this. It has taken me a very long time to be able to watch movies or television in French.  Some programs use more slang and popular expressions than others.  You should be aware that comedies will use slang more than dramas and that maybe you need to start with documentaries or news before moving on to comedies.

Listen to music, radio, podcasts or CDs in the language you are studying. To really expand on your total immersion atmosphere, search for CDs of music in the language you are studying.  If you do not have a CD player, there are programs that have a lot of international music like Pandora, or satellite radio.  I prefer CDs because I can listen to the songs over and over again, learn the words and practice singing along as quickly and fluently as the singer. They may also come with a booklet of lyrics, so it helps to understand and learn the lyrics.  I found that singing along with songs I loved really helped with my ability to speak.  It seemed to help with pronunciation, speaking more quickly, intonation, even sounding more natural.  Remember that just like talking on the phone, radio has no visual clues, so this is going to be a challenge.  Having it on in the background is nice because it will get you used to hearing the language without the pressure of trying to understand.  You may pick up on a thing or two here and there, but eventually get more and more as you do it.  The idea here is just to create that immersion situation, build up your ability and train your ear.

Participate in social groups that share your interest in language. There are groups like Meetup.com and others which gather from time to time just to practice the language and participate in activities related to it.  I had a fun Meetup group in Houston that met at least once a month to dine in a French restaurant and talk in French.  There were quite a number of expats too, so it was really fun for me, since I was no longer a beginner.  The host made sure to seat people according to their language level and ease of speaking, and we all got the chance to practice the language with people who could help. You can search groups meeting in your area, say to speak French, English, Spanish, Arabic, and can limit the travel area to as large or small as you would like. You will very likely find a group, sometimes one that even meets weekly or several that meet on different days of the week, ones that meet for coffee, drinks, dinner, or just to sit in a park and chat. If one does not exist yet, consider starting one. It will probably surprise you the interest people have in things like that.

 

Look for local cultural organizations that have regular events.  Even some culture and language schools have events that they host, inviting students and expats to participate in meetings, presentations, celebrations, holidays and festivals.  You can become a member and then receive notices that announce events in which you can participate. Here we have Deutsches House for German students, which also hosts events; Alliance Francaise and Union Francaise both for French events, and there are probably other cultural centers for Spanish or Chinese that I don’t even know about.  The more often you do these events, the more frequent the chances you have of practicing your language, meeting people in your community who also speak that language and learning more about the culture.

 

Seek out shops and boutiques where the owners are native speakers.  Make a habit of patronizing shops, boutiques or restaurants where the owners speak the language you are studying.  We enjoy a couscous restaurant where the owner is from Tunisia. It feels like we are travelling when we are there.  We can order and chat with the owner in French and enjoy a great meal.  There are other places in town too, like boutiques specializing in French housewares, French bakeries, even bars where we can meet the owners, speak French and get local goods.

 

These are just some of the ways in which I have created immersion at home here. I am lucky that I live in a French city, where so much French culture already exists. My partner is French, and even though we use English at home, I also get to communicate with his family in French at least weekly.  I use French in some way every day, and I think that has helped me enormously.  I recommend that you try some of these tips, and if you think of others, please post them below in the comments.  The key is daily use, even if you do not have the opportunity to live overseas. Especially if that is the case, then you need to replicate that experience as much as possible where you are.

 

Home, Sweet Home…

There’s no place like home.

While we are all sitting at home, confined inside our houses and apartments, it is a good time to think about the meaning of the word “home” and how it differs from “house”.  What does it really mean?  How many definitions are there and which, if any, is most accurate or correct?  Does every language have an equivalent, or even a different designation for house and home?  It was recently brought to my attention that in French this distinction can be made. For house, there is maison (which could also be home) or even domicile; otherwise there is foyer for home, but the usage is very specific and is a word that also refers to the hearth, or fireplace, words often used metaphorically for the warmth of the home.

Home is where the hearth is.
Photo by Randy Fath on Unsplash

Yet my question is really whether people think of the two words, house and home, differently or use them interchangeably without considering even a nuanced difference.  For me, a house is simply where you lay your head at night, but a home is something more abstract.  It is a feeling, or maybe even an ambiance.  For some people it may be where they were born, spent their formative years, where they had their first memories, where their family is now, or anywhere that their family currently is, or even any place that they are currently living.  They may go “home” for the holidays, to their childhood home, for example. However, if their parents moved somewhere, would they then have two homes? If not, would the new house be their new home, or would the old one forever be home and the new one just where their parents are now?  How do they choose? My family has moved 5 times since I was born, and my “home” is none of those places.  I do not have a single memory of the place where I was born, and the place where I spent my first 15 years in school is not special to me.   

How does a person feel when he is home? Does he have a different feeling when he is elsewhere?  If a person goes on vacation or goes to visit friends, does he have a different feeling in those places?  What can a person do to make the place where he lives feel “homey”?  For me, home is a place that I have chosen because it is a place where I have found myself to be most comfortable.  It is a place where I can be myself, where I am free to express myself, where everyone is so open about who they are that no one person stands out. It is a place welcome to all manners of lifestyle, and has been so throughout its entire history, so this welcoming attitude is really built into the fiber of the city, as if part of its “cultural genetics”.

This home of mine is a place that embraces three of the things I value most, food, community, and leisure. Food is celebration, as is evidenced by the fact that all of our festivals here involve, or even feature, food.  There are countless food festivals here, too many to mention, and we have nearly run out of weekends in the year for them.  We have a caring, warm, embracing community here. Neighbors speak to each other, look out for each other, smile sincerely and warmly as if they have known each other all their lives.  Shopkeepers remember their customers, remember their orders, say hi and even learn their names.  I have never felt so important as a customer anywhere else but here.  

As for leisure, it is a way of life, nay, it is an art form in this town.  We must move slowly here, being just too hot and soupy most of the year to bother being in a rush. It feels sometimes like walking through a pool of water thigh-high, my legs heavy and slow.  Yet, what is the rush? Our goal is to enjoy life, to the fullest, and our festivals are evidence of that, not many lasting less than an entire weekend.  Our meal times are an event.  I once spent 3.5 hours at a table in a restaurant.  We had long finished eating, but were too busy enjoying the conversation and finishing wine to realize the time that had passed.  That is the point.  The waiter never pressured us to finish our meal either.  

My porch with a book and coffee!

The pace of life is exceptionally slower here than other places I have been, like Tokyo or Paris, where I often felt pushed along with the current, adrift on a sea of people. The frenetic pace of cities like that was dizzying and left me feeling wind-blown.  Only after leaving Tokyo, 30 minutes into my train ride home and over two rivers, did I feel as if I could breathe again.  Where is everyone going in such a hurry?  For us here in the deep South, here in soulful New Orleans, porch-sitting is a local pastime.  I often sit on my porch, occasionally talk to neighbors walking by, watch the birds, breathe the banana-infused, Magnolia-soaked air, while reading a book with a nice hot cup of coffee next to me, letting the time slip by. I dreamt of that one day.  When I awoke, I smiled and said, “Yes, that is it. That is what I want.”  That is what home feels like to me.


I would love to hear your contributions!  Make a comment below and tell me what home means to you.

This New Year’s Resolution… Learn from Making Mistakes

One problem that I often encounter in the many places where I have taught is the fear students have of making mistakes.  I cannot stress to them enough that making mistakes is both inevitable and very helpful as a learning tool. There are many reasons why students should not fear it, but rather try to embrace it.

Fireworks over the river, 2018

First of all, the classroom is the best place for mistakes.  It should be your safe zone. All of the students present in a classroom are in the same proverbial boat.  They are all learning; therefore, no one should tease, criticize or ridicule one another for a simple error. It is your goal to learn, and there will be many things that you will struggle with along the way.  If making a mistake prevents you from speaking up, you will miss the opportunity to practice, and it is only by practicing that you will improve. No one would expect a piano student to learn to play without practicing.  It is unimaginable that simply by listening one could learn to play. In that same way, simply by listening to a language, one will never learn to speak.

Practicing, whether in the classroom or outside of it, is one of the best ways that a student can gain confidence in speaking.  Once a student realizes that he got the question right, was able to answer on his own, or correctly say something in his target language, he is able to build confidence in himself. This will inevitably lead to his feeling more and more comfortable in speaking. It takes making that first step to speaking and responding to questions to reach that point. If he never takes that step, he will hold himself back.  

It is outside the classroom where some students find the most fear of making a mistake when speaking. For some, it is a crippling fear, and it holds them back from even answering the simplest of questions. I will never forget my first experience speaking French with a Frenchman.  My high school teacher invited some of the students from the French 4 class to the Festival International of Lafayette. I was very lucky to get the chance to go, do something cultural with my teacher, but also to speak with someone in French. I remember feeling an overwhelming sense of accomplishment realizing that I could make myself understood after just a few years of studying.  I realized also how useful it was to speak another language. I was, amazingly so at that age, not at all worried about making mistakes, but rather amazed at being able to use something for which I had worked so hard.

There were of course times when my mistakes have caused great embarrassment.  This can happen to any of us, and sometimes make us want to stop trying. Don’t let it stop you! On at least two occasions that I can recall, my mistake caused a friend to quite nearly fall out his chair laughing. Regardless of how embarrassing, those mistakes were undeniably memorable.  In that way, I learned in one single instant the mistake that I made and remembered to never make it again. Fortunately, years later, I was able to laugh at myself and the mistake I made. I now can retell the story, and as a teacher, this has helped me to help my students. In telling my students about these experiences my students can see that everyone makes mistakes, that it is simply part of the learning process.  I can also steer them away from making certain mistakes that may cause serious misunderstandings as well.

The learning process does not end with the classroom door.  I might even say that the best learning happens outside of the classroom.  It is there where students will encounter a variety of accents and speaking styles.  It is a great opportunity to perfect their skills. Getting over their fear is only the first step.  Once they do, the benefits are endless. There is no perfection in language, there is only room for continued improvement.  So, go ahead, make mistakes!

Share your stories in the comments section!