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Is Spanish Immersion the Best Way to Learn?
Kenny's Immersion Story
Why I suggest the non-immersion style
When I retired from work at the age of 62, I decided to go to Costa Rica to learn Spanish. All the websites bragged that the best way to learn Spanish was to completely immerse oneself in a Spanish language school and culture with absolutely no English to corrupt you.
Everything would be in Spanish, teachers would teach in Spanish, text books would only be in Spanish, and where you live they wouldn't be allowed to speak English even if they knew it.
Well, I found out by hard personal experience that theory was the worst possible method for me to learn conversational Spanish!
I got sucked into believing that the so called, “Immersion Method” of learning Spanish is the best way to go even if you are a rank beginner like I was.
After nine weeks of immersion school I didn't even know how to order a hamburg at a restaurant yet I could conjugate hundreds of verbs in my sleep.
I admit that I am a senior citizen and I don't learn as fast as the younger ones do. And I forget things too quickly, especially grammar rules and many of the irregular verb conjugations.
I can still hear my very lovely Costa Rican Spanish teacher, Susana, often repeating, “Kenny, don't you remember, I told you…?” (In the only English she knew.)
I was literally hearing that in my sleep, too. To be fair to her and to myself there were 4 European students in the same class who each knew and spoke at least three Latin based languages already.
True, this is an extreme example but it actually happened to me at my very first language school.
Immersion courses, in my opinion, were designed for people who already have the grammar and a good base to work with. But not for beginners like this dunce from New York, who only knew one language and not much English grammar either, like most of us from northern parts of the USA.
Take it from me, one who has pulled out his hair in 8 different Spanish schools over a 5 year period in Central America, this is a great deception.
The Spanish schools that I found in Costa Rica and in Nicaragua only had those immersion plans available. Although, I heard of one 45 minutes west of San José that taught Spanish using English at over $500 per week (in 2006!).
Why is this true? It's a cop-out. Yep, very few teachers can speak English, so I believe they invented the immersion-style course for all levels to cover themselves.
When I was having so much trouble in class I would go to the office and beg for a teacher that spoke English or for help of some kind. They laughed at me! Then they put me in another class, still no English--no help at all. I got passed around from teacher to teacher like "the Old Maid card" in an unfeeling, unending game.
Typically, after the first 20 minutes of the first hour in a 4-hour immersion class, I found myself in a daze, quickly losing concentration. My eyes looked like a deer caught in the headlights of an oncoming car. My brain was shutting down on overload, my hard drive was full. The stress was almost unbearable.
¿Qué Pasa? My fast road to failure.
When I had a question I didn’t know enough Spanish to ask the question in Spanish, double-duh…! It would take me a full two minutes to try to form the question in my mind and I would forget what I was asking before I could finish asking the question.
If I was successful enough to ask my question something worse would happen. The teacher would answer it with two paragraphs in high speed Spanish that seemed to go in a different direction from my question. And usually I didn’t understand much of what she said!
Or she would finish the question for me because I was not fast enough. I said, "Please allow me to think my way through a sentence, don't finish it for me, this doesn't help me; it hurts me."
It didn’t take long at all to figure out not to ask questions. So I would sit there hour after hour trying to look like I was learning something. Now, because I wasn’t asking any questions, my teacher thought I was getting it and would pour on the coals. Yikes!
One poor teacher was at her whit's end with me having tried every method she knew of to get it across to me, she told me, "Tomorrow I have a surprise for you" (in Spanish, of course- I had her repeat that several times in Spanish before I understood).
The next day she brought in a CD player with children's songs to play for me, she was so pleased. As she played the songs the smile left her face to be replaced with anguish. "It always works with the kids?!" I was crushed and started to get sick. "Boy, am I stupid." I accused myself.
After school when I went to my homestay, they didn't speak or weren't allowed to speak any English if they could; it just got worse for me. I couldn’t relax from the tension of the day.
I tried to study the stuff we had in class that day and the extra material I had requested for the next day’s class. And in defense for the next day, I was looking up five out of seven words in every sentence in my Spanish-English dictionary in advance, so I might be able to understand what was going to be taught on the morrow.
After 4 weeks with my nose to the grindstone, I still didn't know how to tell the house mother at my homestay that I needed toilet paper without using embarrassing sign language! You think I'm kidding, don't you? No..O..o… I'm serious. lol
I had paid for 12 weeks of school but my immune system was compromised and weakened by continual stress and I had gotten the gripe 3 times. Finally, in desperation, after the 9th week of torture, I got a flight out of there on a Friday afternoon; broken and sick.
I didn't even ask for a refund for the 3 weeks that I would not finish so that I wouldn't miss the plane I had luckily managed to get the last seat on.
Later, I thought about the kids that had no trouble learning the songs on the CD. Then it occurred to me, I'm not stupid. The kids were already fluent in their birth language for two or three years before they even heard those songs! duh... I'm alright after all.
Wrong Teaching Method
We believe that if you had learned how to speak English, you can learn how to speak Spanish. We understand that you will never be as fluent in a foreign language as you are in your own native birth language.
There are exceptions. Last month I met Sarah, a Spanish major from the University of Michigan that is fluent in and speaks both English and Spanish at a blinding rate of speed. And she's good at soccer too.
“How long have you been studying?” I gasped. “Ten years”. “How old are you?” “Twenty”. “What's that accent that you have? Oh, I volunteered in Chile [South America] for 5 months, it must be that. This is my fourth trip to Latin America.”
”Oh, I see...” I answered softly and walked away amazed with my head lowered.
Now I'm asking you. Do you remember how old you were when you had your first formal English grammar lesson?
I think that I was six or seven years old and in the first or second grade. I had already been speaking English for at least three years! Duh...
I asked one of my Spanish teachers why we had to learn so much grammar.
She was honest and clear in her answer. “You don't need it. There are many that don't know any grammar at all.” I was dumbfounded.
She waited a little, “It helps you to learn the language faster and more accurately, that's all. You can pick it up on the streets, many taxi drivers pick it up just driving tourists to and from the airport to downtown San José.”
In 2007 I met a pastor of a Spanish church on the Pacific coast of Nicaragua who speaks Spanish just fine who can’t read or write Spanish!
A Musical Conversation Experience
I went to a highly regarded school in Costa Rica that had a group-conversation hour on Wednesday afternoons. All learning levels could attend. Of course, the advanced students monopolized the short hour.
Oh, by the way, they had salsa dance classes in adjoining rooms on either side of our conversation class. One found it nearly impossible to hear over the pounding drums and trumpets of two different very loud boom-boom music systems blasting out Latin beats with 40 young women trying to interest eight guys with their gyrating bodies with newly found salsa rhythms.
You’re right it was one big party for the Europeans while us English-only students suffered unbelievable stress. I could see my hard earned U$ retirement dollars flying out the Spanish ventana.
But I didn't learn my lesson right away and I went to several more schools with meager results. Finally, I said, “No more schools for me unless they teach conversation or in English or both.”
How Not To Teach Spanish
In my quest to learn Spanish I discovered How-Not-To-Teach Language. Here's an analogy.
In the game of golf there is a rule of order that says the person farthest away from the cup shoots first. This can be an advantage to someone whose ball is in a similar position on the green but slightly closer to the hole.
He closely watches his opponent line up and hit his putt according to the slope of the green. If he sees the putt misses a little to the right of the hole he now knows that when it’s his turn to putt he will aim his putt a little more to the left. In that way he has gone to school on the other man’s error.
This is exactly what I have done. Three years ago, by request, I started to teach English to some Spanish speakers here in Estelí, Nicaragua. I am an electrician by trade not a certified teacher.
I tried to find some books to use to teach my eager students. I vowed to myself to go light on the grammar but shortly ran into trouble when I couldn't give good answers to their questions. So I sent to America to get a couple of grammar books to help.
That made it worse, since I could not hear Spanish well enough to understand exactly what they were asking or how to give short accurate answers.
Two students soon quit in confusion, a couple students stayed, I think, just to be polite and another played with her cell phone throughout the whole class sending text messages about how stupid her gringo teacher was, I assume.
Another more advanced student who learned some grammar in university went back to using her 24-CD English language course on her computer at home. Finally, I disbanded the class in frustration and I knew, that I was the problem.
But I had two students that seriously wanted to continue. So I kept modifying my methods until I hit upon a good method of teaching English that I now see could be used in teaching Spanish as well.
I remembered the lessons I had learned from my own school of failure with Spanish. In short, I had learned from a missed putt. I have found a better way.
The Best Way To Learn Spanish
There are a couple of excellent well-designed Spanish language courses that we are using to teach Spanish using modern conversational teaching methods. The best part is that we didn't design the courses ourselves. Well-qualified and well-known language experts have done a marvelously effective job in creating these courses.
For beginners or slow learners like me, this way of learning is better if you have a teacher that speaks and teaches Spanish using some English. They know all the nuances and perfect pronunciations of their native language and they can coach you better using some English.
There are all levels from absolute beginner through intermediate and even advanced levels available. Check out the Pro's and Con's page before you Register.
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