Learning through real-life interactions teaches you language that you can actually use in, well, real life.
The security guard was waving a stack of papers in front of my face. Everyone was yelling at me in Chinese. I couldn’t understand anything.
“Oh, I think the police are looking for you,” my friend Tiffani said. Excuse me, what?
The Chinese government was looking for me and I had no clue why.
I was an exchange student in Harbin, China, with only two years of basic Chinese language experience. I knew enough to describe the weather or tell you the time — not even close to enough to deal with the Chinese police.
Last summer I studied abroad in Harbin in a language-immersion program. The goal was to leave with the equivalent of year’s worth of Chinese — in eight weeks.
The program incorporated classroom learning with real-world situations; I lived with a Chinese roommate and other students lived with Chinese families. My teachers didn’t speak any English and the waiters, storeowners and security officers I interacted with on a daily basis definitely didn’t either.
I chose a language-immersion study abroad program hoping that it would put me on track to become fluent in Chinese, mainly so I could become more competitive in the job market.
One-third of employers said they planned to hire bilingual workers in the second half of 2010 and 50% said if there were two equally qualified candidates, they would hire the one who was bilingual, according to a 2010 study by USA TODAY and CareerBuilder.
A language-immersion program works as an accelerated language course because every interaction you have is in that language. It’s one of those sink-or-swim kind of moments, and if you want to survive the next eight weeks, you learn to swim.
“Language is acquired most effectively when it is learned for communication in meaningful and significant social situations,” according to the Center for Applied Linguistics.
Michael Ullman, professor and director of the Brain and Language Laboratory at Georgetown University, conducted a research project where he taught two groups a made-up language. One group learned through a classroom experience, the other through an immersion situation. Each group spent the exact same amount of time learning.
The subjects were tested twice during the experiment. Both times, the people who had learned through an immersion situation were able to process the language more like native speakers than those who had learned in a classroom.
“Presumably a more native-like processing of the brain will allow you to reach a higher level of proficiency,” Ullman said.
Higher proficiency in the language means you can survive in the country — which becomes pretty important when you have to figure out why the Chinese police are looking for you. It turned out to be a misunderstanding with paperwork that was easily figured out — but I will never forget the Chinese word for “police.”
Not only do I know that word, but I was also able to advance two years over the course of two months. I’m now learning how to buy car insurance in Chinese — something I never would’ve been able to talk about without studying abroad.
While a language immersion program can have its challenging moments, it can also be incredibly rewarding.
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