Global Education

Immersion offers what school can’t

By Annie Orenstein
Published: October 2009

If every South graduate took a language for seven years, beginning in middle school, that would be equivalent to over 1,000 days of slaving over tenses, random vocabulary, and stressful oral tests. I ask you this: if you were to go to a country where you could use your respective language, honestly, how much do you think you could say? Would you be conversant? Would you be able to form sentences almost as fast as you could in English?

Coming back to school from her seven-week immersion class at Harvard Extensions this summer, senior Deanna Badizadegan would consider herself half fluent in Italian.

“If someone put me in the middle of a town in Italy, I would have no problem getting around, she said.

On her first day, her teacher, a Ph.D student at Harvard studying romance languages, didn’t let any of the students speak any English, though none of them knew any Italian before taking the class.

Her summer at Harvard involved five hours each day, five days a week, in addition to homework.

Her class activities ranged from grammar exercises to movies and online games. With five other students in her class, everyone got a chance to speak, and the class spent at least an hour each day speaking solely in Italian.

Italian isn’t the only language Badizadegan speaks; she is in her seventh year of Spanish here at South. Though she understands that long-term immersion is not possible in public schools, she recognizes that after seven weeks, she became more comfortable with Italian than she is with Spanish.

Coming from the same situation, I spent six months in Portugal this past year and returned to school almost completely fluent. Always speaking Portuguese in school and at home with my host parents, I was conversant with natives within three months of my semester abroad. There was no one to ask, “what did you just say? in English when I didn’t understand something; there was just polite nodding. I tried to remember the unfamiliar phrase to Google it later. That’s how I learned: hearing, understanding, and repeating.

I did have some prior language knowledge before my departure: six full years of French. Six full years of learning the passé composé, and I still can’t utter a sentence in the past tense. Though I studied the language for six years, I never gained the speaking fluidity that six months in Portugal gave me.

Spending those French classes just watching the clock go by, I tell you today that languages at any public high school run on a cycle. You study for your quiz on the future tense; you get an A on the quiz; you forget the information. The next year you memorize the same material, get an A on the same quiz and forget the same information. Something about the way language is taught just doesn’t resonate with most students. This is the same system, however, in numerous public high schools around the country. Even a five on an AP language exam does not deem someone fluent.

Immersion is the only way to make someone fluent in a language. At a public school, though, when an average student takes four other classes of equal or greater priority, immersion is impossible. With approximately four and a half hours of class time each week, South does the best it can, offering the immersion trips to France, Nicaragua, and Peru all designed to strengthen a students ability to speak the language.

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