An Immersion Excursion

Last month I took advantage of some time off work and some cheap flights and had myself a little two-week taste of immersion learning. My destination was Narbonne, a town of about 50,000 in the south of France. I hoped that in going to a relatively small town, in the depths of winter, I would be faced with a sink or swim, French or nothing situation. I’m not entirely sure what I thought I would gain from the experience. I suppose I just took it for granted that this was ‘a good thing’ for language learning.

Ryanair Dublin to CarcassonneIt wasn’t long, however, before I began to question the wisdom of my endeavour. Within half an hour of landing at Carcassonne I found myself standing alone in the freezing cold, next to a dark and utterly deserted little regional airport, wondering if the woman at the information desk had said  ‘Wait outside and I’ll call you a taxi’ or ‘ You should call a taxi and wait outside.’ Thankfully, the former was the case and, after an initial misunderstanding which saw the driver turn to take me on the forty-mile journey himself, I eventually arrived at the train station.

As I waited on the platform a middle-aged French woman turned to me and made some remark. Train-related? Probably. Weather-related? Possibly. A romantic invitation? I’ll never know. I replied with a ‘Je suis désolé mais je ne parle pas français’, to which she responded with great amusement ‘Mais vous parlez français maintenant!’ We then spoke for a while about the region, its food, its weather, and languages before she guided me towards the correct section on the train’s arrival. Then, after disappearing down the carriage in search of her own seat she promptly returned to make sure I found my own.

As it happened there was already someone in my seat – a broody-looking French teenager with an unmistakable ‘don’t bother me’ expression plastered across her face. Since my journey was a mere twenty minutes I thought I’d just let her have it. My new French mammy on the other hand, was having none of it, and unceremoniously ejected the less than pleased young woman, whose Medusa-like glare I endured as I stood there sheepishly, unable to engage in this fast unfolding drama.

Miscommunications and tongue-tied embarrassment aside, I did, in the end, reach my destination.

Narbonne at Christmas

The beautiful town of Narbonne. Image taken from Office de Tourisme de Narbonne Facebook:

Aside from travelling about, buying tickets and asking for directions, most of my interactions with people came in shops, restaurants, tourist sites, and theatres. For the most part, these were not overly daunting scenarios, save perhaps my trip to the pharmacy which quickly descended into a series of grunts, groans, and animated gesticulations. Despite all the gaps in language I was still confident enough in my comprehension to actually buy and ingest the medicine prescribed. In fact, the little pharmaceutical pantomime was quite an effective memory tool. I will now never forget that ‘un rhume’ is the French for ‘a cold’.

I found humour both an interesting and hugely frustrating aspect of my language experience in France. As someone whose default response to most situations is to make whatever (usually terrible) joke that springs to mind, it was really difficult to engage in conversations with a metaphorical gag in my mouth. Most frustrating of all was when a stranger would make a joke, going out of their way to be friendly, and all I could do was respond with a puzzled ‘Je suis désolé mais je ne comprend pas’, bringing the laughter to an abrupt and awkward end.

That said, when I ventured out of my comfort zone and went along to a comedy show I was pleasantly surprised by how much I was able to take in and enjoy. To be fair, as it was more a drama than a stand-up gig it was probably easier to follow. Nevertheless, it was the first time somebody had ever made me laugh in a language other than Irish or English. And again, like the game of charades in the pharmacy, the bizarre experience of listening to the crazed rants of a sex-starved French housewife as she deals with a mid-life crisis and a cheating husband, definitely served as an effective learning tool for a whole range of new vocabulary.

On a side note, it really is amazing how unequivocally clear a word’s meaning can be, given just a little context. The word ‘salope’ for instance, spat out by the comedienne as she described her husband’s mistress, required no explanation.

Events Narbonne

Posters from a comedy show and movie (without subtitles!) I saw in France.

In trying to assess the value of my short immersion excursion I’d say, first of all, I would have liked to put myself out there a little more. My big plans to put my Duolingo-acquired chat-up lines to work never materialised and a huge pile of corrections kept me from venturing outside of Narbonne itself.

Truthfully, I don’t think there is anything of enormous significance I can do now that I couldn’t beforehand. Even the new words I’ve learnt don’t amount to much more than a handful.

Notwithstanding all that, I do believe that the trip was really worthwhile. Firstly, I was exposed to a much more diverse range of vocabulary and registers than ever before, from the sordid to the sacred.

Secondly, in learning through living I found things registered and remained a lot quicker than is the case with other methods. Perhaps because they were so hard-won, or done so independently, I will never forget the words and phrases I learnt on my feet while trying to work through one of my many daily ‘challenges’.

There is also a great legitimising effect associated with the accomplishment of even the most elementary of practical tasks: ordering a pizza over the phone, registering for a library card, seeking medical advice, traveling from one town to the next by public transport. Though these might seem insignificant, their successful completion meant my French language skills moved from the abstract to the real-life. I have proved to myself that I can use my French to achieve real, concrete things.

Above all else, the most significant result of my trip has been an emotional one. Almost everyone I encountered was incredibly encouraging and supportive. My stumbling, stuttering French was never met with annoyance or a lack of patience. People seemed genuinely enamoured by my efforts with their language, especially when I would insist against their switching to English.

As a result of all the goodwill and warmth I experienced I have developed a stronger bond and affection for my target language. Something I am sure will strengthen my resolve and my motivation.

Hopefully, I’ll get another chance in the near future to do something like this again, and for a longer period of time if possible. With that in mind, I’d really appreciate hearing about other people’s experiences of learning through immersion. If you’ve ever done something similar, be it a short trip or a permanent relocation, I’d love to hear from you. How do you get the most out of it? What are the do’s and don’ts? Whether you’ve had a great success or an unmitigated disaster please do share your story, your thoughts, and your advice!

UPDATED QUESTION: I suppose the biggest question I have is: Is immersion learning worth the effort? Or are you better off simply sticking to language classes, workbooks, and audio courses etc.? Let me know what you think!


9 thoughts on “An Immersion Excursion

  1. Delightful read Ciáran. From my experience the hardest immersive experiences I had were in noisy backgrounds – pubs, cafes, restaurants, etc. It took me 9 months to understand people there, and in huge groups when everybody talks at the same time.

    Humour is also a problem sometimes… but mostly because of the cultural barrier.

    But I think immersion is always good, as it enables you to come in contact with the culture which produced the language you’re studying. For me, learning a language is not only about learning how to communicate in another tongue, but truly learning how to see the world from another point of view. While staying in England, I learnt more about how to use the language properly, than about the language itself.

    All in all, I think you did brilliantly. About the seat episode, next time you can invite the girl to sit on your lap. When you do that, you’ll know you’ve become a bit French… ;D

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for the comment Aude. I really agree with you about coming in contact with the culture and with how the language is used in real life.

      I think sometimes it can be difficult to grasp subtle nuances when learning from a book or in a class but when you go and experience the language through immersion you tend to pick up the little things much easier. For example (and I know it’s not actually that complex), I used to have a bit of trouble with the difference between ‘bonjour/bonsoir’ vs. ‘bonne journée/soirée’ but after one day in France it became completely obvious. I think experience can definitely be more effective than explanation, at least for some aspects of language.

      Also, thanks for the tip on French train etiquette. I’ll know better next time!


  2. I have been learning english since I was 7 years old and you would think that I would have mastered the english language by now, but this is hardly the truth for any non-native speaker, as I found out, when I came here to live (My mother tongue is greek). The grinds and the endless hours spent with teachers prepared me for academic/ professional language, but naturally there was no preparation for fast-paced/ accented/ slang everyday conversation. So, although I have acquired a master’s degree from an english-speaking college, I can hardly understand native speakers when they speak a little bit fast or when they use their accent. This is a great paradox I think and something people should consider when they proclaim with confidence to be fluent in a language. My opinion is that a non-native speaker will never reach a native speaker level, although they might get pretty close. Even now, after 1.5 years living abroad, I still find myself asking questions almost daily about words I don’t know. What is surprising though, is that as soon as I’ve heard an unknown word in an original context (real-life conversation) I will remember it and even use it with great ease, in comparison to being introduced to the word through a book or website. What is for sure is that immersion learning is extremely efficient and authentic and a lot quicker than solving exercises in a book for years. I think the best way to learn a language is to learn the basics with a teacher and then talk to native speakers for a long time. Success!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hey Maria, thanks very much for the comment. I’m terrified to think how many years of hard work I have in front of me if my French is ever to be as good as your English!

      I can relate to your absorbing of words in real-life conversation. Even having spent only two weeks in France, I definitely noticed this happening for me.

      You raise a really interesting point about native speakers. I hadn’t actually given this much thought in terms of my French. What struck me about the difficulties you mention having with pace, accent, and slang, is that I (a native English speaker) have had the exact same issue myself with other English speakers, even with other Irish people! I can remember one occasion in particular when I met a man in a pub in Limerick and I didn’t even realise he was speaking English because the accent was so different!

      You’ve definitely given me some food for thought there. I wonder if we might afford a little too much value to speaking like a native. Fair enough if you’re going to live in a certain part of a certain city for the rest of your life but if you end up living in San Francisco then there’s probably little use in being able to speak like a native English speaker from Liverpool!


  3. Great article Ciaran, I can relate to a lot of that, especially the humour side of things… incredibly frustrating not being able to make jokes which I think is a massive part of our way of communicating. Think that understanding humour will come long before being able to cracking jokes. I still struggle big time with this, I think a lot of it has to do with different cultural and social references as well as the language.

    Regarding immersion versus formal classes I feel that a mixture is definitely needed rather than one or the other. I found classes useful for learning basic verbs and vocal (foundations if you like) and then built up confidence and real life vocal by immersion.

    Looking forward to reading more about your language adventures

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks a lot for the comment Colm.

      That’s what I had been thinking myself and it seems to be the consensus amongst those who’ve been sharing their thoughts. It certainly seems to make sense but I wonder.

      It’s definitely great to have a guide and someone who is willing to answer your questions and explain things but more and more language classes seem to be looking to recreate real-life communication scenarios within the confines of the classroom. So if what you’re doing in the classroom is merely looking to recreate what is already available outside the classroom then surely something isn’t right?!


  4. Immersion learning for me, is absolutly the best way to learn how to speak and understand a foreign language. But if you want to be really precise into your speaking skill I don’t think you can avoid English lessons.
    My experience is made of english at school for more or less seven years and then 1 year in immersion. It is true that I have learnt much much more during my year in ireland than during my seven years at school, but anyway what I learnt to school turned to be really usefull in matters of grammar, sentence construction … (asking questions; use past tense …)

    I don’t think you can speak properly a language if you only learn it at school, by immersion I have learnt expressions, and way to say things. Immersion teaches you how to make understandable sentences, and to understand other’s, and then you manage any conversation, like now. So it is definitely a good way to make you learn a language, but I’ve seen many foreing speaking english with only immersion learning (or almost only) and really often it turned to be really simplified english, like using “like” in every sentences because you don’t have enought words, or always use “-ing” form to make it easier. Don’t get me wrong this way to speak english is fine ! But if you want to go deeper in the different shades the language is offering to you, you need lessons. (or 5 years immersion !)

    While I was in immersion I had a few lessons at the same time, and it was a good thing to do I think because what immersion never really teaches you is the register in which you can use the new words you are hearing, and you can have surprises if you think a word is appropriate and it is not !
    Also I will never minimize the importance of songs, for example old songs that every body know which have new vocabulary, or special verbs or collocation (what is for me the hardest thing in english …).

    Finally, I think foreign languages should be teached as mother language, immersion first, explanation next !

    Today there is still mistakes in my english for sure, but my learning is not over! immersion had helped me to speak, but not to write !

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hey Léa, thanks for sharing your thoughts!

      I think a really interesting comparison that underlines the value of both immersion and formal classes is that of new immigrants and their children. Admittedly, I am only basing this on anecdotal evidence but there seems to me a big difference between the language skills of immigrants who have learned solely through immersion and that of their children who have had the benefit of formal schooling as well as immersion. Even if I’m making too much of this comparison I think based on my own experience with Irish and French I’d have to agree with you that a combination of the two methods is ideal, if possible. (It’s a pity there are no English classes supplied by the Irish state for new immigrants. I think that in Québec the government offers French classes to non-speakers. I wonder if many other countries do this?)

      It’s funny you should mention the value of music. I was just reading an article, ‘Saved by song: can singing improve your language skills?‘, which was making the case that listening to and singing songs in your target language is a great way for getting to grips with difficult aspects of pronunciation. I think you’re right also, when you say songs are a good way to acquire new vocabulary and figure out which verbs are used with different expressions or phrases. I think it’s probably a good way of getting a feel for the real-to-life use of a language.

      From what I’ve seen and read it seems a lot of people would agree with you on teaching a language through a more natural, communicative approach as opposed to merely telling people what ‘the rules’ are and expecting them to implement them. It looks to be the way things are going at the moment.

      I wish you all the best with your language learning in the future and I hope you’ll have the time to share your thoughts and experiences with us again!


  5. Pingback: My Language Diary | Nine Months of Language Learning:

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