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.
It 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.
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.
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!