Let me be frank from the outset: I think immersion courses are a great value and, more importantly, a lot of fun. During the 10 years that I taught English at university I lost count of the number of times that I walked into the classroom, usually on a lovely sunny morning, and thought … “Wait a minute! There must be a better way!” Somehow, we have all accepted the classroom as the “normal” place to learn a language. I would argue that the classroom is probably one of the worst places to learn a language for most people. First of all, it doesn’t strike me as a very “natural” setting for interaction when students all sit at desks on one side of the room and face a teacher. How many of your typical day-to-day interactions are held under similar circumstances? Not many, I’m sure. In fact, so much of our “normal” interaction is often banal and occurs at places like at the dinner table, the bus stop, on the phone or over a cup of coffee at the office. How many English students get to practice “normal” interaction at the dinner table while in a classroom? See my point?
Let me tell you a story that might bring this into focus a little better. I had a student that worked for an American multinational in Brazil. This student was one of the best students I’d ever taught. An excellent student, in fact. One day at work he was given the task of receiving a visiting manager from the US. This student’s English was excellent, so he seemed the logical choice for the job. He was asked to pick up the American at the airport and take him to his hotel in São Paulo. Simple enough… The problem was my student was entirely unprepared for the kind of normal interaction that was expected on a drive into town with a complete stranger. In other words, my student wasn’t prepared for small talk. You know, chit-chat… introducing oneself, asking polite questions, commenting on the weather, asking about the flight, commenting on the traffic and so on. He knew all about grammar and word formation and syntax, but he wasn’t prepared for a two-hour idle chat with a stranger. Why? I think it’s because his knowledge of English came from a classroom, and despite the best efforts of his teachers, he had never had the opportunity to just “shoot the breeze” in English. Here’s where immersion comes in.
One of the undeniable advantages of an immersion course is the sheer number of hours you have to practice your English in an English-speaking environment. If we subtract 10 hours a day for sleep and downtime, an immersion weekend still comes to 28 hours of interaction, and all in English! How many weeks would you spend in an English course to reach 28 hours? Let’s see, 2 hours a week at the language school times how many weeks? I think you get my point. Then there is the kind of interaction you get in an immersion course. None, or very little, of the interaction is in an artificial environment. Rather, all the interaction is typical of real-life encounters. At meal times you sit at the table and get to practice saying things like “what’s for lunch today?” and “pass he salt” and all while shooting the breeze with your new friends around the table. This is the kind of everyday fluency that my student lacked when he was stuck in the car for two hours with the visiting American. Of course, immersion courses are more than just shooting the breeze. Usually there are structured activities, sports and even workshops where participants can learn a new skill or just use an old one. Which brings me to the next really cool thing about immersion courses …. the fun factor!
Immersion courses are fun! Rather than sitting in a classroom you get to go out on a hike, learn how to cook, visit a park or museum, play soccer or volleyball, play charades or tell jokes over a beer at the end of the day. An immersion course is designed around activities that promote social interaction. It’s all about meeting new people and doing fun things. Some immersion courses go even further and offer thematic weekends where students can learn to ride a horse, go mountain biking or hiking or, in the case of my immersion course, learn how to sail on the ocean. Believe me, it’s a lot more fun than sitting in a classroom on a sunny morning!
The final point I want to make is about value. Students are often unsure of the value of an immersion course: “Is it really going to improve my English?” “Am I going to learn something new?” In an immersion course you get the chance to really put your language skills to use. It’s a chance to practice and consolidate what you have already studied more than learn new things. Of course you will learn new things during the immersion course, but that’s not the point. Immersion courses are a chance to practice what you know and develop fluency. It’s hard to describe the value of an immersion course to someone who has never taken one. I remember a student called Sergio that took a weekend immersion course with us. He was so shy on the first day that getting him to speak English was like pulling teeth. Incredibly, by the end of the weekend he wouldn’t shut up! What happened, in fact, was that Sergio just needed a little time listening to English spoken around him so his brain could switch into “English mode”. When it finally switched, there was no turning it off!