Immersion vs. Comprehensible Input

Today I rode a linguistic merry-go-round. Tonight at dinner in Pau, France, I had the opportunity to speak with a number of different language teachers, all teaching different languages and at different levels. One teaches ESL to university students, another teaches Spanish to French high school students, and the third, my daughter, teaches English to French kindergarteners and other elementary-aged children. Earlier in the day I met the Spanish teacher’s brother, who had moved to Pau with no knowledge of French and very little knowledge of English. He threw himself into the language and culture. He chose not to join us at dinner, though, because he knew he would not be able to keep up with the conversation. After my morning visit to the chateau in Pau where I experienced a tour led completely in French, I can sympathize with him. During the tour, I understood only a few words here and there.  When the group laughed at the jokes, I searched their faces and the walls and objects of the room for clues. After a few rooms of little to no comprehensible input, I decided immersion wasn’t working for me.  I became frustrated and tired of trying to understand. I shut down.

I know that one short tour doesn’t even come close to pretending to be a true immersion experience, but I found myself searching for the help that a good teacher can provide.  Over dinner, we talked about how languages are best taught.  Should you teach completely in the target language, should you correct mistakes in speech, and how important is the correct pronunciation?  I was the only one of the group with years of experience in language teaching, but these young teachers had so much to teach me.  Everyone agreed, though, that you can’t teach a language without speaking and using it in context.  Everyone agreed that English is filled with irregularities that can be difficult to teach.  For instance, the phrase “make up” has so many different meanings: what one puts on the face to enhance beauty, resolving differences with someone, and coming up with something without any grounding in fact. The Spanish speaker wanted to say she invented words, but her friends told her that “make up” made better sense in the context.  Why?  How does one explain these nuances to language learners?

These teachers asked me what I have seen during my observations that I will take back to the classroom with me.  After so much time observing and experiencing, I realize how much material I have gathered, and the time has come to sift through it all. I have video I can watch over and over again, comments to reread, and memories of both the innovative teaching I have observed and the places I have visited. My summer will be a time of synthesis, evaluation, and creation.

Picture of La Sagrada Familia (Barcelona) entrance doors under construction.  “Give us this day our daily bread” in fifty languages.

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