I spent my weekend in the beautiful Burgundian village called ‘Pommard’ where my husband is from, and where his family lives. This weekend it was a time for a family reunion, celebrating a new addition to the family and a milestone birthday. Needless to say, there was excellent wine, a lot of delicious food and – the inspiration for my post today – endless amounts of conversation. Relatives and friends, people who are very close and care about one another, get together and speak as much and for as long as they can. Topics can range from the weather, to politics, to the latest tractor breakdown – always with a lot of humour mixed in. And admittedly, I didn’t understand everything.
But this is what I would call ‘complete immersion’. I would like to mention that just because you live in a country, it doesn’t necessarily follow that you will be immersed in its language sufficiently for you to learn it. Unfortunately for my language skills, my new living arrangements mean that I don’t have to speak French all the time. I no longer have to speak only French at home, as my husband understands if I speak to him in English. Also, being an English teacher rather than working in a restaurant with French colleagues and customers, I speak a lot of English at work. And being in Dijon, a city, I’ve been able to find English-speaking friends who I spend more time with than the French.
Admittedly, if I really wanted to ‘integrate’ more into French society I could. But I believe that human beings are linguistically lazy, and will (consciously and subconsciously) try to speak their mother tongue whenever I could. I first noticed this with the French community in Wellington, New Zealand. Many of them would share a flat with a group of other French people, work in a French restaurant with French managers and colleagues and only go out with other French speakers. As a result, some of those who had been there the longest didn’t necessarily have very high levels of English.
Another eye-opener was teaching some of the elementary-level students in Wellington, at the Campbell Institute during my CELTA course. The majority came either from Chile or from China, and had been in New Zealand for different lengths of time (from 6 months to 10 years) and were aged from 23 to 72. I was initially surprised that some of the students had such a basic knowledge of English, but when I got to know particularly two Chilean students, I had a much clearer picture of why they had effectively avoided learning English. Similarly to the French ex-patriates that I spoke about, these Chilean students were very established in the Wellington Latino community. Neither had yet found work, so they spent all of their time with their Chilean flatmates and socializing with other Spanish speakers.
So how can we maximise these opportunities for total language immersion, such as my social family weekend? I think it’s important to make friends who speak the language, and who ideally won’t speak your mother tongue. And the more the better – don’t just make one friend, but make lots of friends and have them speak to each other at a natural pace while you try to follow. This is the principle. But my English-speaking bubble is very comfortable, so it will take some motivation to put the plan into action.