Language learning: immersion was my answer

Waves crashing against the beach
Amy Shows Monier

Being raised in south Louisiana, the French language was always around, squeezed in, but strangely elusive. My baby-sitter would say that I had a tête dur, my grandmother would cook pain perdu, and I remember my great-grand parents bickering in French with each other when I spent the summers. But they, like many parents, didn’t share their native tongue. It was for them, something they guarded from their children in hopes they would thrive in their English-speaking environment.

When I was young, maybe just starting school, I faintly remember sitting around a small table with a few other kids playing games with colours and shapes in French, but when I got older the idea of choosing a course in French was intimidating. It was foreign, seemed difficult, and fell into a category of things that I simply did not have the ability for, like rock climbing. You are either strong and brave, or not.

At university, after taking other introductory language courses, I found a beginner French course that I was excited about. I scored worse in that course than any other I had taken, or for that matter have taken since. My professor was a good educator, but his stern and too-rigid approach helped to reinforce that I had neither the time nor the ability to pursue a language. This was especially true when he handed the best tests back first, and I waited to receive mine.

Later on, while living in New Orleans, I could not let go of my hope to learn French. French became increasingly important as the French speakers in my life began to pass away, and my partner, now husband, was a French speaker. So after work, I began attending weekly community courses, but with each class, I felt more frustrated. We focused on strange aspects of the language – repeating Parisian idioms; memorizing which prepositions went with which countries – that made it seem out-of-reach. 

But, I learned something different recently; this summer I had an opportunity to participate in an immersive language program where for 5-weeks I made a promise with myself and the community at Université Sainte-Anne in Church Point, Nova Scotia that I would speak only French. The area is relatively isolated with an understated beauty held by the Bay of Fundy and its beautiful sunsets. The staff created an environment filled with interactive opportunities to assist in opening a door of possibility. It was a rare opportunity to be able to focus solely on learning French. Each meal I shared with my friends in my residence, the music we danced to at the campus bar, and the words we used while playing board games – all this reinforced the material covered in daily classes and workshops.

On the first day, in English, the director shared how the founder of the program once described language immersion: ‘You will learn like a snowball’. I imagined a snowball gaining momentum down a hill, picking up everything in its path: more snow, mud, twigs and getting larger and larger. Similar to learning a language, I didn’t know the first thing about snow. I’m from a sub-tropical climate, we flavour our sno-balls with bright blue, green, or orange syrup and sip on them in the summer. We were still speaking English, but this was one of the first things I trusted to be true without really knowing what any of it meant. 

I was starting at the beginning, again. This time it felt different. My professor normalized the difficulty of having few words and mentioned that we would learn and build parts of speech like Lego. He stressed the importance of listening and repeating, and the program offered daily access to a language laboratory. Lots of the students had gone through the program before; they knew what it meant to start at the beginning. Each time I tried to pronounce something, attempted to ask a question, or told a story, someone listened to me. Most times they did not know what I was saying but would ask to me try again or ask a follow-up question.

This all underscores the point that language is about connecting. It’s about learning to connect with yourself in a new way. It’s about being brave enough to start from the beginning and trust in the possibility of authentic connections. Temporarily, you lose access to facts, endearing jokes, or the ease of starting and ending conversation. But you gain other subtleties: lyrics come towards you differently, simple greetings start to mean something again, you learn again (but in this rich, new way) what it means to focus on the moment, the interaction in front of you. It slowly becomes a real way of connecting, a new possibility emerging between you and the people around you.

Instead of seeing the process as something I could possess, immersion felt more like carefully walking into the ocean: at first you’re mostly dry, then waves keep crashing into you, but at some point you’re floating. I felt like a kid again, having fun in the water, figuring out the rules but mostly playing. Very much like the ocean, you could fight it and sometimes it felt like the easier thing to do, but just like the ocean, it never is. For me, language learning did not require a skill but was more about space and a willingness to risk a little, go out, and meet the waves. At the end, the real question was figuring out how ready I was to start at the beginning.

Amy Shows Monier is an Occupational Therapist from Louisiana, moving to Oxford shortly. 

Image by enriquelopezgarre from Pixabay

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