Going to the host country of the target language has always taken on a sort of mythical quality. It has been believed that you could not learn a foreign language unless you went to the country associated with the target language and engaged in something called Total Immersion.
Total Immersion is NOT a protracted amount of time of traditional language learning instruction in the target language’s country. Coming to Mexico and studying Spanish using traditional language learning methods is NOT a Total Immersion program. It bears repeating once again:
What is not commonly known is most of these university-level programs require that you have at least 4 semesters of the target language before going abroad. This was true more than 30 years ago.
Here is the myth. It is believed that if you come to the country of the language of your choice, some sort of linguistic hocus-pocus will one day swoop down on you, possess you, and you will mystically know the language. I mean, really, come on. Let me set you straight right now. There is NO magic in spending a small fortune in coming to live and study a foreign language in a foreign country. The Spanish fairy is not going to show up some night while you sleep and do the “now-you-know-Spanish” spell over you. It is NOT going to happen.
The only difference in your coming to Mexico to study Spanish is that all the classes are going to be taught in Spanish. They will use the same method used in the United States. You will get a textbook—sometimes—and attend a conversation class. You will still have to study your buttocks off. The only difference is there are more opportunities for practice in the foreign country than you had at home.
But here is what we see all too frequently. These American college students come here and hang out with other American students. They spend what precious time they have in Mexico speaking English with their companions instead of hanging out with the locals and speaking Spanish.
This is one reason why the so-called Total Immersion experience is a waste of time and money. If what you are going to do is spend all your out-of-class time hanging out and speaking English with your fellow Americans, then what is the point? We see this too in adult students who come to the private language schools.
Are we still wondering why America is only 9% bilingual?
Here is another problem with the so-called Total Immersion experience. There is the false expectation that if you haven’t one word of Spanish under your belt, you can come and enroll in a beginner’s class and start learning. Nothing can be further from the truth. First, there is the myth that says there is some sort of magic in coming to the foreign country to learn the target language. The second myth is these schools will take you at the absolute beginning level—WRONG.
All the schools in Guanajuato, as well as most of the others I have contacted in my research for this book, confirms what my experience already taught me.
When you come to the country of the language you are trying to learn and enroll in one of the private schools, you will be coming into the beginning, or the middle, or at the end of a sequence. What I mean is this.
When I first came to language school in Guanajuato, I came into an intermediate class that was already into the 4th week of the sequence. They did not start a new intermediate class just for me. I was stuck in a class where 4 students had already been going through intermediate instruction for 3 weeks before I got there. I came into the 4th week of instruction.
If you are a rank beginner and do not even know the Spanish alphabet much less the difference between the verbs ESTAR and SER, you will not necessarily come into the beginning session of a beginner’s class. Do you get what I mean here? You will be sandwiched into the level at which you test but you will be put into the instruction where everyone else is presently at.
We heard of a lady from America who had absolutely no Spanish—none. She paid for three months at a very expensive private language school. She expected to be placed in a class for absolute beginners. To her shock and surprise, she was put into a class of beginners who had been there for several weeks and had completed most of the beginning class’s cycle. Even though they were beginners, they were much too advanced for her. She was lost.
You have to see the school’s logistics in all of this. The school could not start a class for all the different levels at which all the different enrolled students tested. Just think of it. You could have 100 students all at different levels. The school would have to offer 100 different classes with 100 teachers to accommodate the needs of all 100 students. Schools have to have “cycles” in each level of instruction in which to insert the students.
Most Americans do not know this when they enroll in what are touted as Total Immersion classes in foreign countries.
At the University of Guanajuato, there are classes that start at the beginning of each semester. So, you could be a rank beginner and begin in a rank beginner’s class with the rest of the rank beginners at the start of the rank beginner’s cycle. This operates just like classes in the United States. The private schools, however, cannot do this. You might “luck out” in one of the private schools and happen to time your study vacation when the beginning of a beginning, intermediate, or advanced level cycle is starting but don’t bet the farm on it.