Imagine walking down the cobblestone streets of Paris, the Eiffel Tower standing loftily in the distance.
You pause for a moment to buy a croissant from the corner boulangerie (bakery) before continuing your stroll along the river Seine.
As you walk, you hear a mixture of ancient church bells and French music sung by street performers.
Maybe you think that’s great, but you’d much prefer to stay home in your pajamas and grab a powdered doughnut instead. Maybe you get just as excited about the ding on your coffee maker as you do about church bells.
Would you believe it if I told you that either setting is great for a French immersion program?
Language immersion is essentially reading, writing, listening and speaking in your target language, but the manner in which you do so can vary greatly!
Is Learning French Through Immersion Right for You?
There are many benefits to learning French through immersion, one being that you have an almost endless amount of options to choose how you learn.
If you are someone who prefers to learn from home or who simply does not have enough time or funds to attend classes or go abroad, there are plenty of online options for you. These may include learning through games, music, videos or language exchanges. Sites like FluentU and Duolingo have made learning a language at home attainable and fun.
The wonderful thing about learning online is that you can experience immersion from the comfort of your own home, on your own time and at your own pace.
Conversely, if you are someone who has the means, availability and desire to travel, going abroad can be a fantastic way to experience language immersion. What better way to learn a language than to be surrounded by it at all times!
Fortunately, there are many ways to move to France, including:
- Attend a local language school
- Enroll at a French university
- Work as an au pair
- Spend several months as a tourist or volunteer
For lifelong learners
Lastly, there is always the option of learning French through an immersion-style course at a local institution. Courses can be extremely beneficial and there are plenty of language schools that offer immersion programs in your home country, in France or online.
3 Freeing Keys to Successfully Learn French Through Immersion
Learning French through immersion may seem self-explanatory at first—one simply has to surround oneself with French, correct?
Not necessarily! Like every language acquisition method, much of the success of immersion is up to the dedication and effort of the learner.
One of the many wonderful things about immersion is that it has been proven to yield fast results, but learners must do their part in achieving this.
Follow the three essential keys below to ensure that you are successful with learning French through immersion, no matter how you choose to do it!
1. Do Not Be Afraid to Make Mistakes
This one is probably the most important key of all and is one that almost everyone struggles with. We must all master our fear of making mistakes, for without making errors and being corrected, it is impossible to learn French.
By definition, immersion means “to be plunged” or “to be deeply involved.” So an immersion experience would mean that you fully embrace the target language and (as much as possible) only engage in that language. This can prove difficult because as soon as we become nervous, we tend to revert back to the language in which we are most comfortable.
Fear inhibits language learning and makes us freeze up and forget what we have learned. Macquarie University Centre for Emotional Health released a study that showed that as worry increases, the ability to concentrate on academic tasks and solve problems decreases. You are going to need that cognitive energy for all of those new problems you are going to find yourself in!
The beginning of language learning is, of course, the most difficult, as you will have a limited vocabulary with which to express yourself and it will take a long time for you to formulate sentences.
Despite feeling nervous when initially speaking French, the more you try, the easier it will become and the more confidence you will have. Of course, there are many tips to help combat anxiety during this initial hump! When we practice with others, we get self-conscious—but this part of learning is the only way to grow!
Aside from overcoming your anxiety, it is important to fight the urge to only speak with other learners. It will be tempting to speak with others who are struggling just like you, but in the long run, you do not want to learn French incorrectly!
This is especially true for those learning from home and online because it will prove more difficult to come into contact with native French speakers. If you fall into this category, it is essential that you find ways to speak with as many native speakers as possible through online language exchanges. There is no way around it: the only way to learn French successfully is to try and speak with native or fluent speakers, whether you are learning abroad or at home online.
Keep in mind that learning a new language is difficult for everyone, and no one becomes fluent overnight! Go easy on yourself, and do not expect to be perfect right away! If you are serious about learning French, then understanding that becoming fluent is a process will yield more positive results in time.
When you make mistakes, here are some actions you can take to make the experience positive and productive.
- Laugh at yourself, and turn the mistake into a witty joke.
- Explain yourself in a different way, using different grammar or vocabulary that avoids that error.
- Ask your conversation partner to correct you, or repeat the correct sentence back to you so you can mimic their way of speaking.
- Jot down the mistake and the correction down in a notebook.
- Tweet out your mistake and what you learned from it—your Twitter feed will eventually become a lighthearted history of your French learning progress.
- Dedicate 20 minutes to studying the principles behind your mistake later that day. For example, if you made a past tense conjugation mistake, then you can spend 20 minutes that night brushing up on the past tense and highlighting the conjugation of the verb whose pattern you bungled.
2. Mix It Up
Aside from speaking, French immersion requires a lot of listening! Actually, filling your ears with the sounds of French is one of the most important elements of immersion.
Your brain should be positively swimming in French.
However, you cannot expect to learn well from simply listening to one or two people speak French. It is best to diversify your listening experience so that you are exposed to as many accents and as much vocabulary as possible.
For example, if you only ever listen to French radio based out of Paris, then you will have difficulty understanding French people who come from the south. Likewise, if you learn French only through watching cooking shows or only listening to political podcasts, then your vocabulary will be restricted to those subjects.
Luckily, there are many avenues that can expose you to a variety of French topics and people.
If you are learning at home, here is what your listening routine might look like:
- Monday: Watch one hour of French news on France 24.
- Tuesday: Watch “Radiostars” without subtitles.
- Wednesday: Follow the recipe in a cooking show.
- Thursday: Listen to one hour of music while working out.
- Friday: Listen to a new French podcast from Affaires Étrangères while working.
If you are learning French by living abroad, you will benefit from picking up more colloquial speech, but you could be at a disadvantage when it comes to diversifying your French. It is important to ensure you are including plenty of French cinema, music and activities into your listening experience so that you acquire a large vocabulary and a knowledge of regional accents.
Here is what one wonderfully diverse, productive week of living or traveling in France might look like for a dedicated immersion student:
- Monday: Watch a film at La Géode, Paris’s unique cinema with one of the world’s largest hemispheric screens.
- Tuesday: Stop in for drinks and jazz music after dinner at Le Petit Journal Saint-Michel next to Notre-Dame.
- Wednesday: Take a class to learn how to make French macarons.
- Thursday: Attend an after-hours gallery event at the Louvre.
- Friday: Head down to Bordeaux for a weekend wine tour.
In order to become fluent, you must seek out French in every available avenue and from every French speaker with whom you can practice.
3. Put in the Time
Immersion is largely so successful because it typically results in an astounding increase in the number of hours one dedicates to French.
A study done by Language Testing International, a company which administers language tests and assigns fluency levels, yielded results showing that in order to speak French even at a low intermediate level, students had to participate in 240 hours of training over eight weeks.
While this may sound overwhelming at first, it should be noted that this is, in fact, the reason why learning through immersion can be much faster than other methods where learning is done through both one’s native language and French.
This is because immersion ensures that whenever you are learning, you are racking up more and more French speaking/listening hours.
Furthermore, the diverse methods through which one can learn by immersion makes it easier to achieve those hours. This is, of course, easiest while living abroad or taking classes.
Yet even if you are learning from home, there are easy practices which can ensure you are getting the proper number of hours.
For example, learners can listen to French radio during their morning commute to work, opt for French music or movies during free time or switch their default internet language to French so that browsing time becomes learning time. Plus, this builds up so easily. Here is what a typical day as an immersion student might look like:
- 9:00 AM: Alarm clock goes off. The alarm is set to a popular French song.
- 9:15 AM: Take a shower. Listen to your French hip-hop playlist while you are showering and sing along.
- 9:50 AM: Leave for work. Play a French audio course and practice listening and speaking for 30 minutes on the way to work.
- 12:00 PM: Lunch break. Play Duolingo for 15 minutes.
- 7:00 PM: Cook dinner while listening to a French podcast in the background.
- 10:00 PM: Jot down your grocery list for tomorrow in French.
- 10:15 PM: Play favorite French music while getting dressed for bed.
The only time you really spent formally studying over the course of this day was listening to your audio course, and perhaps the moments you spent on Duolingo. That was maybe 30-45 minutes of studying—but adding up all of the other activities could easily get you two or three hours of studying over the course of the day.
As with anything, putting in the proper time is the only way to learn.
Like with everything you wish to accomplish, you must do your part in the learning process when studying French!
As you can see, immersion can be a great method for learning and studies have even demonstrated that the brains of those who learn through immersion most closely resemble those of native speakers.
With a little bit of time and work (and bravery), you can ensure that you come out of your immersion experience speaking French like a pro!
Camille Turner is an experienced freelance writer and ESL teacher.
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