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Student Well-Being Opinion

Student Blogger: The Value of Language Immersion

By Julia McMahon-Cole — September 01, 2017 5 min read
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Editor’s intro: Experts constantly tout the value of language immersion, but do students see the value in it? Julia McMahon-Cole, a 17-year old high school senior in Lincoln, NE traveled to China this summer and shares her thoughts on the subject.

When I first walked through the doorway of my host family’s apartment in Jingmen, China, I was greeted with smiles, hugs and an unexpected name: “Our Little Niece.” It was such a warm and comforting way to be welcomed into their home and immediately put me at ease. However, I was confused as to why a blue-eyed American would be considered family by my Chinese hosts? Over the next month during my Chinese immersion experience I would not only improve my Mandarin, but I also would also learn about the importance of the da jia, or big family, that I had now joined.

This summer I lived in Jingmen, in China’s Hubei province, with a retired couple who spoke no English. I wanted to return to China because, while I have been studying Mandarin for about ten years now, I knew how important it was to immerse myself in situations where I had to rely on my own language abilities to communicate. I also wanted to travel alone to China to reignite my passion for learning Mandarin.

My love for China and my Chinese language journey had started during trips my family took to China when I was much younger. Sadly, once these trips stopped, I could feel my grasp on Mandarin slipping. While I took as many classes and studied with as many tutors as I could in Lincoln, for me it just wasn’t the same and learning Chinese became slow and hard. By living in the country, you are forced to use the language every hour of every day to survive, hearing it in regular conversations on the street, watching TV, interacting with friends. This kind of varied use makes language learning feel natural. Being fully immersed in a language means that you use a foreign language to do everything, from buying coffee, meeting people, getting directions—literally everything. Classroom learning, on the other hand, tends to be much more structured and makes it feel less like the adventure it is—learning to communicate with real people from very different backgrounds through a new language.

The Value of Immersion

Immersion, while sometimes very difficult, is also extremely rewarding. During my month in somewhat isolated Jingmen, I never encountered another English-speaker. This also meant that many people in Jingmen had never met a foreigner and were eager to talk to me about diverse topics every day. Fully surrounded by a foreign language and culture, I felt I was learning faster than I ever would in a classroom. With learning happening everywhere and all the time, my month of learning felt so much more valuable than years studying back in Lincoln.

Immersion also has the added benefit of teaching us things about the local culture that can’t really be learned without experiencing it. The concept of da jia is a good example. Da jia, which translates to “big family,” is an idea that all Chinese are part of one big family, no matter the age or background. Whether you’re meeting someone for the first time, or you’ve known them for years, you never need to use their name, but instead call them by their age appropriate position in your family. For example, if you are greeting a man that is much older than your father, you say, “Hello, Grandfather!” instead of asking him for his name. Or you get called “Little Niece” when you arrive from abroad. The use of this family friendly language creates a closeness that English can’t match. It is also something that is hard to learn in a classroom environment; you can understand it, but until you live it on a daily basis, its widespread meaning is hard to grasp.

When my month ended, I could already feel how much my Mandarin had improved. Since I had been forced to speak and listen every day, I now felt much more comfortable using Mandarin to express how I really felt, listening to others, understanding the grammar, and occasionally using colloquial lingo.

While in Jingmen, I met many people who could not believe that I wanted to learn their language, let alone live in their remote city. But the more I talked with people, the more I realized how appreciative they were at my efforts. Chinese know Mandarin is a very hard language, and they appreciated my efforts to learn their language because it allowed us to interact on a more genuine, thoughtful level than they usually could with most foreigners. Through these interactions, I realized how much I appreciated the multiple benefits of learning a foreign language. Upon my return to America, my experiences reminded me how difficult it is for English language learners here, and gives me more appreciation for their efforts.

When I boarded my train to go meet with my parents, I felt something that I hadn’t expected. Sure, as I traveled around Beijing, I had a huge sense of accomplishment because we relied soley on my Mandarin to get food, buy gifts, and navigate around such an enormous city. However, unexpectedly, I felt like I was truly leaving a different family behind. As I said my goodbyes to my Uncle and Aunt (the only names they would respond to from me), I realized how much I had learned from them about Chinese language and culture, and I knew then that I would forever be in their debt.

Advice to Language Teachers

Going to Jingmen this summer made such an impact on my view of people as a whole and on learning a foreign language. I know my experience this summer is very rare and that few American students have such opportunities. However, foreign language teachers can borrow from immersion practices and make foreign language learning feel more real. Classroom instruction should mimic, as much as possible, the real situations that people experience using language in their home countries: interactive dialogues, watching tv, playing games, visiting stores, skyping with native speakers. Language teachers can also encourage students to try new things to enhance their language learning and interact with native speakers in their own community. With increased confidence in their language abilities, who knows—maybe more students will take the plunge and find themselves a part of another da jia half way around the world.

Follow the Center for Global Education at Asia Society and Heather on Twitter.

The opinions expressed in Global Learning are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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