The path to fluency

Isabelle Lhuilier, Staff Writer

Lost in Nice, Audrey Wilson (’19) and her friends from the Centre Méditerranéen D’etudes Françaises Immersion program (CMES) searched for the right train back to their camp. Unsure where to go, Wilson had to seek directions from a sea of native French speakers.“Before the camp I would have been scared to do that,” she said. “But because of all the interactions that I had, I was completely fine just speaking French.”

Spending her summer in France allowed Wilson to improve her skills and become more comfortable with the language. “I wanted to work on my French,” she said, “it was right before I went to high school so I wanted to be prepared for the French courses.”

When Will Fox (’18) attended the Middlebury Chinese program he had four hours of class a day followed by activities which were all done in Chinese. Immersion was a challenge in the beginning for Fox as it required him to stretch his existing knowledge to understand the more complex phrases others were saying. “Other than the instructions [the teachers] had given us in English the day before, I didn’t really know what was going on,” he said.

However, over the course of the program Fox improved his speaking and listening skills and by the end he noticed progression. “I had improved those skills and I think I’d built up to a point where I was comfortable listening to instructions, knowing where I was going and interacting with other people,” he said. Although his program wasn’t in China he still felt it was extremely effective in improving his language abilities and when he returned to his camp for a second year he even began to dream in Chinese.

Fox believes immersion is more effective than studying languages in a classroom as you are using the language constantly instead of only studying it a few hours at a time. “In immersion, you learn just by being surrounded by it and you don’t go back and forth,” Fox said. “To be solely focused on one subject allows you to improve significantly quicker.”

World Languages and Cultures Teacher Mario Rojas agrees and believes that immersion is effective in promoting language fluency as students speak the language 24 hours a day. “When you go to an immersion program it’s really intensive and you are exposed to the language every day,” he said. “That really accelerates the learning curve it’s, just the number of hours alone that is greater than we can provide.”

For Wilson, the main difference was “being able to use our French outside of the classroom so we could actually apply what we were learning.” Although Wilson took French classes, her French mainly improved through having the ability to speaking it outside of the classroom. “[After class] We were allowed to go out wherever we wanted,” she said, “it really got me to use my French for directions and talking to people.”

Wilson believes that learning in a classroom is very “technical” and immersion allows you to use your language in “a real life situation” which was more beneficial. “If we are actually going to use the language we are learning, [speaking] is very important because I feel like that’s the main aspect,” she said.

Similarly, World Languages and Cultures Teacher Whitney Nuchereno believes that learning in the classroom is beneficial in language learning but there is only so much you can attain. “[School] gives you all the tools and foundations to be able to use the language and apply it in a real-life setting. But that’s the difference: It’s not necessarily a real life setting,” she said.  “Learning at ASL is a stepping stone to be able to go into that culture and do it on your own.”

Wilson also noticed language improvements in her peers during her time at CMES. “There were some people who went into the camp not speaking French at all,” she said. “By the end, they were going out and having conversations with French people in shops and on the street.”

Alongside her peer’s improvement, Wilson noticed her understanding of French improved as well and gave her the “quick thinking that you need to speak French.”

Returning to class after attending his program, Fox felt that the new vocabulary he had learned allowed his speaking and writing to advance. “Sometimes you have ideas but you just don’t have the language proficiency to say it. So with a significantly improved [vocabulary], writing becomes much easier,” he said.

Rojas feels that students return from immersion with more “confidence” and “enthusiasm” for their language. He believes these programs force them to implement their language and provide experiences with the language in real life scenarios.Students feel the need and the urgency to use the language a lot more because to get through their day they have to actually speak it,” he said. The stakes are high and they are very authentic so that’s what makes [immersion] so effective.”