This week, Víctor Manuel Rodríguez Martínez, Director of CEI El Jarama, discusses the evolution of foreign language study, immersion learning and its social benefits.

“To be or not to be?” That’s not the question

“I am, you are, he is...” Memories of my first English class

“Do you remember what your first English as a foreign language (EFL) class was like? I remember it so vividly that I still have the image of that blackboard on the wall with the present tense conjugation on it ‘I am, you are...’ stuck in my head.

I was in 6th grade then and I often find myself comparing these memories with those I had learning Latin a few years later, and both experiences are indeed pretty similar. Actually, I think Latin was of more interest to me when I studied it than those first years of studying English. In my opinion, learning Latin helped me understand the roots of my mother tongue more than English did!

Fortunately, things have changed a lot in Spain and generally around the world. Almost thirty years ago, English or any other foreign language was actually taught as a ‘dead language’. Learning a language basically meant learning vocabulary and tenses off by heart. With this in mind, I recall my teacher at that time, Don Manuel, a gentle strong-voiced man, would explain English grammar, vocabulary etc., all in Spanish. Listening and speaking was uncommonly worked on. However, we got the chance to listen to some English tapes from time to time.

Going active and real

Thankfully, things have changed a lot these last decades. Teaching techniques are nowadays based on active learning, following real communicative and immersion methodologies, amongst other techniques. Generally speaking, the main goal of these techniques or methods is to develop strong communication skills, particularly effective speaking skills.

In Spain, an amazing variety of programmes specially focused on EFL have been created following this perspective and are offered to various targets publics, from little infants to business men, to youths or families, etc. Amongst some of these programmes is the popular ‘English Town’ model, where business men retreat for a week to a remote countryside hotel or cottage and have a full ‘English’ experience with native speakers (following the native to Spanish 1:1 ratio), where the use of Spanish is highly discouraged and not allowed. Some companies take it a step further and hire even professional cooks and/or other professionals fluent in English to enhance the ‘only English’ atmosphere.

In our institution, we organize similar programmes for youngsters. They are either school programmes or summer courses for individuals. Both programmes help students practice EFL in a real situation, where they in turn realise the language is something useful and necessary to get along – enhancing their motivation to learn further, whilst improving their communication skills.

Fortunately, a foreign language is no longer another school subject where one acquires just content as one would in Science or Maths. Nowadays, society as a whole understands that learning a language is not just a matter of gaining knowledge but of becoming fully trained on the use of the foreign language itself.

‘To be’ in the present tense is not just the issue any more.

And now what?

What is the social trend nowadays? If we acknowledge that social trends come from the wisdom of the crowd, we could thus take today´s attitude towards learning a foreign language as a sign of wisdom: as learning a new language is now seen as a means of meeting a new culture – integrating temporarily or even permanently in some cases, as well as setting closer and deep ties between societies, or even better, between people. Links that very often governments or government officials from specific countries are unable to set, are easily sealed by Erasmus students, Spanish-speaking teaching assistants in the USA or even Japanese retirees that decide to come to Europe to learn a language for a year. They just travel, stay and integrate in the foreign country. Easy!

Our great-great-grandchildren will hopefully see in the 22nd century the social and political benefits of this increasingly tied net or web of humans but, what do we see now?

Our institution, CEI El Jarama, is seeing an amazingly growing demand for overseas programmes. German or Japanese families that want to come and experience a Spanish cultural and language immersion. Egyptian teenagers, willing to immerse with Spanish kids at a summer camp, or even Chinese students wanting to share part of their summer with other kids their age, and so forth.

Spanish is equally an increasingly popular language around the world, and our organisation offers a fantastic immersion scheme working hand in hand with Alcalingua-Universidad de Alcalá.

However, all these various demands and schemes have something in common and are highly driven by the desire children have to meet other children with whom they could share and develop strong ties.

This is what we experience within our organisation, but the trend is exactly the same in other organisations that deal with one-year programmes for high-school students, or adults, etc.

And I am not saying that organising a trip abroad is an easy thing to do, because it is not!!! Flight tickets, medical and liabilities issues, special students’ needs, etc. are among some of the numerous difficulties faced, but it is worth every single effort!!!!

 ‘To be or not to be,’ that is not the question I must say. What really counts is not just learning the new language but also enjoying the foreign culture, becoming part of the society in question at least for a short period. You will definitely feel more engaged with the culture and thus be driven to learn the language further.”

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