Learning a language the immersive way

Learning a language exercises your brain and improves cognitive abilities. It can boost memory, problem-solving skills, and multitasking capabilities - and it's fun. Margaret McKay dives in to explain the immersive language learning opportunities for us to travel and learn a new tongue.

By Margarent McKay

Where immersive language training began

In 1965, Bertil Hult took a group of Swedish students to Brighton, England, and a new concept was born – to learn a new language while travelling on holiday. Now, some 58 years later, EF (Education First), has offices around the globe and the ability to learn 10 languages in 50 destinations at their dedicated schools.

These days, any dinner party conversation about learning a language inevitably ends up with the 'it’s better if you can live there for a while' argument.

Being fully immersed in a language by living overseas and attending daily lessons is a fantastic way to seriously improve your skills.

While you will be spending your class days fully involved in your chosen language with teachers and fellow students alike, just outside the doors in the bustle of street life, the learning continues.

Café owners, wait-staff, taxi drivers, department store assistants, supermarket check-out people, ticket vendors – you name it, it is total immersion in not only the language, but importantly, the culture.

Street signs, shop fronts, the food labels on supermarket shelves – this is the home of the language you have chosen, and in my experience, there is nothing like it. It’s the real deal, full and complete connection.

What’s available? We’ll come back to that, but first, you can maximise your results by doing some prep work before leaving home.

Before you leave – let’s get those language neurons firing

A great place to kick off your preparation is with some quality conversational instruction from the masters in the business. The lessons from the Michel Thomas series are good, and the Pimsleur system is world renowned. These are readily available as both CDs and downloadable files. It is very important to follow the instructions to get maximum benefit.

For those wanting to begin immersion into their chosen language as soon as possible, several avenues are available in Australia. We can’t cover the full gamut of languages here, so we are keen to point out that these are examples, not some sort of preferred-language pecking order.

Step from bustling Sydney into total French culture, cuisine, and language as you pass through the doors of Alliance Francaise. They have been around for many years and excel at full-on language training with native French teachers. In this post-pandemic world, they also offer seriously good tuition by Zoom.

The Italian Cultural Institute of Sydney offers a similar experience and access to language courses.

The Greek Community of Melbourne has a whole range of cultural events, including language courses.

Western Australia is home to the Vietnamese Community in Australia, a long-established group offering a range of involvement, including language courses.

FluentU offers a unique opportunity to participate in thousands of videos in any one of their 10 chosen languages, with subtitles, quizzes, dedicated responses to pronunciation issues, vocabulary search, performance monitoring, and a whole lot more. This goes way beyond watching the overseas news channel, and a thorough perusal of their website will be an eye-opener.

Time to pack the bags and organise the cat-sitter

Lingua Service Worldwide has courses for all demographics, including some specifically tailored for the 50+ age group. Available in Spanish, Italian, and French, in many locations, the courses provide language lessons in the mornings and exposure to cultural activities in the afternoons and evenings.

Perhaps you might have ambitions to be a Road Scholar (Rhodes Scholar?) Type ‘language study’ into their ‘Find a Trip’ page for some wonderfully immersive opportunities. Solo traveller? These folks have you covered, describing their typical customers – solo or couples – as passionate lifelong learners, usually over the age of 50.

For a refreshingly different take on immersive learning, Louise Harber, founder of FLSAS, offers not only trips with classes, but also those without formal class time – opting for a fully immersive homestay experience to learn the language as you did when growing up – 24/7 exposure, surrounded by the language.

If you really want to disappear down the rabbit-hole of overseas language and culture experiences, then grab yourself a beverage and check out GoAbroad.

While initial impressions may be that this central hub for information on a myriad of courses might be aimed only at younger students, the organisation has evolved since 1997 to be the go-to source of information linking those wishing to travel and learn, and the companies providing such opportunities. Drilling down through the site reveals opportunities specifically tailored for mature age learners.

Whether your desires tend towards learning Spanish in Costa Rica or Cuba, Mandarin in Beijing or Shanghai, Italian at Genoa or Taormina, or modern Arabic in Hebron – the world is your oyster.

Superb opportunities for immersive foreign-language courses abound – all they need is the one remaining essential ingredient: you.

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