TRAVEL TALK

Learning a foreign language through immersion school


Published: Sunday, July 7, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, July 3, 2013 at 3:43 p.m.

I have always wanted to speak French more fluently, so I thought I would try out a French immersion school. My research found several organizations to choose from: ESL-schools.org, cesalanguages.com, ef.com, languagevacation.com, applelanguages.com, languages-worldwide.com; and there are many locations to choose from: France, Canada, Morocco, Switzerland, Guadeloupe and Senegal.

I had some American Airlines' miles, and since Guadeloupe only required 35,000, I booked a one-week intensive course with a self-catering apartment for $770 through Language Vacation, a Canada-based company. This was basically a trial, as one week is certainly not enough time. Most schools offer intensive courses (20 hours a week), standard courses (10 hours a week), private lessons and more.

For example, Apple Languages has options of a language plus another item, such as culture, golf, winter sports, surfing, spa therapy, and so on. Accommodations with most of the schools range from single/shared rooms, to rooms with host families, to self-catering apartments.

Obviously, staying with a host family increases your opportunity to practice the language. If you choose a home-stay, be open-minded about what to expect (there may not be air conditioning, a bathtub and other amenities). Meals will be local dishes, not "American-style" foods, and meal times may be quite different than you're used to. Research the local customs and traditions to find out what topics of conversation, style of dress and other situations may be taboo. Have a sense of adventure and humor!

Home stay does not always mean traditional married couples with children. If you have special dietary needs inform the school in advance. I chose a self-catering apartment since I am particular about what I eat and when. The apartment was a 20-minute walk from the school, and the intensive course schedule was Monday to Friday, from 8 a.m. to noon.

Luckily for me there was only one other student, so we had very personalized attention. In most schools, the maximum number of students is six. My course combined speaking, reading, listening and writing — sometimes organized and other times extemporaneous — such as talking about current events or certain topics. We also took a field trip one day to visit some attractions on the island. You had to speak only French, so it was "sink or swim."

The school was only 10 minutes from a public beach adjacent to the Club Med La Caravelle, and after lessons I went there to swim and snorkel. Guadeloupe is a beautiful island with waterfalls, mountains, a volcano, beaches and lots of watersports.

Learning another language isn't easy; it takes time and practice. Preparation helps, so before you go, learn as much vocabulary as you can. Be realistic in your goals: Expect to simply increase your communication skills. Don't try to translate every word because it doesn't work. Try to think in the new language, and don't be afraid to make mistakes.

Even though it was just a week, I feel much more confident in speaking French and look forward to going again for a longer time.

Claudine Dervaes' travel column is published the first Sunday of each month.

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