During my adventures through the British education system I had the joy of studying French, like the majority of secondary school students. Unalike the majority however, I did stick with it all the way through to AS level and then as evening classes at uni – believing it to be a great way to learn a very useful skill in life. However, last year totally changed that belief for me when I set off for a year studying abroad in China.
In China, I was taught Chinese in a classroom, yes, but totally differently to how French was taught to me at secondary school. From day 1, absolutely everything was spoken to us in Chinese. Our Chinese teacher didn’t speak English (nor did she speak Korean, Thai, Russian or any other of the first languages of my classmates) and even my roommate in the second semester didn’t speak a word of English (and I was even worse at Korean) so outside of the classroom I used my Chinese just as much as in it. We had to learn quickly in the same way as we learnt our native languages – like children, mimicking and copying. At first it seemed like an impossible challenge, yet after just one year my Chinese is now far better than my French ever was.
So, today I want to talk to you about the advantages and disadvantages of immersive and classroom learning.
This is the way most of us learn a foreign language at school – your teacher stands at the front of the class, lectures you (in English) about French grammar points and sets you translations to do for homework. There are some definite advantages to this method, notably:
- Can be easily done in UK schools as classes for a couple of hours a week
- A nice gradual learning curve
- Ensures students can 100% understand the grammar points etc. the teacher explains
- Non-native speakers can often teach the technical points of the language just as well (or sometimes better!) than a native speaker, so there is no need to bring in teachers from abroad
- Doesn’t require high costs or time commitment for students
- Enables a focus on accuracy and translation
However, my experiences in studying French also highlighted a fair few disadvantages of classroom learning:
- Takes a long time to achieve fluency
- Gives you time to prepare and think through your answers – i.e. translating into English, thinking of a reply in English, then translating back to French before replying
- Requires you to concentrate on accuracy rather than fluency – so students are overly concerned about whether they’ve conjugated verbs correctly rather than whether they spoke at a decent speed
- Lack of exposure to the language means that your pronunciation may be poor or you may accidentally combine elements of your native language with the one you are learning
Immersive learning is being touted as the way forward in language teaching – and having spend a year living and breathing Mandarin I am a strong supporter of this method. The main advantages have to be:
- Learning the language more naturally and intuitively (just as you learnt your native language as a child) – thus not having to worry about weird exceptions to grammar rules all the time
- Needing to constantly use the language forces you to think in it rather than constantly translating back and forth – thus improving fluency
- Can be more fun since you can learn through every day tasks (rather than having to sit down and memorise a vocab list/ verb table) and can use multimedia such as videos
- Being surrounded by native speakers enables you to pick up their pronunciation and style
That being said, there were some definite disadvantages to the method, which caused much stress during my year abroad:
- Not fully understanding what the teacher was trying to explain, particularly at the start of the year – thus not fully grasping grammar points
- Lack of focus on accuracy and translation, thus my conversational Chinese is great but I struggle to write it
- Very steep learning curve initially, potentially putting students off
- Requires moving to the relevant country in order to fully immerse yourself in the language 24 hours a day
- Generally requires native (or equivalent) speakers as teachers in order to ensure maximum authenticity – potentially quite expensive/ difficult to find
In conclusion, there are definitely advantages and disadvantages to both methods – and each student’s situation will determine which is best for them. My personal advice for any budding linguists out there is that starting off in a classroom environment can be an easy way to get a taste of the language and prepare you with the basic knowledge, while studying abroad in the country (whether that’s for a year abroad or just a short-term language course) can bring you the benefits of immersive learning when you are ready and best placed to take advantage of the opportunity. Personally, I feel like I could never have achieved such a high level, at least in spoken Chinese, by studying in the UK rather than in China – and so I would highly recommend it for anyone wanting to take their language learning journey a step further towards real fluency.