Immersion: Intensity, density, propensity

CUETZALAN, Puebla

A few days ago I shared a cafe table with an American couple.  We’d come in out of the rain to eat an early breakfast.  Middle-aged, they live in Mexico City and teach in an American school.   We chatted in English because it was easier for them.  Although they have an apartment in Mexico City, and lived there a year and a half, they have only enough Spanish to get by meeting basic needs.  They said they hoped someday to learn more Spanish to better experience Mexico.

So, is getting by enough?  Will getting by give us the level of travel or living satisfaction we want?

I started learning Spanish with a goal of “getting by” to meet basic needs as a traveler.  That was before I ever spent time in Mexico.  But after I two weeks in Mexico, I realized “getting by” wasn’t enough.

Well, don’t we want it all, want it now, and want it to come easily?  And the next logical questions is: What’s the fastest way to embed Spanish?  It’s a good question.  I’ve asked it often.  But in hindsight, do we want to learn Spanish the fastest way or learn with the deepest penetration?

I believe the fastest way won’t embed it in a way we can call on it after an absence of use.  It will be rest in our short-term memory, and soon forgotten, like the items on last week’s grocery list.  And when we go to use quickie Spanish after a lapse, it won’t be there.  Language penetration is essential.

Immersion experiences work with three critical and related aspects: Intensity, density, and propensity.  The question you and I are asking is how to reach the point at which Spanish becomes almost if not entirely automatic; we don’t have to think about it to speak it.

As my mother (a French-speaker) used to say, “Anything worth doing, is worth doing well.”  So our first question must be this: Is learning Spanish worth doing?  If our answer is “Yes,” then it’s worth doing well.

Intensity:  Classroom lessons – particularly in an individual class or tutorial – can provide intense experiences.  It’s just us and the teacher.  There is time to form a sympathetic friendship that furthers mastery of the subjunctive, the conditional, and the other grammar forms essential to speaking the language correctly.  There is time to ask questions whenever we want, and ask why Spanish works the way it does; to grasp the cultural mentality of the tongue, and better understand how to use Spanish effectively.

At the same time, we can help our “profesora” work with the  learning methods that are most effective for us.  Writing stories worked well for me.  I wrote the kind of short stories I might tell at a party as a vehicle to practice thinking in Spanish, and putting the vocabulary and grammar into something of a realistic context.

If writing is useful for you, consider writing stories using the parts of grammar or vocabulary you find most difficult.  Writing is thinking on paper, and from our stories, the teacher can map the waay we think in Spanish.  My teacher pointed out I couldn’t just substitute Spanish words for English without also considering the differences in syntax or structure of thinking.  Ah!  La mentalidad!  Besides seeing the structure of our thoughts, our writing reveals  persist weak spots or recurrent errors that need attention.

Four hours of class a day, five days a week, for two weeks, is more class time than in a college semester.  And it’s better.  We aren’t sharing the teacher’s attention with 15 other students.  We can establish close, personal rapport that is at the heart of intensity.  And if we fall temporarily in love with our teacher, so much the better, because the teacher’s affirmation, not correction, is an act of love essential to effective learning.

An intense, one-on-one learning course may well compress a semester of college learning into a week.  This will accelerate our learning.  It’s an opportunity to harness our passion to learn, unleash our pent-up energy, and sharpen our focus so there’s nothing else in our life at the moment.  Intensity is a form of power; like sex, it’s vital energy.

Density refers to the number or frequency of encounters in our new language within a given time.  Think of the density of experiences as something nourishing, enduring in our memory as raw material for other experiences.  Many immersion programs send us into the city with a conversation guide to practice using the language we are learning in everyday circumstances.  We are learning to use the language with people who may not speak grammatically, articulate clearly, and use slang or jargon not found in classes.

These lessons happen in a less controlled environment than a classroom.  We may (and maybe should) encounter situations spontaneously, unscripted and unforeseen.  This is a potentially frightening thought.  But in these moments, we may learn the most about the language we are pursuing.  We may surprise ourselves – as I did above with the English interview – and take from it a sense of confidence we didn’t have before.  It is true we learn more from our failures than our successes.  Spontaneous conversations are where we test our mettle and gain confidence.

What are we made of?  What lessons will we learn from strangers?  What will they think of us?  We don’t want to look stupid so it’s tempting to say nothing, or pretend we don’t understand than risk putting our foot into it.  How can we overcome our fear of making mistakes in front of others?

The only way I know of overcoming my mistakes is by making mistakes and learning from them.   The density of immersion experiences will get us over our fears faster than any classroom.  Our out of class experience will make the difference between plants able to live only in a greenhouse (the classroom), and those that endure wind, rain, and light frost.

Propensity is a natural inclination or proclivity of our own.  It’s part of who we are, and immersion helps us acquire a language in a way that best fits our style of learning and manner of expression.  Think of it as having your suit tailed to fit and complement you.  It comes through interaction with others.

If we’re already inclined to learn Spanish at mid-life, what kind of investment of time (if not money) are we willing to make?  How much satisfaction do we want from travel, volunteering, or simply learning for its own sake?   If we can define what satisfaction looks like, I’m willing to bet we won’t settle for simply “getting by.”  Go ahead, make the investment of time, if not money, to do it right.

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