There’s no doubt in my mind that immersion is the way to go when it comes to learning a language. It’s how we learn our mother tongues, after all. In my experience as an adult learner, I learned more in 3 weeks of complete immersion – in country – than I did from months of lessons taught in English. When immersed, it’s sink or swim. You don’t have the luxury of falling back on the language you know. You can’t wait for the English explanation that you know is going to come, and thereby tune out – even without doing so intentionally – the language you’re trying to learn.
My daughter attended a French immersion program for her first year of preschool. In that year, we saw her language ability in French – both in speaking and comprehension – skyrocket. Granted, we are a bilingual household, so she already had a good French base established. There were other children in her class, though, who had never heard French before arriving for their first day of school, and they were able to adapt quickly. For the preschoolers, the most utilized languages on the playground were French and English. By elementary school, the playground language was more often French. A good litmus test as it tells what language the kids are comfortable communicating in.
Now that we no longer have access to the immersion school, I struggle to find immersion experiences for my kids. Many of the French programs I’ve looked into use a lot of English to “explain” the French; far from ideal in my opinion. Most people – children and adults – will learn in a complete immersion environment when given visual aids, context clues, and an expressive speaker. I have yet to meet anyone who is competent in a language who didn’t have at least some form of immersion in their education. We’ve pieced together some experiences here and there – story times, French classes at the Children’s Museum, play dates.
We recently had family in town visiting us from France. By the end of their stay, my three-and-a-half-year-old daughter was using full French sentences on a regular basis, and my two-year-old son was using more French words and partial phrases than I’ve ever seen him use. Total immersion, working. The kids even started speaking Franglais to each other – most memorably when fighting over a toy: “Mine jou jou !” “Non ! Mine jou jou !” My daughter would come to me from time to time to ask me how to say something in French, then run to her Mimi to tell her whatever it was she wanted to say. My favorite moment: one night when my husband’s parents were heading out, we told the kids it was time to say good night. My son ran straight to his Papy, grabbed him into a leg hug, and said, unprompted, “Au revoir !” Priceless.
Finding a total immersion experience is not easy when living in a country that speaks the majority language (in our household, English, because this is what I speak and I’m with the kids the most, and it’s the language my husband and I use between the two of us). It would be easier if I spoke exclusively French with the kids and my husband, but I’m not so brave nor comfortable with my French. Knowing this, it’s heartening to see that the knowledge and ability are both there with my kids, they just have to be, well, forced to use it a bit. Pushed out of their English comfort zone.
[Edited Note: As a friend astutely pointed out, this is true for me as well. I, too, need to be pushed out of my English comfort zone; me speaking French with the kids helps us all. We do French activities – grocery shopping, zoo days, French dinners twice a week – where we speak only French, but I haven’t made the leap to speaking French all the time. My aim is 30% – the magic number that some experts have said children need to learn a second language.]
In our near future we have French immersion summer classes in San Diego for the kids, a trip to France, and a French degree program for me (because seven years of higher education and a doctorate degree just isn’t enough school).
And so, our bilingual journey continues on!