Full immersion

This semester, I’m very fortunate to have the chance to take French 101: “Introduction to French Language and Francophone Cultures,” which is the first introductory language course I’ve taken at Williams. I studied German, which I loved and still love, all through high school, and during the summers, I attended a German immersion camp in Bemidji, Minn., once as a student and twice as a counselor. The language skills that I gained through those years allowed me to place into the 300 level of German courses at Williams. My first two semesters of Williams were thus spent in large part stumbling through German tutorials, which while highly enjoyable and very intellectually stimulating, demanded much more reading and writing than I was used to. In high school, I had been accustomed to writing perhaps a single three-page paper every month or so for my AP English courses, and to suddenly find myself writing biweekly four to five page German essays on topics I had never before engaged with was, to say the least, a bit overwhelming. So this semester I decided to take a hiatus from German and begin to explore French.

Looking back on the first half of the semester now, I am impressed with the quality and rigor of French 101. My first year of high school German was spent in large part learning the alphabet and conjugating heissen (to be called) and sein (to be). By the end of the year, we still struggled to express even the simplest of ideas, like what color T-shirts we liked to wear or what the weather was like. In a mere seven weeks of introductory French at the College, my class has already matched and surpassed that level of proficiency. We have a great repertoire of nouns, verbs and adjectives under our belts with which we can quite thoroughly describe ourselves, our peers, our interests and our surroundings. Certainly, the caliber of this course surpasses that of any other classroom language course I have taken. However, it is still a classroom language course, and therein lies its limitation.

Most people who have spent significant time in a foreign, non-English speaking country or who have gone through an immersion-type language course will say that the best and fastest way to learn a language, though perhaps not the easiest, is to be constantly surrounded by it. After all, the way we all acquire our native language is through years of steady immersion.

At Concordia Language Villages (CLV), the group of immersion camps to which the language camp I have attended belongs, the staff strives to find the right balance between total immersion, which can leave campers feeling stranded and overwhelmed, and structured teaching, and the methods we employ generally work very well. There are few classrooms in the camps, and the vast majority of teaching occurs outdoors in the context of various games and activities. A key goal of the camps is to present language learning not as a chore, but as a pursuit that is enjoyable by its nature, and to that end, there are also very few classroom style assessments administered. In addition, the program is structured to provide campers with an understanding of the target language that is primarily practical rather than academic. This means that verb conjugation, proper syntax, adjective endings and other nit-picks that students in traditional classroom settings spend time poring over and memorizing are given much lower priority, though the campers still gradually pick them up through constant conversation with counselors. The focus is instead on learning to use the language in such a way that the camper can hold a meaningful conversation with a native speaker on a range of topics. For instance, campers at CLV are exposed to past and future tense constructions as early as their second week at the camps, topics that generally are not even touched upon by most college-level courses until deep into the first semester, but that are incredibly useful for even the simplest of conversations.

All this is not to say that Williams’ introductory language courses are ineffectual; the amount of French I have learned in half a semester is quite astounding, and I do enjoy the course very much. I also understand that total immersion is not feasible at Williams and that there do exist spaces (such as language tables and clubs) in which students are given freedom to explore and deepen their understanding of any language of their choosing outside the constraints of the classroom. However, I do believe that language courses here spend too much time on the rote memorization of vocabulary lists and conjugation charts at the expense of more natural, conversation-oriented learning. French class is at its best when the students, through guided but spontaneous interactions with one another and with the professor, are free to build their comfort and fluency in the language without having to rely on memorized tables or fill-in-the-blank sentences.

Will Hardesty-Dyck ’16 is from Herndon, Va. He lives in Gladden.