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A teacher works with students in the Spanish-language immersion program at the Ecela school in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
AP Photo/Ecela school
A teacher works with students in the Spanish-language immersion program at the Ecela school in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

LANGUAGE IMMERSION
To learn new tongue, get on a plane, leave English behind

By Sara Kugler
Associated Press Writer

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — On stage at South America's most famous opera house, the story of "La Boheme" was unfolding before me — set in Paris, sung in Italian and translated into Spanish subtitles for the audience.

It takes two: A couple dance the tango in the Buenos Aires tourist district of Boca, world-famous for its colorfully painted homes and as being the cradle of the tango and the Boca Juniors soccer team. Students generally spend about four hours in the classroom at the Ecela school each day, but the point of immersion is that language class never really ends.
AP photo by Natacha Pisarenko
It takes two: A couple dance the tango in the Buenos Aires tourist district of Boca, world-famous for its colorfully painted homes and as being the cradle of the tango and the Boca Juniors soccer team. Students generally spend about four hours in the classroom at the Ecela school each day, but the point of immersion is that language class never really ends.
For several hours that evening at the world-renowned Teatro Colon, not a single English word flashed through my head. Now this is what you call language immersion.

It was the second week of my 14-day vacation in Argentina, where my goal was to enhance my intermediate-level Spanish language skills by combining morning classes plus afternoons and evenings of exploring the city.

The intensive method, known as immersion, assumes that learners will use as little of their native language as possible. It is widely recognized as the best and fastest way to learn a foreign language.

"You really want to be truly immersed in a language, so that you can hear it and smell it and think it and see it and really just totally get swallowed up in it so that it becomes a part of you and you can absorb it better," said Nancy Rhodes, director of foreign language education at the Center for Applied Linguistics, a private nonprofit organization in Washington, D.C., dedicated to language and culture.

Language immersion programs can be found worldwide, for all types of learning and goals. A friend of mine is in Tehran, Iran, right now learning Farsi, and has excelled in just a matter of weeks.

Some programs are tailored specifically to certain fields, like medical Spanish for professionals in the health care industry. Others combine adventure travel: You can ski while learning French in the Alps or surf before classes in Ecuador. If you have to achieve a level of proficiency for your job, schools often have a special track for that.

Most offer private and group lessons and give students a range of possibilities for accommodations, ranging from apartments with other students to single rooms in private homes. The rates, most of which include at least one meal per day, often cost far below what you would pay to stay in hotels.

$150 a week for room

Buenos Aires, a city of 12 million people, is home to many different language schools. At the Ecela school that I attended, tuition was $190 per week for the classes and another $150 per week to rent a room in a private home. Students generally spend about four hours in the classroom each day, but the point of immersion is that language class never really ends.

In the evening, there were wine bars, live music clubs and restaurants to be discovered, and I even scored those tickets to the opera one night at the last minute. I spent my afternoons wandering the city, exploring parks, old cemeteries, shops and bookstores.

Every interaction becomes an opportunity to learn, from the conversation with the waiter at dinner to pleas for directions at the subway ticket booth. An ad on the side of a passing bus, which would rarely catch my eye at home in New York City, becomes a study in grammar or a vocabulary flashcard.

I didn't even mind spending an hour or two on homework every day. It was late summer in Argentina — and I had left behind a dreary winter at home — so studying while sipping an espresso at a sidewalk cafe or stretching out in the sun at the park hardly felt like work.

Argentina was my second immersion vacation, following two weeks in Santiago, Chile, the year before. This year I'm planning to do it again in Venezuela, this time forgoing the urban environment and heading for a smaller city nestled in the Andes.

Just because I keep going back doesn't mean I'm not progressing in Spanish — each time I make a giant leap in progress. My tutor back in New York was amazed when I returned from Buenos Aires, chattering away with verb tenses and vocabulary I barely recognized two weeks earlier.

But travelers attending immersion schools shouldn't expect to become fluent speakers after a short trip, warned Douglas Gilzow of the language studies school in the State Department's Foreign Service Institute, where government employees with assignments overseas spend months studying to achieve proficiency.

Still, he said, it's a good way to brush up quickly on your skills or kick off a new language program by training your ears correctly from the beginning.

"If you're out there using it, you're getting used to how people actually speak," he said. "You'll avoid that shock people have when they say they studied French for four years in high school but went to France and couldn't understand anybody."

Copyright 2005 THE DECATUR DAILY. All rights reserved.
AP contributed to this report.

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