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Immersion Excursions: Critical to Language Study

By Betty Berdan | Published: October 3, 2017

As a senior in high school, I have found that my language skills are both an asset and an anomaly amongst my peers. While I’m not yet fluent, my Spanish is pretty good. I’ve been asked if my parents speak it at home (they don’t) and if I’ve lived in another country (I haven’t, but I want to someday). Some people seem to want to attribute my skills to a “knack for foreign languages” but I’ve worked hard—and not just in the classroom—to become proficient. And I am still working in the hopes that eventually I will become fluent.

But I have had one advantage: I have been able to spend time outside the classroom in immersive environments where I have applied what I’ve learned in school with context and relevance. While the time I have spent at a desk conjugating verbs and differentiating between prepositions has provided me with a great foundation, I have discovered that I can learn even more through immersion.

I began learning Spanish in kindergarten at age five, and while we didn't do much more than learn colors or sing nursery rhymes, it was an important introduction to the world of languages: There were other kids out there who said “vaca” when I said “cow” even though we were referring to the same farm animal. Learning languages made me curious about other people and places, so much so that I also began studying Chinese in middle school.

I continued to take Spanish through elementary and middle school, but it was a family trip to Nicaragua when I was 12 that showed me how these skills could be used when ordering from a menu, helping my parents buy bus tickets and having conversations with kids my age on the beach. I learned that I could not only understand other people, I could better understand them based on how they used their words. For example, locals would often use words I had never heard before because they originated from the native dialect making a link to their heritage or culture. Being abroad showed me how useful and applicable the information I learned in class truly was—and how much I still had to learn.

Betty with her fellow villagers during the daily tertulia at El Lago del Bosque.

Two summers later, I explored El Lago del Bosque, a different sort of immersive environment. While the hacienda may have looked like it belonged in Chile or some of the meals like what I ate in Mexico, Concordia Language Villages provided a unique environment that combined scenes, both familiar and unfamiliar, from the Spanish-speaking world. Here I was in northern Minnesota living in Spanish: watching the daily telenovela, playing fútbol, asking for the arroz at meals, and chatting with my amigos at night. I wasn’t just conjugating verbs or filling in the blanks with the correct adjective; I was chatting with native speakers and picking up pieces of colloquial vernacular—something that I could only learn from a native speaker.

My Spanish became more authentic and relevant, and I became more confident: My two summers spent in Bemidji prepared me well for the month I would spend the following summer in Salamanca, Spain. My first two weeks were spent teaching English at a local elementary school and the second two taking intensive language classes with students from all around the world. No one else spoke English, so Spanish was my only option for communication. The same also true for the Spanish family with whom I lived.

Betty and two friends' heads appear in a cutout of the Running of the Bulls.
The author having fun with her friends at the San Fermin Festival in Pamplona, Spain. 

Together these experiences allowed me to skip two levels in high school and yet continue to excel in my Spanish classes. I credit my high marks on standardized tests (a 5 on the AP exam and a 780 on the SAT Subject Test) to the combination of structured school classes and language immersion. While there's certainly much more to language than standardized tests, immersion has helped me quantify my ability in a way that matters to college admissions officers and future employers. But for me, immersion has enhanced my cultural competency in a way that no test can measure.

About the Author

Betty Berdan is a senior at Miss Porters School in Farmington, Connecticut, who spent two summers at El Lago del Bosque. 

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