English Villages…in South Korea
No matter how enthusiastic you are about studying a language, there comes a point at which textbooks will have nothing left to teach you. This happened with my Upper Advanced teenage class in Russia, and I was left teaching bizarrely specific British colloquialisms and obscure grammar tenses that even a native speaker will almost never encounter. I wanted to tell them, but didn’t because I would have been fired, that they’d be better off just taking a trip to England for the summer, or even backpacking through Europe—English is the lingua franca among youths of all nationalities, and staying in hostels is a great way to practice speaking with them. Language classes are a wonderful way to equip yourself with the skills to communicate, but if you have the opportunity to immerse yourself in a foreign language with no recourse to speaking your native one, your understanding of it will increase exponentially.
Traveling to the home country of your language of choice can be an unfeasible and expensive option for many, but luckily immersion programs abound for language learners of all ages and levels. In Finland, where multilingualism is a high priority for the school system, it’s common for students to go to immersion schools, where all their classes will be taught in English except for one class in Finnish literacy. Certain countries attempt to create the same atmosphere by building “English Villages” i.e. artificial communities where only English is spoken. These are catching on in Spain and Italy, and are government-financed in South Korea. With all students being thrown into learning English at the same time, they can all ease their way into fluency together, resulting in bilingualism and heightened cultural understanding at an early age.
Often immersion programs are used to revitalize an endangered national language. In Ireland, while Irish is compulsory in primary and secondary schools, language curriculums in public schools generally provide lackluster results. Beginning in the ‘70s, there was a push to create Irish immersion schools called Gaelscoileannain where all classes would be taught in Irish. Today there are over 200 Gaelscoileanna across the country, with an enormous demand for more as they produce bilingual speakers as well as top-notch academic results. In addition to this, most teenagers are sent to summer language courses in the Gaeltacht, Irish-speaking areas in the West, where English is forbidden and they have a chance to practice speaking Irish over the course of a few weeks.
Similarly, the Māori of New Zealand, after their language reached near-extinction in 1971, introduced a system of Māori immersion schools for children called Kura Kaupapa Māori. In addition to language fluency, children are immersed in the history, cultural heritage, and essential values of their way of life.
Language immersion programs can be an extreme way of achieving bilingualism, but results across the board have shown that the benefits vastly outweigh the initial difficulties. Bilingualism fosters cultural understanding as well as providing a strong language foundation, making it easier for students to learn languages after that. Speaking two languages also increases cognitive and listening skills; in addition to producing higher test scores. Bilingual students are also known to be better at problem-solving and critical thinking.
Moreover, the benefits last you for the rest of your life, with studies showing that elderly people who are fluent in two or more languages have a higher resistance to Alzheimer’s and dementia. As more and more benefits are being discovered with further studies, the push for language immersion schools is becoming more widespread. What other language or cultural immersion programs do you know of?