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Saturday, 01 July 2006

Language Immersion Programs

Written by Rebecca Seicol
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As I stepped off the airplane and walked into the small, busy airport in San Jose, Costa Rica, the feeling of panic that I had thus far been able to ignore, hit me like a cheap blow to my gut. Every thought I had, every fearful and worrisome notion that filled my head could be summarized in one all consuming question. What the hell was I doing there?

Of course I knew the literal answer to that unspoken question. I had come to Costa Rica as a participant in a language immersion program to help me learn Spanish. I knew that the best way to learn a language was to be submersed in it and be forced to use it every day. What I had failed to realize was the difficulty of this task.


mexico program

I was seventeen years old and I had just finished my junior year of high school. I had only taken one year of Spanish in school, but because I had spent my last summer reading the level one textbook, I had been able to move directly into Spanish two. Through oral repetition and tedious written exercises, I could speak and understand several basic phrases. With my arsenal of greetings, color names, and items found in a classroom, I thought I was prepared to make my way through this exotic country. I was also able to conjugate any regular verb and over 10 irregular ones (in case that ever came in handy).  I couldn’t use them in a conversation yet, but if a person stopped me in the street and asked, “What’s the usted form of tener?”  I could answer immediately “tiene.”


As I walked through the crowded airport, I realized how little I really knew.


All around me people spoke with such foreign speed that I could not pick out any individual words. I was sure that I knew at least few snippets of what they were saying, but they spoke so quickly that my ears were flooded with such foreign sounds. I made my way to the baggage claim, aided by the universal pictures used in almost every airport around the world.  After I found my luggage, I went outside and prayed that my hosts would be there to take me to my new temporary home in La Guacima.









A couple of hours later, I arrived in the quaint little village where even the main roads were still made of dirt and cows outnumbered human residents.  My host mother and her two teenage daughters were waiting outside to greet me with a pair of kisses on my cheeks.  I smiled at them when they spoke to me, trying to understand something of what they said, but anxiety made me forget everything I mexicohad learned.  Even a simple question like “Tienes hambre?” could find no place in my brain.  Somehow I managed to tell my new family that I was tired.  I slept straight through until the next morning. Throughout the remainder of that day and the night that followed, my dreams were of my real home in Boston.  I wondered if my time in Costa Rica would ever end.

I couldn’t imagine, during those few long hours, that I would ever feel at ease in that semi-tropical land.  I couldn’t imagine that when my 4 weeks were up, I would be calling my mother back in Boston and begging her to let me stay just a little longer. I couldn’t imagine that I would end up taking in so much of the language and the culture of Costa Rica that I would thereafter forever identify myself as part “Tica” (as the Costa Ricans referred to themselves).  I couldn’t imagine that I would come to love not only Costa Rica, with all its striking splendors, but also the very concept of immersion programs so much that I would go on two more similar adventures within the next 9 years.

Since my time in Costa Rica, I have been on immersion programs in Mexico and Portugal. Despite some slight differences between them, each program is essentially the same.  As the term “language immersion” suggests, the concept of such programs is to completely immerse the individual in the language of the land.


bone chapel
Portugal program
From day one, the participant takes classes in grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation – all of the necessary fundamentals to build a working knowledge of the language.  In this way, it is possible to learn much more than through a high school or even college language course because the person is surrounded by, and living in, the foreign tongue. The language, instead of being distant concept of diagrams within a textbook, is suddenly real, immediate, and alive.  The knowledge gained in only a few weeks of such a program is equivalent to a semester, perhaps even a year of a standard language course.

In a language immersion program, learning does not end when the student leaves the classroom. Typically, in such a program, the student lives with a host family, and, therefore, is speaking the language all throughout the day.  This reinforces and solidifies everything that the student has learned in class.  It also helps to make the language real and almost intuitive.

By the end of my first week in Costa Rica, because I spent every moment outside of class (and apart from when I was sleeping) hanging out with local teenagers, I was able to understand most of what was said to me, provided the speaker did not talk too fast. By the time I left (4 weeks later), I no longer had to ask people to speak slowly. When I conversed with the people there, not only were my words in Spanish, but so were my thoughts.  I wasn’t fluent; after all, I had only been there a month, but I spoke with confidence.  I understood aspects of the Costa Rican language that a textbook could never begin to explain.  Phrases like “Pura Vida” rolled off my tongue with natural ease.

portugal program

I no longer have the same fears and anxieties about leaving my home country and stepping out into new territory.  Now I know that wherever I travel to, I will encounter unexpected treasures that will forever change me at my core.  Someone once said, “He who learns a new language acquires a new soul.”  Though I had heard this quote before I went to Costa Rica, Mexico, and Portugal, I never truly understood what it meant until I went on an immersion program, but now I look forward to earning every new soul that I can!

©Rebecca Seicol

Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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