Living abroad can be an overwhelming experience. Trying to adjust to the culture, the religion, the food, and the language takes time and causes frustration. Fortunately if you have a guide who has been there before to show you around, you are strides ahead and sure to come away from the experience with a positive impression. Unfortunately, the reliance on a guide can be crippling to your independence in that country. How can someone who spends an extended period of time in a foreign country ever expect to learn the language and gain independence while at the same time enjoying all the benefits of a guide?
Two experiences come to mind. One, the year I spent in South Korea. Two, now as I play the role of guide in the United States.
Korea: Linguistic Dependence.
I went to Korea knowing very little: A base knowledge of the country and the language, but not enough to get my through what would be required of daily life. Moreover, my colleagues spoke excellent English. I was able to communicate quite smoothly during work hours, discussing plans and creating subject matter essential to the job, never thinking what life would have been like had it been otherwise. The problem waited for me outside work hours. The countless hours that I spent outside the office and in the city of Seoul were a circus, so to speak, of me using gestures and awkward Korean to convey my every need. That is, it would have been. Luckily, I had someone who was there for me. Someone who knew the language and every aspect of the culture and was happy to share it with me. Nearly every conversation between us was in English.
The positives that come from knowing someone familiar with the language and culture is that you immediately become immersed in the day-to-day life of the people of that country. The negatives? Linguistic retardation and dependence. At the conclusion of a year in Seoul, I found myself utterly unable to communicate my thoughts to the extent that I had hoped. Stuck mid-thought, frustrated at the formulation of simple sentences…it was clear that I had missed out on a valuable chance to really get the most out of my time in South Korea.
United States: English Wednesdays
Now, four years after returning from South Korea, I find myself back in the United States after three years in Japan. Interestingly, the tables have turned and now the role of guide and host has fallen to me. After several weeks, the fact that nearly every conversation had been conducted in Japanese was brought up (again, in Japanese). One could tell that there was a sense of desire to break free of that dependence, and a longing to acquire the ability to communicate with locals directly, to understand and express oneself in one’s own words. Immediately I recognized myself in those eyes. Just as those eyes longed for independence and strength, so too did mine when I was in Korea. Something had to be done.
Thus, we settled upon the idea that for one day every week, all of our conversations would be made in English. No longer would I be a resource. Every conversation, every word, must be communicated in English.
There are several total immersion language programs in existence around the world today. One of the more famous total immersion programs in the United States is the Middlebury Language School, which offers an array of language learning options from Arabic to Italian to Japanese. Hugely competitive, it’s popularity derives from it’s success which derives, undoubtedly, from the Language Pledge that every attendee makes.
“In signing this Language Pledge, I agree to use ______________ as my only language of communication while attending the Middlebury Language Schools. I understand that failure to comply with this Pledge may result in my expulsion from the School without credit or refund.”
In the same way (minus signing a cold-blooded contract) Wednesday has become a one-day English immersion camp that has really forced my partner to really push her ability to the limit.
The results are in progress and the enthusiasm changes every week. The first English Wednesday was more fun than anything else, the second was much quieter, the third week was a balance of the first two. Yet, at the end of each week there is a renewed sense of spirit and scholarship and a deep appreciation for the ability to communicate fully in Japanese, on Thursday.