Most people will think it’s a strange idea to do an English immersion course in a country where English is not the first language. Traditionally, English-speaking countries such as the UK, USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand have been the favourites. The obvious reason is because the student of English has constant linguistic and cultural ‘exposure’ during his/her stay in that country; being able to read signs and notices, interact with service providers (shop assistants, waiters, transport officials, etc.) and benefit from the media in the target language – English. This is, of course, in addition to the tremendous benefit of being able to speak and interact with the professionals: the language trainers during and outside the formal lessons and learn about how people live.
The idea of the immersion method of learning a language is not a new one, but the practical application of this theory is; the first programmes started maybe fifteen years ago. Since that time, the language industry has really expanded. It’s now quite usual to find other, not immediately obvious countries such as Malta, India, Jamaica offering immersion courses to an international clientele. Similarly, many European countries such as France and Spain are offering English immersion courses to home and neighbouring clients.
Before we look at the reasons for this shift in the market, let’s examine the types of immersion courses available. Here, I will refer primarily to the UK and Spanish markets as they are the ones I’m familiar with. In the UK, an English immersion course generally means the student stays in the home of the teacher(s) and receives all his/her lessons with that teacher who will also be the host. All meals are taken together with the teacher and family (sometimes with the children of the family but often without, as they will have left home). Teachers are ‘autonomous’ or self-employed, but are quality-controlled by the language schools, such as Regent Homestay and Intuition Languages. We worked for ten years for these schools until 2011, and it was highly effective and successful, for the students and for us, the teachers. Sometimes, students prefer the independence of hotel accommodation, and are able to choose an ‘intensive’ course based at the language school.
In countries where English is not the first language, an immersion course is often organised differently. Courses are run by language institutions in large hotels or guesthouses at various times of the year. Students gather in groups for some lessons and social activities but can also choose to have 1:1 lessons. They are generally, but not exclusively, mono-lingual (all Spanish or all French-speaking, etc.) Included in the learning activity are team-building exercises and group discussions. Often, the teachers will have volunteer native English speakers facilitating the groups, or students are allocated a volunteer for language practice. These courses are usually one or two weeks, giving the students plenty of opportunity to practise their English with a wide variety of people with different accents.
More recently, there’s been another type of English immersion starting up in non-English speaking countries, which is like a ‘homestay immersion English’ combining leisure and training. For example, there’s a farm in France that’s run by English teachers who will offer lessons and a farm experience. Or there’s a casa rural in Burgos, Spain where the English teacher can go caving and trekking with his students. This combination of learning and leisure is one of the reasons for the shift in the language market, away from the more traditional destinations.
Another reason is the cost: time +money. Travelling to another country always costs more and takes longer; and for a short weekend or one week course, the student needs to have some time to adjust to his/her new surroundings, and by choosing a course in an area close by, travelling time is reduced. There are always the unexpected costs – unpredictable exchange rates, higher public transport fares (like the London Underground!), travel insurance, general cost of living in a foreign country.
A further, but sometimes unexpected, reason for the increasing popularity in home country immersion English courses is the real opportunity for interaction with native speakers. Cities such as London have become extremely multi-cultural over the years. This has added a richness and diversity for Londoners as a whole; and we loved the atmosphere of London when we lived there. However, for the language student who is looking for conversations in English with members of the public, this could be a frustrating experience. Also, as in all large cities, people are constantly busy and in a hurry; giving time to a learner of English to ask or answer a question might be difficult. As we discovered from our students, learning a language intensively is extremely tiring. We often advised students that 4 hours of 1:1 is equal to a full day at the office, and more….! The idea of doing some sightseeing after lessons might be a nice idea but not in reality.
For anyone who’s thinking of doing an English immersion course, it will be an excellent investment and money well-spent, so think of the following and choose wisely:
- If you want to experience the life and atmosphere of another country that’s not your own, go abroad
- If you want to combine your language learning with an opportunity to visit the sights and tourist attractions of that country, go abroad
- If you have chosen a very intensive course, maybe a small town or rural setting would be more suitable
- If you want to save time and money, but have the same successful outcome, do a course in your own country
- If you want to focus on improving your language skills and spend time with other native speakers, it doesn’t matter where you are
- If you want to spend time with your family during the holidays and be stress-free, but you need to improve your English, choose a homestay English immersion in your own country
- In reality, you will probably interact mostly with your host(s)/teacher(s)