Higher Education: Quicker than you can say . . .: Intensive tuition from a native speaker is a great way to learn a foreign language, but 'total immersion' requires dedication, writes Liz Heron

Click to follow
The Independent Online
IN JUNE 1964 two journalists allowed themselves to be guinea pigs for an experiment at McGill University, Montreal, on how long the human brain could continue to learn a foreign language at one sitting.

Six teachers taught them Italian non-stop, changing over every three hours and breaking the lesson only for cups of espresso, meals and trips to the loo, all of which had to be taken without recourse to any other language. Doctors stood by to take their pulses and watch for signs of nervous collapse.

After 48 hours they were allowed to stop. Researchers deemed the journalists, who had been absolute beginners, had achieved a basic knowledge of Italian - then defined as a working vocabulary of 600-800 words and sufficient grasp of grammatical constructions to get by in a range of everyday situations.

Thus the total immersion language teaching method was born. The guinea pigs survived and the Berlitz language school, which commissioned the research, took out a trademark on the term 'total immersion' and offered classes with this label to the public. Students received 12 hours a day non-stop, one- to-one tuition by teams of teachers.

Today, Berlitz offers total immersion classes in every major language and 30 countries, with individual students working non- stop for a more modest eight to nine hours a day over two weeks, under one or two tutors. The course may be taken in the student's home country or in one where the language is spoken. Last year 160,000 business people immersed themselves in this regime worldwide, accounting for about 10 per cent of the organisation's total intake of language students.

The term 'total immersion' may belong to Berlitz, but ideas are free and a number of small language-teaching companies are evolving new ways of enabling students to learn by immersing them in an environment where only a foreign language is spoken. Home Language International (HLI) and Intuition Languages offer intensive one-to-one foreign language courses in which students are the house guests of native-speaking teachers in the country where the language is spoken. With this approach they aim to immerse students in the language and the culture of the country and to exploit the many opportunities to learn the language in real situations. It is recommended only for students who already have some grasp of the language.

With both companies, students can choose to study for three, four or five hours a day and for as many weeks as they like. They eat and socialise with their teacher, whose brief is not only to provide lessons and lodging, but also to involve them as far as possible into their daily routine and social life.

Michael Killgallon, a sales manager with Cooper Roller Bearings in King's Lynn, Norfolk, stayed with a teacher in the hills north of Nice for two weeks, studying for five hours a day. 'Every morning we got up at 8 and had breakfast with the family and I had to read the local paper, Nice Matin. Then we would have three hours of lessons, from 9-12.

'If the weather was nice - and most of the time it was - we would take the train to Villefranche, a small town on the coast. We would go to a cafe by the harbour and sit in the sunshine and have one and a half hours of lessons and then we would stroll and talk French about anything that came to mind.

'While I was there Robert Maxwell died, so I discussed that situation with mon professeur, or I'd talk about some of the sports I'm keen on. I travel by ferry a lot as part of my job, so I told her about the sinking of the (Herald of) Free Enterprise.

'At lunchtime she would drop me off in downtown Nice and I would use public transport to get back to a meeting place in north Nice. Then we would have dinner, followed by two more hours of lessons. We would also watch television or visit her friends, speaking only in French. It was wonderful,' he said.

Mr Killgallon, who now spends two weeks a month on sales trips in France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg, followed up the course with a sales tour of the Clermont Ferrand and Lyon areas with a French colleague. 'A presentation on our roller bearings that I gave to engineers was well received.'

Flexibility is a key feature of the system. Norman Renshaw, director of Intuition Languages, said: 'We hold a database of teachers' profiles, including their interests, specialist skills and type of family. We try to match the student to the most appropriate teacher who can adapt to their requirements and place them in relevant real-life situations.'

Martin Johnson, brand manager for a spirits and soft-drink company, spent two weeks through Intuition Languages with a housewife in Madrid, who had the Spanish equivalent of an English as a Foreign Language diploma. Mr Johnson's job involves market research and selling in bars and is increasingly Europe-oriented as his company prepares to take advantage of the single market.

He was given 20 one-hour lessons a week, some designed by the teacher, drawing vocabulary and oral comprehension from a drinks magazine. 'My teacher and her husband took me to the local bar, explaining they had this protege staying who wanted to know about drinks. The manager set up a mock interview with the staff and they also helped me with words like selling, margin and brand. This was very useful as, when I visit a bar, I have to engage in some sort of repartee.'

HLI stipulates that all teachers are either university educated or have a teaching certificate, while Intuition Languages requires a university degree and the equivalent of an RSA Preliminary Certificate in Teaching English as a Foreign Language.

Regional organisers monitor teaching standards and check the quality of accommodation and hospitality for HLI, and Intuition Languages works through language schools recognised in the host countries, which undertake quality control. 'But personal chemistry cannot be guaranteed,' Mr Renshaw said.

Berlitz uses its standard course materials and teachers trained in its methods. 'The only thing that changes,' said Elio Boccitto, president of Berlitz International Inc, 'is the intensity of the lesson. It would take a normal student three to five months to get through the same material a total immersion student covers in two weeks. We try to make sure that whoever goes into total immersion is dedicated enough to put up with that grinding schedule.'

Rosalind Reed, director of Berlitz in the UK, said its method gives another kind of flexibility. 'Students can start learning French here and, if forwarded to France, can continue from exactly where they left off.'

(Photograph omitted)