A few days ago, my husband and I were discussing language learning, and he said this:
“Is immersion really the best or only way to learn a language? Everyone says it is, but why?”
I think he was mostly making a rhetorical point, but I thought it was interesting that it was the first time in my life when I actually paused and thought about that. There are all sorts of practical, cognitive, sociocultural, affective, and pedagogical reasons why everyone from language experts to amateur language lovers will insist that the best, perhaps the only possible, way to really master a language is to “just go there.”
For some language students, there are a lot of temporary barriers – money, time, family/work/school obligations, etc. – that make “going there” not really an option, at least for now. But for other students, the situation of the target language makes it so that literally, and perhaps irreversibly, going there is really not an option. A child living in an indigenous community full of monolingual English speakers cannot “go” anywhere to immerse herself in the dying language of her grandparents. A son of political refugees cannot return to the country his parents fled in order to truly immerse himself in his heritage language. An adult who hopes to one day be able to read Thucydides in the original can’t go back in time to immerse himself in classical Greek.
These are the kinds of learners I’m interested in. I read about and think about what the best options for them might be. I don’t want to give up on these people, I don’t want to tell them that because the “best” option is not an option, their language learning is ultimately hopeless. That’s what I was saying to my husband when he asked me his question. So even if the answer is yes, it really is the best, the more important question to me is: How else can we learn the best?