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Preparing for an Immersion Program
Studying at a language school abroad is one of the best ways to improve your language skills. To get the best results, you should prepare yourself before you leave. Below a few good ideas to get you started:
Find someone who is a native speaker of the language you want to learn. Ask this person to make a tape-recording of a chosen text, and listen to it over and over until you know it well enough to recite it along with the speaker. This will help you to become accustomed to recognizing certain words that you already know in writing.
Read your text and/or listen to your tape right before you go to sleep. This allows you to subconsciously work on the new material while you are sleeping.
Enroll in a beginners’ course at a local language school or education center. This will give you a good introduction to the language you want to learn before you go abroad to study. It also allows you the opportunity to decide if you really like your chosen language.
If you are an absolute beginner, we recommend that you buy a small phrase book, preferably one with a tape to accompany it, and learn 20 or 30 useful phrases which you will need all the time. Most phrase books contain an introductory section where you can find the little phrases and expressions that make communication easier: “please, thank you, excuse me, I’m sorry, can you help? I’d like some…, do you have a …? how much is…? yes, no”, and so on. Master a short list of phrases like this, and you will be surprised how many simple situations you can deal with. Basic expressions of this sort will not solve all your communication problems, but they will make it easier for people to deal with you, and that is worth a lot.
For intermediate level Spanish speakers we can also recommend Perspectiva Magazine and the Transparent Language CD-ROM program. Perspectiva deals with news around the world while Transparent Language offers you adapted stories that take full advantage of your multi-media computer and includes grammar explanations, vocabulary, questions and word games.
No matter your level, building a vocabulary before you come is critical. In order to be functional in a foreign language–in other words, to be able to cope with most everyday situations–you need to know 2,000 to 3,000 words really well. (That’s about the same number of words that a four or five year old child knows.) When you learn a foreign language in your own country you do not learn much vocabulary. This can cause a real shock when you go abroad and attempt to talk to native speakers. Some ideas for building vocabulary:
Most good book stores stock children’s picture books with basic vocabularies in the major Western Languages. You can use these to learn simple words that you are likely to need.
If you already have a rough idea of the grammar of the language you are learning, then another good idea is to buy a newspaper in the language you are planning to learn, and work through the headlines, using a dictionary. You should cut out, or copy down any headline that contains a word you don’t know. Keep them in a little notebook, and review them three or four times a day. This will give you a basic vocabulary referring to things that are currently in the news – just the sort of things that people are likely to want to talk to you about. You can make some of this vocabulary active if you systematically practice productive tasks using the words you’ve just learned.
Buy a small pack of picture postcards, and each day spend a few minutes with each card identifying the things you can see in them (in Spanish, of course). At first, you might find that you can only list a few objects, but with practice, you will be able to string together a couple of simple phrases, or even a whole sentence or two.
If you are brushing up on a language you once knew quite well, but have since forgotten, you can often reactivate a lot of what you know by a short period of intensive reading. Keep in mind that when you stop using a language, the words you have learned don’t disappear from you mind, they just lurk in your subconscious. A few hours of serious reading will allow you to remember words that you thought were forgotten.
Read a book that you know well and enjoy. Cartoon strips, or children’s books seem to be particularly useful for this, as they usually have good illustrations and simple story lines. Cartoon strips in particular are usually written in dialogue which you can use for many situations in which you may find yourself. Also, any text of reasonable length, say 20 or 30 pages, will contain a large vocabulary. Most of the vocabulary will be frequently used words that you will need to know yourself, and be able to use automatically while abroad.
Once you have a good basic vocabulary, most of the things that happen in language classes become ridiculously easy: grammar exercise are just a question of slotting familiar words into new environments, and conversation is just a matter of using the words you know in an effective way.
Like anything else, a good start is half the job. Please help yourself by doing a good job of preparation before you start an immersion program.