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The Benefits of Intensive Language Immersion Programs Abroad

Intensive language study

Trapeze artists have their nets. The nets give them a sense of safety and insurance, and are universally seen with a knowing nod as something we would use, ourselves. But the spectacular artists are the ones who don’t use one and go for broke.

Intensive language learning is not known as “casual language learning.” It is not called “lazy language learning” and not named “apathetic language learning.” No, the intensive flavor of language study is like a good hot sauce: a little more work, but so much better for it.

We at GoOverseas always believe you should throw yourself into things whole-hog, especially when it comes to learning a language! So let us show you why, when it comes to picking the intensity of your language study, you want to say, “Bring on the heat!”

Why Intensive Language Programs Are Better for Learning

People tend to focus on the “intensive” part of “intensive language learning,” but the latter is why we’re here: to learn a language. If your goal is simply to improve your language skills, this is the way to go, period. It may require more class and homework time, but the payoff will be your newly minted status as a Language Boss. Here's an explanation of exactly why intensive language learning is so effective.

Shorter Intervals Between Classes

The first big advantage to intensive learning is pure chronological frequency; in other words, you’re learning the language more often. You know that feeling when you know you have the perfect situation to use the new verb you learned in class, but you just can’t recall it? That doesn’t happen in intensive language learning. With a shortened cycle between classes, each day gives you one, digestible chunk of new information to play with. It is much easier to practice (and therefore internalize) five new verbs with class time each day to ask questions, than twenty new ones and have your questions put on hold until next week.

Intensive language study

You're Exposed to More Material

By a similar token, having class time each day with your teacher gives you a plethora of new vocabulary and grammar to learn. This means that while each morsel you learn is divided into a more digestible size, you actually end up covering much more material over the range of the course.

Not only will your vocabulary be bigger (so you can distinguish “munch” from “chomp,” for example), but you’ll have a chance to really master those complex grammatical structures that distinguish a native-sounding speaker from a novice. Locals will be impressed with your totally talented tongue, and that positive enforcement will make you want to keep learning.

Fuller Immersion

A more intensive language study gives you fewer chances to slip back into the safety net of English (remember the trapeze artists?) I always tell people, “Necessity is the mother of Fluency.” That is – you gain the most in your language skills when you have to use it. The inability to converse in English forces your mind to dig around in the local language and figure out new paths to convey what you need to say. It familiarizes you with the structures and patterns of the language, its tendencies and verbal street signs, and makes you better prepared for your next encounter.

You know that feeling when you know you have the perfect situation to use the new verb you learned in class, but you just can't recall it? That doesn't happen in intensive language learning.

You'll Save Some Money

The other big plus of intensive language learning is the logistical perks. Unless you’re studying abroad in Candyland or Narnia, your housing probably isn’t free. That means that each extra day, week, or month you stay, your bill is piling up and pushing your study abroad dreams out of reach.

By packing more learning into an equal-or-smaller time frame, you are able to get in, get your knowledge on, and get out. This means fewer peripheral costs – rent, food, electricity, internet - anything that builds up over time. This streamlining of your expenses means less time in your host country – which sucks – but if the choice is between less time abroad, and no-time-abroad-because-I-couldn’t-afford-it, I think the choice is clear. Some programs, like BridgeAbroad's language programs, LSF Montpellier in France, and CET's language programs, even let you buy private tutoring lessons à la carte, so you can add or remove hours each week as your grades or wallet require.

Questions to Consider When Choosing a Language Program

Intensive language is the best way to learn a language while abroad. That said, it isn’t for everyone. There are a couple questions you should ask yourself before deciding.

Do I Want A Story, or Be Able to Tell It?

That is, how badly do you want to learn your host language? Because, speaking from personal experience: being fluent in a foreign language freaking rules. You feel like you can do magic. You utter a few syllables of gibberish, and you make your world change. In addition to giggling like a schoolgirl every time I speak French (still), it’s pretty neat when a translation is needed and everyone turns to you.

Intensive language study

However, I had to work for this. Hard. There were sunny afternoons when I had to accompany my textbook to the park instead of that lovely young française. There were nights I had to leave the corner bar just as the band was walking in, so I could do my homework and make sure my grammar was down pat. I had a hell of a time in Paris – the best of my life. I have plenty of crazy stories to tell, and can do so en Français. But my friends who didn’t study quite so much? – their stories are crazier.

CET Programs go so far as to require their students to take a partial or full language pledge prior to arrival. This means no English, ever! (Except in emergency situations, of course). This can be a hard idea to wrap your mind around, but it ends up being an awesome learning experience - and one that works.

Am I Intense, Too Tense, or Past Tense?

I’m going to tell you my favorite joke: A man goes to the psychiatrist and says, “Doc, I’m having these crazy nightmares. One minute I’m a teepee, the next I’m a wigwam. Teepee, wigwam, teepee, wigwam – I just can’t take it!” And the doctor looks at him and says, “Well it’s obvious: you’re two tents!”

Right? But really, it’s important to ask yourself whether you would prefer an academically challenging study abroad experience, or a lax one. As youngsters (youths? ne’er-do-wells?) we might be quick to shrink from further academic burdens like a vampire from sunlight. This is an understandable reaction, and one that has its benefits: many people find that when they are not worried about the “later,” they more fully appreciate the “now.”

Having class time each day with your teacher gives you a plethora of new vocabulary and grammar to learn. Not only will your vocabulary be bigger, but you’ll have a chance to really master those complex grammatical structures that distinguish a native-sounding speaker from a novice.

But I submit to you the following: if you are considering studying abroad, and open enough to the idea of intensive language study that you began this article, you might well be the kind of intellectually passionate person ready to really dig this thing. It’s about keeping your brain stimulated – and not just your brain, but your mind, too. My lessons kept my mind sharp, and that led to curiosity about other things like music, art, cultural exchange, and the whole sensory smorgasbord that is Paris to a young American. Both sides have their ups and downs, but I would tell you right now: I’m glad I did intensive language study.

How Far Do You Want to Go?

Intensive language study

And that’s all well and good, but why should you study a language in the first place? Well, padawan, let me tell you. Do you speak in dollar signs and euros? Then you better learn to speak in a couple languages, because if you ever want to attain a job at the highest echelon of a major multinational corporation, you darn sure better be able to speak the local language to your regional supervisors and managers. There are already financial institutions demanding poly-fluency of all applicants.

Maybe you want to see the world and explore this terrestrial playground. Well, unless you want to travel with a translator every minute of every day, your options are the UK, Australia, New Zealand, and...well, that’s basically it. Most of the world does not speak English, and most of the world is worth seeing. Therefore, to really explore a place and its people on their level, you have to speak in their tongue. And finally, look: the impressed glances from friends when you spout off in French never get old.

The ability to derive deep, nuanced, personal meaning from something that sounds like gibberish to most people never gets old. The prize of polyfluency is one that has been coveted and admired for thousands of years, and it appreciated by none more than the speaker. Learning a language is like developing your own secret code with your little sibling - except millions of people are in on the secret. Speaking multiple languages will open up doors not just to the corner office on the top floor, but to your human heart as well.

So that’s our pitch, folks. We think intensive language study is both the bee’s knees and the calf’s calves, but we recognize that it’s not the right fit for everyone. We hope this guide will help you pick the path for you – just so long as that path is overseas! For more advice, read these pre-departure tips for language learning abroad.

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Photo Credits: API Study Abroad.
Jason Rodgers

Jason is a hockey player from Virginia, and his passport is a quilt of stamps and visas. He studied French at the Sorbonne in Paris, worked in International Ed in China, celebrated Thanksgiving in Amsterdam and cheered July 4th in Brazil. Jason can recite Sartre in 3 languages just as fast as he can put a puck past your ear. Follow Jason on Twitter @HeyJayJRogers and on Google+.