The Total Immersion Method

[Retrieved from a 2009 archive at another site purely so that I can take pleasure in how far I have come since then.]

The last subject today, a rainy Sunday here, is learning a second language by total immersion without the benefit of formal classes.

We have all heard it said that learning a second language by total immersion is the only really effective way. In fact we have all heard that so often that it is nearly a cliché. It is true. However, what goes unsaid always is that total immersion in public and not in some sort of class setting is often an extraordinarily humiliating experience. One has to be absolutely fearless on the score of making a fool of one’s self.

I have been totally immersed in the Spanish language as spoken in Latin America publicly now for roughly a year and a half and supplement that only with my own untutored study. The following, harkening back to my experiences of more than a year ago, will perhaps allow those of you who have not had the experience some flavor of it in my particular locality . Those of you who are fluent in Spanish can move on to another blog now.

Let us say that I am dealing with the young lady clerking in a tiny neighborhood grocery, the charming equivalent of our convenience store entirely lacking in charm. I want a Chapstik®, a handy thing to have at the altitude at which I find myself.

There are 14 verb tenses in Spanish, seven “simple” and seven compound, in addition to the imperative mood. I am really not ready to handle this encounter properly at the point where I can only conjugate the Spanish infinitive “to want” in the simple present tense.

“I want a Chapstik®.”

That is an unfortunately direct phrasing in Spanish. Mexican people in fact are exceedingly polite in all ways including their phrasing. I need to use a reflexive verb form in a special tense, a form that does not come naturally to me at all.

“A Chapstik® would please me.”

That is how I need to phrase it politely in one alternative for the purposes of our example, even more so in Spanish than in English. There is an implied phrase there:

“A Chapstik® would please me, if you would not mind.

The problem is that this requires me to flounder around in the conditional tense of the reflexive “to like” or “to be pleasing to myself” or, in the special case of “to want,” the imperfect subjunctive. Early on in public total immersion, I might get distracted with the effort to form the verb in the proper tense and attend too little to other words in the sentence. This might result, for example, in this spilling out of my mouth:

“I would like to go down on you, if you would not mind.”

I have found it interesting is that this kind of thing will usually not take the young lady aback at all. What you need to be prepared for is this. Being exceedingly polite, she will not correct my Spanish for me. She will simply stand there looking at me blankly and wait.

On the one hand this gives me time to regroup and rephrase. On the other hand the pressure is on now, especially if there is someone waiting behind me, which tends to make matters worse. I then correct myself and say:

“I would like to go down on myself, if you would not mind.”

That one will undoubtedly get a faint smile at least. A tacit “be my guest.” But what can you do? You go back to the drawing board, work some more, and pretty soon you are getting a Chapstik® at the little store without untoward embarrassment.

One thought has given me great comfort through all this. Thank Jesus in his infinite mercy that I am not trying to acquire English as a second language. Can you imagine what that must be like?

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