In a globalized society, the ability to speak a foreign language is becoming more than a hobby or a line at the bottom of a resume. There is no doubt that the demand for bilingual employees has been steadily rising over the past decade. Some studies even estimate that over 30% of businesses want people specifically because of their foreign language ability—and many companies will pay more for these skills. With this in mind, language immersion programs for high school students have become increasingly important, and therefore increasingly popular.

Language Immersion vs. Language Travel


Language travel has been popular for decades and traces its history back to some of the first American study abroad programs in the 1920s. High schools have since picked up on the trend, and many high schools across the US take language students abroad during their breaks. These high schools—and the teachers—understand the importance of traveling to a countrywhere a language is spoken. It’s now becoming more important, both for students’ linguistic ability and global competency, to experience how a language lives. It’s impossible to understand a language fully without understanding the culture that goes with it.

One aspect of language immersion that language travel can overlook is setting students up for success. American students typically excel at reading and writing in a foreign language, as these skills are easier for non-native speakers (who represent the vast majority of foreign language teachers in the US) to teach. They also happen to be skills that are a larger focus in many classrooms and on many exams.

To this end, one way to set students up for success during a linguistic and cultural immersion is to give them access to “rehearsal space.” At EF Education First, we’re lucky to own and operate international language schools around the world, where students can live in a foreign country and study a foreign language for two weeks, up to nine months at a time. Combining tours from the US with lessons at these schools gives students a place to practice vocabulary and oral skills with teachers native to both the language and the culture of the destination. Students can then use what they practice in class while they’re interacting with the life around them.

We recognize that not everyone has access to these resources, but the idea is still important. Students need a way to practice certain words and phrases that they are then encouraged to use throughout the day. Setting them up with this scaffolding builds their confidence as they interact with local people.

Just as important as language immersion is cultural immersion—living and breathing the local culture. A student immersed in a language without discovering a culture will never understand a language’s deeper meaning—much like reading the lyrics to a song without hearing the music. Cultural immersion includes everything from learning to live like a local, to learning to cook like a local, to learning what it means to be part of a local family. It also includes understanding the history of a town or country, along with its passions.

Cultural immersion is being able to understand the intricate intertwining of a language with its respective culture, allowing for communication that extends deeper than words.

But immersive activities and local interaction are not the only things that students and their teachers are looking for. They are also starting to look at another important piece of the language immersion puzzle: destination.

Costa Rica on the Rise

Hélène Vincent

Hélène Vincent

The popularity of language immersion has been growing for decades. But what surprises many people is the rapidly increasing popularity of non-European destinations. As world economies and dynamics are shifting, young American students find themselves drawn to languages and destinations that previous generations never considered.

While France and Spain have long held their places as the most popular destinations for language immersion tours, over the past five years that interest has shifted away from these countries and towards a much smaller, more inconspicuous country to the south: Costa Rica.

Since the global recession in 2008, Costa Rica has bolstered its economy and made large steps toward becoming a more environmentally sustainable society. But it’s Costa Rica’s distinct culture that has attracted more and more attention from language learners in recent years. Appreciation for wildlife, family life and coastal life has made Costa Rica synonymous with its epithet, ¡Pura Vida!

Spanish learners in the US who choose to go abroad for their spring vacations are looking for more than a place to speak Spanish; they’re looking for an adventure.  Costa Rica is just the place. Learning how to say montar a caballo is much more powerful when you can take those words into the sunset on the back of a horse. Likewise with learning about the different landscapes of Costa Rica: the words mean much more when you’re ziplining over a bosque seco. By the end of a trip, students greet locals with the phrase pura vida, which a foreigner might never understand as a form of greeting because the translation in English is “pure life.”

Alternatively, Spanish teachers in the US want a destination that is fun, safe and culturally relevant. For years, this has meant Spain. But with Costa Rica’s political and economic stability, it is more often becoming the destination of choice. It also happens to be much closer to the US, making it a more affordable option for many teachers and their students.

According to the International Institute of Education, Costa Rica’s dramatic rise in popularity is not limited to high school students. Costa Rica ranks eighth on the IIE’s list of top college study abroad destinations and has a growth rate of well over double any of the seven destinations ahead of it. It remains to be seen whether this dramatic upward trend will continue in the coming years.

China: The Next Frontier


There is another country whose growing economy, political power and overall global presence have attracted interest as a new language destination: China.

The demand for language immersion trips to China has followed an increase in Mandarin programs in high schools across the country. Over the past 10 years, Chinese teaching in schools has been steadily on the rise. In a 2010 article published in the New York Times entitled “Foreign Languages Fade in Class — Except Chinese,” it is estimated that the number of Mandarin programs has risen over 500% since 2000. One Chicago Chinese language administrator, Robert Davis, went so far as to say, “Chinese isn’t the new French—it’s the new English.”

In 2011, the number of students taking the College Board’s Advanced Placement Chinese exam grew at 25%, more than for any other AP exam. In 2012, it grew by another 17%. In 2013, over 1,400 schools in the US offered AP Chinese courses and more than 10,000 students took the exam.

With one-fifth of the world’s population speaking Mandarin and over 10 percent of the world’s economic activity taking place in China, the ability to communicate in Mandarin is more important than ever. Moreover, language immersion is especially important when it comes to Mandarin because of the extreme differences in culture from the Western world. As instant, automated translation technology continues to develop, the true distinctions for students around the world will be in cultural understanding. Manners, etiquette, behavior, traditions, lifestyle—all of these are necessary for true communication.

What Does Chinese Language Immersion Look Like?

With such a long history and such deeply ingrained traditions, China has woven its language tightly with its art, hobbies and customs. Students participating in a language immersion tour to China should expect to experience true Chinese heritage in the form of performances and ceremonies.

Chinese martial arts trace their origins back over 4000 years to self-defense, hunting and military training in ancient China. One discipline, Kung Fu, slowly evolved into a method of health maintenance and then eventually into a method of self-cultivation. Kung Fu performances include storytelling, acrobatics, modern dance and original music to celebrate the philosophy and skill of martial arts.

Another discipline, Taiji, is an internal martial art, meditation system and health practice. In fact, medical research has shown that Taiji can improve both balance and psychological health. Taijiquan (太極拳), the full Mandarin name, translates to “supreme ultimate fist.” Without experiencing these cultural traditions first hand and participating in them with locals, students miss a whole section of Chinese life and philosophy.

True Chinese language immersion is a step outside of the comfort zones of most American students, and because of this, it’s also a huge opportunity for personal growth. With EF Educational Tours, eating dinner with Hutong families, joining in a tea ceremony or meeting pen pals at a local school are all small parts of a larger goal: understanding.

As one Chinese proverb says, “Without ascending the Mountain, we cannot admire the height of heaven; without descending into the valley, we cannot admire the depth of the earth; without listening to the maxims left by the ancient Kings, we cannot know the excellence of wisdom.” And without living the language, we can never hope to understand those who do.

By Hélène Vincent

Hélène Vincent is Manager of Language Immersion Programs at EF Educational Tours, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Download the 2015 Edition of the Student Travel Planning Guide Today to see this and other great articles!