Nothing ventured, nothing gained: Language Immersion Awards

Issue: Volume 94, Number 8

Posted: 18 May 2015
Reference #: 1H9cr2

Applications are now open for the 2015 round of Language Immersion Awards (LIA), administered by AFS New Zealand and funded by the Ministry of Education. If you’re a teacher of a language other than English, you know that learning the vocabulary isn’t enough: any language is about the people who use it to communicate. So grabbing the opportunity to immerse yourself in the culture you’ve been teaching is the best professional – not to mention personal – development you could possibly undertake. Education Gazette asked two former LIA recipients about their time in the deep end. The verdict: always fascinating, sometimes scary, ultimately rewarding.

Abbie Law - a semester in Chile

Traditional dancers in Chile

If you had asked me last year if I thought I would be moving to a city in Chile, where horses and carts roam the streets beside cars and buses, where the largest earthquake ever recorded in history occurred (9.5), and where my street turns into a farmers’ market on a Saturday, I would have told you there was no chance. However, that is exactly what I am doing this year as part of a Ministry of Education Language Immersion Award in Concepcion, Chile.

I am a Spanish language teacher at Otago Girls’ High School in Dunedin, and last year I decided to apply for the award with the support of my school and board of trustees. The award allows foreign language teachers the opportunity to be immersed in another culture, challenge themselves and their own learning, and ultimately build quality language teaching to enhance the learning opportunities for students. After completing the year-long TPDL course (Teacher Professional Development Languages) I decided that this was the next logical step to further enhance my learning, and that of my students.

There are three key components to the award: living with a host family, working at a local school and attending language classes. Teachers are also expected to write goals that give them areas to focus on during their time away, and demonstrate how students, colleagues and the wider community will gain from the experience. The goals focus on improved language, cultural and intercultural communicative knowledge of the students and teacher.

One of the ways I have gone about achieving my goals is through the use of social media. I set up a group on Facebook and invited friends, family, students and colleagues to follow my journey. I decided this was the best tool for communication, as often blogs get forgotten about whereas Facebook is integrated into our everyday lives.

On the page I post photos, videos (including video blogs), links and interesting moments from my experience. Before I left New Zealand I also got staff and students to ask me a question that they would like to know the answer to about Chile or Chilean culture. Staff could ask me something specific to their subject area that could be used with their own classes. For example the music teacher asked what indigenous musical instruments they have in Chile and the geography teacher asked me how they prepare for natural disasters.

My students also asked about topics that interested them like fashion in Chile, slang terms used between teenagers, and popular Chilean bands. I then researched the answers to their questions, taking video/photo evidence where appropriate and posted the answers onto the group Facebook page. I have enjoyed finding out the answers and the information found was often something that could never be found in a textbook or on the internet. I have also been impressed with how teachers and students are interacting together on the topics of the posts.

The experience has also allowed my students in New Zealand to connect with Chilean teenagers. Although the time difference does not allow for Skype conversations between the two countries, I have been able to assign each of my New Zealand students a Chilean pen pal and also create a Facebook group page where they can all talk to each other and I can administer the content. Both of these activities allow the students to write in the language which they are learning (New Zealand students writing in Spanish and Chilean students replying in English).

Some of the other activities that I have been completing include: having a weekly conversational partner; keeping a ‘Chilean language’ dictionary; noting the language and management strategies teachers use in the classroom and the language that students use with each other; analysing popular Chilean music; recording how friends sustain conversations; collecting authentic resources in Spanish; keeping a daily diary; learning how to cook traditional dishes; and noting tasks that include genuine social interaction and how language and culture are integrated. Around here I am known as the teacher with a pile of note books who copies down every observation!

I am halfway through my experience, and I am so thankful for all the opportunities that I have had and for the patience and kindness of the Chilean people. Being immersed in a city where nobody speaks English has been incredible for improving my Spanish. Chileans are well known for using a wide range of slang and speaking very quickly which I am slowly getting used to.

The experience is completely different to being a tourist. I am not here to traverse from one end of the country to the other but rather to immerse myself in a community, get to know the people and their traditions and learn how daily life is for the people of that community.

I am looking at the experience through a different lens, thinking about how everything could be used for educational purposes back home. Some of the things that I have adjusted to include having the students call me by my first name and kissing me at the end of class; eating copious amounts of corn, bread and avocado; teaching classes with up to 45 students, and jolting experiences on public transport. My most memorable experience so far has been getting up in front of hundreds of Chileans to squash the grapes with my feet to make wine at a rural harvest festival.

I am truly grateful for this experience and have no doubt that everyone I know will benefit from my experience upon my return.

Tanya Chalk - a French sojourn

Tanya Chalk

When I grew up in England, learning a second language wasn’t an option until secondary school. My primary school teacher thought differently however, and decided that in our final year of school (year 6) my class would learn French. It is Mrs Parker whom I have to thank for my love of the French language and culture. Her passion and energy carried me through secondary school and has stayed with me through my own teaching career. As a primary teacher I try to instil in my students the love of languages that Mrs Parker so successfully instilled in me.

Having taught French on and off for fifteen years I felt I was lacking in the latest pedagogy regarding second language learning. So in 2013 I decided it was time to refresh my learning through the TPDL (Teacher Professional Development Languages) as well as French classes at Alliance Française in Wellington. During the TPDL I was made aware of the LIA (Language Immersion Award) and was encouraged to apply as part of my personal professional development. LIA is an opportunity for teachers to be totally immersed in the culture and language for a period of one month, three months, five months, or ten months. It is fully funded by the Ministry of Education.

I left New Zealand on 11 September 2014 to spend five months (one semester) in Romilly-sur-Seine, France. I chose to live with a host family for the duration of my award, as I felt that this would give me the best learning opportunity. I quickly discovered that my French language skills and knowledge were very basic and that I was in for a very challenging experience. The first few weeks were intense and I felt as if I were living on a crazy roller coaster ride. Fortunately, my host family were very patient and understanding.

On arrival in France I was introduced to the two schools that I would be spending my working days in during my stay. My role was to support the English teachers in class and provide the students with opportunities to speak English and learn about New Zealand. Sharing my experiences of life in New Zealand gave me a valuable insight into my own cultural beliefs. Language and culture are tightly interwoven and define who we are. Being totally immersed in an environment very different from one’s own can be really draining sometimes. My lack of language skills was a barrier, and I was able to gain a deeper understanding of the challenges faced by my own students whose first language isn’t English.

As part of the LIA, I had to set language learning goals so that I could focus on achieving specific language and cultural outcomes. This was a fundamental part of my learning journey. My goals helped in my language development and also my understanding of the French culture. Learning another language isn’t just about communicating. It’s about discovering the history and rich stories, the customs and beliefs, and the people who make the country what it is.

Another aspect of the LIA is reporting back to AFS and the Ministry. This is also important as it allows you to reflect on your achievements, and the impact this will have on your teaching and your students’ learning. I was constantly looking for authentic learning experiences to share with my class: photos of everyday life, posters, and fliers. Every experience was an opportunity to deepen my intercultural awareness.

Outside school, I was able to explore and visit a variety of places. I spent two weeks in Montpellier on an intensive language course, where I met other adults like me who were grappling with second language acquisition.

AFS organised a trip to Verdun, the scene of the longest and one of the most costly battles in history. At Christmas, my host family took me to Bordeaux and Agnos, a small village on the edge of the Pyrenees. With the crisp mountain air, snow-topped mountains and kiwifruit growing all around, I felt very much at home.

The highlight of my stay was visiting Le Quesnoy, a small town that was occupied by the Germans for most of World War I, which was then liberated by New Zealand soldiers in a daring raid. I was incredibly fortunate to be there for Armistice Day (11 November). The people of Le Quesnoy have great respect for New Zealand and I was given a guided tour of the town, its massive ramparts, streets named after New Zealand, the New Zealand memorial and remembrance garden, and the communal cemetery where 49 New Zealand soldiers are buried. I was also invited to lay a wreath at the New Zealand Memorial during the commemorative service. It was a very humbling and moving experience.

The five months passed quickly and I was soon back in class in New Zealand. On my return I have been given the role of responsibility for languages at school. I was also asked if I would like to take a French extension class, which is now up and running. The time spent in France made me critically reflect on my teaching practice and allowed me time to develop my thinking around second language acquisition. It also gave me time and opportunity to gather resources and my daily blog is a wonderful window of my life in France.

My LIA has been incredibly rewarding. It was also the biggest challenge of my life. I am immensely grateful to everyone who has supported me on my grand adventure. It has been an amazing experience and I am looking forward to the future and my place in second language learning.

Language immersion awards programme 2015

The Language Immersion Awards Programme is administered by AFS New Zealand. Award applications are now open to language teachers currently teaching one of the following languages within the New Zealand Curriculum: French, German, Spanish, Japanese, Chinese, Cook Island Maori, Samoan, Korean, Gagana Tokelau, Tongan and Vagahau Niue. Application forms are available by contacting

The purpose of the immersion programme is to provide authentic opportunities for teachers to develop their language proficiency skills and intercultural competence as well as a professional development experience which will lead to quality language teaching. The professional development begins prior to departure with goal setting and orientation, continues throughout the immersion itself and on return via reporting processes andfollow up engagement.

Applications will be accepted up until Friday 10 July 2015 for teachers (for awards departing in 2016). Teachers can experience total immersion with this unique, fully funded programme through AFS Intercultural Programmes.

Before departure, successful applicants will attend an orientation in November 2015, to meet the other participants, meet the AFS staff who manage the contract, learn more about the goal setting and reporting processes, and prepare for their journey. Immediately after the orientation, work begins with the LIA goals adviser to define and confirm personal and professional goals (language, culture and pedagogy) to ensure a focus on achieving specific language and cultural outcomes while away.

Application packs are available now.
For more information:

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 9:00 AM, 18 May 2015

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