What is language immersion?
Language immersion is the process where a student learns a language by speaking it in context, using it like a native speaker, in an environment where the student is immersed (surrounded by) communication in that language. It is an essential way to learn languages for speakers of all levels, but it is especially important for intermediate or upper intermediate speakers trying to get to the next level in their target language (the language they are learning).
Advantages and disadvantages of language immersion abroad
When most people think of language immersion, they think of going abroad to a country where this language is spoken. This can often be an excellent way to get a good immersion experience, if you have the time and resources to do so. However, unless you find a way to interact with people on a regular basis, it’s not always successful. In addition, even if you are able to regularly talk with people, you will not always get what’s called deliberate practice, where your mistakes are corrected. I have known people who have spent time trying to learn languages abroad, but who weren’t able to speak on a regular basis, and therefore, while they enjoyed their travels, their language skills didn’t improve significantly. So, even if one is able to get immersion by traveling to another country, it’s essential that one does it in an effective way where they are regularly interacting with others and getting deliberate practice. Some ways to do this are to enroll in an intensive language program, for part of your time abroad, or to live with a host family.
If effective immersion abroad is often difficult to get, or in the case of most adults who have a job, family, and other adult responsibilities, difficult to do, how does one get an immersion experience? The answer is get an immersion experience at home. This article gives some tips on how to have such an experience.
Guidelines for at home immersion success
What are some basic guidelines to help make your target language a part of your everyday life and normal routines? First, develop goals. The more specific your goals, the more likely that you will succeed. Goals should be realistic but challenging. Decide what your learning goals are. For example, many students want to improve their speaking skills, so they should choose methods that will help them to do this. Second, develop a realistic but challenging plan to achieve your goals. Third, follow your plan for at least 90 days. Three months is a good amount of time to get an idea of whether it’s a good plan. Fourth, after 90 days assess your plan and see what needs to be changed.
Ideas to help you get started:
Using your target language at work can be helpful for those that have this opportunity. It can be difficult because one can fear making a mistake and not seeming competent enough. Just remember that you can only do the best you can and learn from mistakes. Try to read articles and use audio and video media about your profession. In addition, you can do the following:
Learn the vocabulary relevant to your job. Make a list of words you hear regularly but don’t know.
Try talking to your coworkers in a more informal, less stressful setting. You can get used them, and you don’t have the pressure of making sure you’re not making important mistakes.
Don’t be afraid to ask for help, or ask someone to repeat themselves.
If someone doesn’t understand you, say it in another way.
Use role plays to practice common routines either by yourself or with a teacher (for example, asking for help, speaking at a meeting, giving a presentation, etc.)
Sometimes you’ll find that you’ve mastered communication in the field of your profession, but you can’t talk about simple topics such as the weather or food. Remember to balance your language skills and don’t limit your topics only to your professional area. One good way to do this is hobbies.
Hobbies are a great way to study a language because it’s doing something you love, and it’s always easier to learn when you’re doing something you enjoy. Some common hobbies and strategies for using them to learn languages are listed below, but almost any hobby can be good. It’s even better if you can do your hobby with other language learners.
Tips for specific hobbies:
Reading: Try to get the book (or magazine, comic, or newspaper) in your target language and your native language. You can also get the audio version. Reading and listening at the same time can be an excellent way to study. Try to commit to a specific day and time to read every week. For example, on Tuesday's and Thursday's you can read a page or a chapter a week on the train during the morning commute. Start a book club to make it more social and interactive.
Writing: Try keeping a journal, or if you like, write stories, articles, or poetry. The italki notebook section has a good system for getting corrections on your writing. Also, you can read what you write and share it with others. For example, start a writing group where you read and discuss what you’ve written.
Movies and TV: This is one of the most popular hobbies for language learning. While it’s nice just to relax and watch a movie using subtitles, it’s not as effective as some other methods (remember, life doesn’t have subtitles!). For movies, try to get the script of the movie, as it’s easier than referring to the subtitles. Also, it can be easier to watch in 15 minute blocks instead of watching the whole movie at once. Try committing to watch one 15 minute section each weekend. First, watch a scene in your target language without reading the script or subtitles. Second, listen to it again while reading the script. Look up any new vocabulary words. Finally, watch it again without the script or subtitles. Start a movie club to make it social.
Sports and exercise: Play sports or exercise with other language learners, and speak only in the target language. Or, watch a favorite sport’s match on TV in your target language.
Hiking: Go on a hike with friends and speak in your target language only. Talk about all the natural things around you. What’s that bird called? Is it a hawk, owl, or blue jay? Is that a river, stream, or spring?
Music: Listen to music in your target language. Read the lyrics to understand the meaning of songs. Sing and play music in your target language. Music is also a great social activity to do with others. Here are some other ideas for learning a language with music.
Volunteering: Volunteering can be an enjoyable activity by itself, because you’re helping people and interacting with others, and if you have an opportunity to do it in your target language, that’s even better. Individuals and organization will be more likely to want volunteers, especially if you have some skills to offer, but many organizations are happy to have motivated individuals that can give some of their time and energy. Check out foreign embassies where your target language is spoken or international organizations and businesses.
Relationships: Language is social, so relationships are a great way to learn it. Try to make friends in your target language either in person or online. Language exchanges like the ones on italki are one way to do this. If it’s hard to find an exchange partner, don’t be afraid to get a partner at your level or lower. If you have friends that are learning the same language as you, try a group class or activities with them. Also family members can learn together as well. Parents and children, spouses or even whole families can speak or take lessons together. Also, some people advocate dating someone who speaks your target language, also known as the pillow approach, combining romance and language learning. Finally, as we’ll see below, learning with larger communities, such as language clubs or language villages, is also effective.
Learning communities: Another way to add a social element to your immersion experience is joining a community of language learners like yourself. This can be online or in person. Online communities like italki are great, but in person experiences are excellent as well. If you live in a fairly big town, it’s possible that there will be a language club in your target language. Language clubs come in all forms. If you live in a large city there may be several different types of them, but even in a small town there may be one at the local library, school or community center. Therefore, make sure to check learning communities, such as libraries, schools, and universities. If there isn’t a club in your target language, why not start one? Also, learning communities such as libraries, schools, embassies, and community centers sometimes have free classes. Another great resources is meetup.com, which helps people to form their own clubs.
Language villages: Several countries have language villages, which are immersion programs that allow you to stay at a place that’s somewhat like a camp or resort and speak only in your target language. This is especially popular with English, but there are programs for other languages as well. This can be an excellent immersion experience because you’re forced to speak your language in a supportive, structured environment. It can also be a great way to have fun with language learning and meet new people interested in your target language. In addition, you can do it all within the borders of your country (or a nearby country) for a short period of time. Unfortunately, this idea hasn’t become popular in many countries, but if any entrepreneurs interested in the area of language education are looking for a good idea, this might be it! There are plenty of language schools, but the market for language villages in many countries is small or nonexistent.
Regular online lessons or language exchanges: Of course, one of the best ways to have an immersion experience is by using online platforms like italki. Online lessons and exchanges are a highly effective way of bringing language learning into your home. Many of my students say this method is just as good as going abroad. It’s also more flexible and convenient—you can have lessons when you want from your home. Just remember to use deliberate practice to improve.
Learning through teaching: We can also learn languages by teaching them to others. If you’re able to teach something, it help you understand it better. We can do this through language exchanges, language clubs and volunteering.
Try using your target language during everyday activities such as the following:
Listening and reading the news
Using your phone and computer (change settings to your target language)
Counting (and motivating yourself!) during exercise
Example schedule for an at home immersion experience
Finally, here’s a basic example of how you can create your own day of an at home immersion experience. This schedule could easily be used for a weekend as well.
Breakfast and listen to or read news and/or talk with family or friends
Online lesson or exchange
Social activity (for example, volunteering, sports, exercise, hiking, museum trip with friend, language club)
Make lunch with recipe in your target language
Do some necessary chores (if they need to be done!), but still try to use some of your target language. For example, go shopping, but have your phone’s settings and the shopping list in your target language.
Activity (for example, watch film, read, write letter or in journal, online lessons or exchange)
Language learning dinner party
Watch movie or read or write in journal
Review day and new vocabulary
Plan next at home immersion experience!
While not everyone is able to have an immersion experience abroad, almost any can use these ideas and methods to benefit from an immersion experience at home. Try adapting and experimenting with these methods to see what works best for you. It may take some time to learn what kind of at home immersion experience is successful for you, but if you try to do it regularly, especially with support of a teacher and friends, it can be an important way to get to the next level of your language abilities.
Have you ever tried an at home immersion experience? Feel free to write in the comment section what ideas and methods work best for you.