Is Immersion Really Necessary?
If you’ve ever tried to learn a new language, you’ve probably heard about language “immersion” – probably touted as the best way to learn a new language. Maybe as the only way!
So what’s that all about?
“Language immersion” – what is it, anyway?
Maybe you’ve heard someone roll off the virtues of this method. of learning a language through full immersion. It’s also . All in all, it’s generally agreed by the language-learning community that immersion is an effective way to learn a new language.
So what is it? In case you’re not 100% familiar with the terminology, here’s a refresher. The term “language immersion” means that, rather than study a language within your native language (L1) environment, you enter settings where the language is a necessary means of communication. An example of this is a home-stay with speakers of your target language (L2), where the L2 becomes a necessary part of survival.
The term “immersion” is also used in environments where, rather than being studied as a subject per se, the target language is used to convey other information. This commonly can mean using the target language for instruction in other subjects (such as a maths class taught in French). Particularly for kids, this method has gained widespread utilisation.
So that’s immersion. It changes a target language from being a subject of study to a necessary means of communication – pretty much how you learned your first language!
Why is language immersion so great?
It’s a highly-effective method of language acquisition. Here are some of the recognised advantages:
- It forces you to need to know the language, not just want to know it. With immersion, “you use a foreign language to do everything, from buying coffee, meeting people, getting directions…” ()
- Immersion for kids is a great way to expose them to a different culture. “If you want your children to be global thinkers who are more accepting and understanding of other cultures, then language immersion is a gift you can give them.” ()
- Unlike mere classroom study, immersion teaches your brain to adapt to a new language’s patterns. “Adults who undergo immersion, where they are completely surrounded by language examples, tend to have brain processes similar to that of native speakers.” ()
But is immersion the only way to learn a new language?
However, maybe you don’t have the time or resources to go and live for six months in China. Maybe you have ailing parents, or little kids. Maybe you’re lucky to get two consecutive weeks off work! If, for whatever reason, you’re not able to enter into a full immersion programme, are you cursed to never fully learn your L2?
Of course not! There are actually that you can immerse yourself in a new language without having to actually travel to a country where it’s the only thing spoken!
- Join an online group where ONLY your target language is spoken. These don’t have to be certified language teachers (though obviously it’ll help if they are!) but there are plenty of groups – through WhatsApp and such – dedicated to sharing new languages and cultures. These are often geared towards speakers of other languages (often English) so you’ll receive plenty of help and support from the native speakers of your L2 – but ideally without resorting to translations into English to explain things!
- Label things in your house. It sounds silly, but this is a great way to learn vocabulary. As you walk outside, if you’re learning Russian you’ll remember that you’re walking through the дверь, turning the ключ in the замке and checking the ручку to make sure it’s locked! And if your language, like Russian, has different forms depending on the word’s position in the sentence, include these on the card, along with any genders. e.g. “замок (м.) в замке” or “ручка/ручку (ж.)”. Do not write any English on these, though!
- Watch TV shows (or movies) in your target language. Here is one method of doing this: watch it three times. The first time, watch it with foreign audio but English subtitles, so that you understand everything. The second time, watch it with audio AND subtitles in your target language. You’ll be able to follow it because you already know what happens, but you’ll be immersed in your target language. Then, if you have time, watch it a third time, cutting the subtitles completely. It’s as immersive an experience as you can get from home!
- Then team up with someone in your language-learning community, and do the “24 hour” challenge of only speaking in the new language. The advantage of this method is that it’ll move L2 acquisition from the “want it” to the “need it” category in your mind. Temporarily forget English, and you’ll be forced to express yourself and communicate entirely in your L2!
All of the above methods are great ways to have a language-immersive experience without having to travel far – or at all!
But that’s still all immersion. Are there other ways to learn?
Granted, all of the above-outlined strategies, while achievable at home without travel to China, are still, fundamentally, methods of language immersion. Are there other ways to learn a new language?
Yes, there are. And, furthermore, depending on your preferred mode of learning, and the time you have, they might be more effective! Immersion might not be the best way to learn a new language if you’re just starting out.
As an article from the Go Overseas website states, even people with the means to travel may want to opt for a tutor. “Trained, experienced teachers know how best to structure a class so that students can make progress in steps. They’ll teach you the necessary grammar so you understand why you say things the way you do” (). Granted, we all learned our L1s through immersion. But it takes babies years to learn how to speak effectively. As adults, we can use well-guided study to shorten that time frame.
In the end, immersion is a good way to learn a language, but it may not be practical. Having an experienced second-language tutor may be a better option for you. However, if it is an option, combining tutoring with an immersive experience, such as a language-immersive classroom, would be even better. This will get you both the exposure and guidance that you need to become truly fluent in a second language.
So let’s go, allons-y, and empezamos!