Language · Language learning · Methods

What is language learning immersion, and why can’t I make it work?

The myth of language learning immersion

If you’ve ever studied a foreign language, you might have come upon the concept of immersion. People often think that you should submerge yourself completely in a target-language environment to “learn from osmosis”.

There are many different versions of this. Most often you’ll hear that you should go live in the country where the language is spoken if you want to learn to speak it fluently.

Others propose other solutions like changing your computer’s language to the target language, listening to foreign-language radio all day, sticking post-it notes with translations in all objects in your house and other things like that. Then there are people who suggest that you can learn a language from listening to audio-books while you sleep!

The last one, I kind of like.

Still, I am very skeptical about all of this.

Immersion in languages learning – mostly a myth

Jumping into water from cliff

When people propose that you surround yourself with the target language in order for it to slowly seep through and become “automatic”, they often have a false idea about how immersion really works.

People think, that if you hear the language a lot, you'll learn it, but it's not as simple as that Click To Tweet

People seem to think, that if only you hear and read the language a lot, you’ll learn it, but it’s not as simple as that.

The truth is, that whenever you try to force yourself into such a target-language environment, in stead of learning the language, you learn different ways to cheat and to avoid having to learn anything! You’ll find that your post-it notes will become invisible to your eye, after a while. They’ll be a mere distraction that you can easily avoid. After all, you know what a fridge is, and don’t actually need to check the note all the time – so you don’t, and eventually, your guests are the only ones you’ll take notice and wonder if you’re okay.

The same goes for changing your computer’s operating system language. Rather than finally internalize the French word for ”restart” ”redémarrer”, you’ll recognize the word as a pictogram or an icon. You’ll remember the picture of the word all-right, as if it were a drawing, and you’ll know what clicking the thing does, but it won’t be a word to you.

Whenever you put yourself in a situation where you need to make sense of a foreign language environment, your brain starts problem-solving. But even for the most intelligent among us, the brain will try to cheat, and get the answers the easy way. Our brains always take the path of least resistance, which actually makes sense, because you don’t want to waste energy on anything not necessary. This is more or less the reason why immersion is not working for you. Rather than learning the language, your brain finds other solutions. So how can we force ourselves to learn?

What is real learning immersion?

Learning is a form of creation. You create solutions to understanding the incomprehensible. Click To Tweet

In my opinion, learning is a form of creation. It’s about creating solutions to understanding the incomprehensible. The immersion that many people falsely assume will work, does find solutions to your problems (like finding your computer’s restart button) but you always end up with something else than actually learning the language. You create a picture in your mind, of what the word looks like in its written form, like in the case of the example where you’d change your computer’s language. Real immersion needs to be another kind of problem solving.

What do I mean by that?

To really solve problems (and not just find shortcuts) means that you need to analyze whatever you hear or read and draw conclusions from it. This doesn’t mean that you have to dissect everything you come upon with dictionaries and grammars. Instead, you should surround yourself with foreign-language material that you understand pretty well, only a little above your level. You need to have foundations in the target language that permits you to draw conclusions and figure things out from context.

Listening to a 10-minutes radio show and trying to figure things out will probably work better for you than listening to 8 hours of incomprehensible input non-stop. If you’re not yet at the appropriate level, it’ll just be too much, and you’ll quickly zone out.

Listening to a 10-minutes radio show is better than 8 hours of incomprehensible input Click To Tweet

Immersion is not mindless osmosis

People usually speak of language learning immersion as osmosis. Osmosis is a term borrowed from biology. It basically describes the “evening out” of different concentrations in liquids. Imagine that you put a wet sponge in a glass of salt water. When the water inside of the sponge gradually gets salty too, that’s osmosis (well.. sort of). So in terms of language learning immersion, you’re the sponge, but instead of placing you in a glass of salt water, you’re flown to Spain, where you will seep in a Spanish language-environment for a few months.

Now, the idea is that this should help you learn Spanish.

But I’m afraid that the reality isn’t that simple.

There’s no doubt that it can be helpful to surround yourself with the language, but you need to make the best of it. You have to take control and work actively at making sense of the language. Otherwise it’ll remain white noise, and you’ll quickly get used to getting the information you need by other means.

What is real immersion then?

Immersion done right, is two things: 1; diving into foreign language material that is just at the right level, that permits you to make sense of things, and 2; doing it a lot.

The first point is something I usually do by reading extensively. I use a reading method that suggests that you read for pleasure, and choose texts that that are only slightly above your level. This way you learn new vocabulary seamlessly. This is my primary learning method, and also the one favored by many accomplished language learners.

Immersion is basically reading or listening to comprehensible input that you can make sense of, and then doing it a lot. In many cases, however, you’ll grow tired quickly and lose focus. This means that you’re limited to shorter study sessions, which makes it – by definition – “not immersion”. For it to really be effective on the larger scale, you need to already be at a high level, or else you’ll lose focus whenever something becomes difficult or you are distracted. Don’t worry about it, though! If you keep at it, you’ll reach a point where there’s a place for immersion.

Let’s put language learning immersion at its place.

So we have concluded that immersion really just is a question of consuming foreign language material that is comprehensible to you in large amounts. We can now rule out a few things that don’t fit that description.

Putting a post-it on your fridge and everything else in your house isn’t immersion, but if you’re having a discussion with someone about how his milk went sour because his X wasn’t plugged in, that’s immersion, because the situation gives you the opportunity to figure out the answer.

Watching hundreds of hours of Japanese manga, isn’t immersion either, unless you’re at a level where you can figure things out from context.

And when you switch your operating system or favorite video-game’s language, it isn’t immersion either, unless you actually understand the information prompted to you on your screen.

If you do these things without really feeling that you’re getting anything out of it, you’re dead right. There isn’t something mystical and magical happening inside of your brain, that you’re not yet noticing. It’s simply not working. You might be wasting your time, and if you’re serious about learning your target language, it’s important that you admit it and get over it, so that you can spend your time more efficiently.

The only time that you should do these kind of things?

When you have nothing better to do. Go ahead and watch a few hours of subtitled Russian soap operas if you feel like it. Spend your day listening to pod-casts in French while you work instead of the usual music-radio. Or stick on the post-its if you really want to (or if you want your guests to leave early)

These things won’t help you a lot as learning activities, but they might serve the purpose of motivating you, or they can help provide you with a deeper knowledge of the culture. Then there’s also the few moments when you remind yourself and actually try and listen attentively. These can be valuable for your understanding of intonation and melody, and you might even recognize a word here and there.


One thought on “What is language learning immersion, and why can’t I make it work?

  1. Have you seen stage-diving? It was particularly popular during the heyday of punk rock. A daredevil perches at the edge of an arena and simply hurtles himself headfirst into a packed crowd of dancers, sometimes from astonishing heights. It takes guts to convince yourself that the crowd will hold you up. But it works.

    I lived and worked in Moscow for a few years and never learned Russian, despite quite a bit of study. I learned to cheat, just as your article described, though I was theoretically in an almost perfect situation for total immersion.

    Russia is a giant country, and as in the US with English, there are many inhabitants who are dumfounded when they encounter someone who can’t speak adequate Russian. They will react like the prototypical Ugly American, simply speaking Russian very loudly, as if the ignorant foreigner was suffering from a hearing disability. (I had a friend who was unable to purchase expensive tickets to the Bolshoi Ballet because the ticket clerk could not communicate with an English-only tourist!)

    But I discovered that using a technique like stage diving worked almost every time. Just hurtle yourself into a situation where English is needed, and English speakers will emerge. Perhaps confidence that this will happen is the key.I was in Ramstore, for example, where I often shopped, and I spotted a razor that I wanted to buy. Unfortunately, it was securely locked in a plastic cage, as an an anti-shoplifting measure. I could not even explain that I wanted to purchase the razor, when someone emerged from behind me in the line of customers who was eager to practice his shakey English skills. He explained to the cashier what I wanted, and she sent for a manager who could unlock the cage and handle the purchase.

    This method worked well for me, enough that I did not spend much time trying to communicate in my very limited Russian. There were drawbacks, like the time I found myself paying $500 for two pairs of elegant Italian made jeans that I thought were excellently priced at 500 rubles — but they were nice jeans!

    As your article points out, there are ways to cheat against total immersion, so that it usually doesn’t work as well as you would expect. That is why I am back in the US now, completing my Russian education far from total immersion.

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