Language Immersion: Swim in a Native Environment, don't Drown

Language immersion is not just being passively surrounded by the language. It’s doing all the things you normally do in your own language, only through another language.

2018/10/06

Stefano Lodola

By STEFANO LODOLA

What is language immersion?

In class, language immersion is a technique used in bilingual language education in which two languages are used for instruction in a variety of topics, including math, science, or social studies. While traditional language teaching programs deal with the language simply as a subject to be learned, language immersion focuses more on the second language being a tool which is used to immerse the student completely within the subject.

In the real world, it’s you doing all the things you normally do in your own language; living life as you normally do only through another language (not necessarily in another place though of course it’s better to be). Rent a dive in the city, buy food and toilet paper from the shop downstairs, ride the metro, workout, meet friends for coffee… with the only difference that you do all that in a foreign language.

Note that language immersion is not just being passively surrounded by the language. You can surround yourself with something without ever interacting with it. You could be immersed in a language audio course while you’re sleeping and would still learn nothing. You could be immersed in TV or radio programs that you don’t understand and still learn nothing. Travel – even living long-term – doesn’t bring automatic results. I personally know many expats living in places for many years who haven’t learned the local languages. Just being there does not make you immersed.

Benefits of language immersion

Here are some educational benefits of language immersion:

  • An immersion program is an excellent way to learn a new language as it allows for students to achieve high speaking and literacy skills
  • Classrooms are not just language immersion but cultural immersion as well, giving them a greater appreciation for different traditions and perspectives
  • Students with an immersion education score as well as or better than their non-immersion peers on standardized tests

Here are some cognitive benefits of language immersion:

  • Students in an immersion environment become more flexible thinkers and excel at critical thinking and problem solving. When presented with a problem, they are able to look for more than one solution. These skills gained through an immersion education make students more appealing to prospective employers when entering the workforce
  • The mental stretch students receive in an immersion classroom helps develop their executive function (cognitive control), allowing them to have better focus, juggle multiple tasks, and adapt to changing conditions
  • Bilinguals are better able to analyze their knowledge of language. They learn that there are at least two ways of saying the same thing and understand the relationship between words and their meaning. They are able to focus more on meaning and consider only relevant features when there is distractive information.
  • Students with two well-developed languages are more sensitive to communication. They are better able to understand the needs of others and to respond appropriately. Through exposure to cultural differences they may become more respectful of differences between people and their cultures and may be able to communicate with a large variety of people.
  • Bilinguals demonstrate more mental flexibility and perform better on tasks requiring mental manipulation. They are original in verbal expression, demonstrate non-verbal intelligence and can answer open-ended questions more freely than monolinguals.

Language immersion: online and offline, at home and abroad

You don’t really need to go abroad to learn a language. With the internet, there’s plenty of ways to expose yourself to it. Not enough money or time to travel is not a good excuse. But it still makes sense to “live” in that language abroad.

Socially speaking, virtual immersion is easier, less risky, and more convenient. You can practice your language with a native speaker in your bed in your pajamas if you wanted too. You can also connect with speakers from around the world. You can literally pick and choose what country you want to meet people from. Virtual immersion is also more anonymous. You can always delete a skype contact or end a chat.

You don’t want to learn a language just talk to people on the internet, right?

When you are surrounded in real life by native speakers you have much less control. You’re likely to meet all kinds of people in any number of situations, and you can’t just exit out of a chat window if something goes wrong. It’s also a lot harder to put yourself out there in the physical world versus the virtual one. On the internet you can be sure that the other person is a language learner and will be forgiving and understanding if you struggle. In real life you don’t have that guarantee. Before you initiate a conversation, you have no way of knowing for sure whether or not the other person will be patient or receptive.

Because virtual immersion is less risky and more controlled the rewards don’t go as far. Yes, you get real spoken practice one on one with a real person, but you don’t get the cultural experience or relationship of an in-person interaction. It’s likely that your main motivation for language learning is to make friends and interact with real people from around the world. You don’t want to learn a language just talk to people on the internet, right?

Language immersion: the earlier, the merrier?

Generally speaking, the earlier you’re exposed to the language in a native environment, the better. Think of babies. Total immersion from day one.

That said, if you’re still at an elementary level, native environment can be tricky. It might be difficult to motivate locals to have a conversation with you, especially if you’re in international cities and everybody speaks English or if they have no particular interest in you, your country or your culture.

When I was in the Far-East, I felt like a superstar: at international gatherings, everybody wanted to talk with me and I would get out of the party more fluent than I was when I got in. But when I was in Berlin to study German after only two months of study, I hardly had a decent conversation because an Italian in Germany is not exotic at all and actually occasionally scoffed at. That demotivated me and I eventually gave up German.

Don’t use your native language

Language immersion means that, on one side, you should use your target language as much as possible. On the other side, you should use your native language as little as possible.

I avoid using my native language. That includes taking notes and reading the news.

I’m a label geek: I read the ingredient list of every food, cosmetic or drug I use. If the label comes in more than on language, I always read it in a foreign language. Only if I don’t understand and I don’t feel like dying, do I read the label of the drug in Italian.

I set up all software in the language I’m learning (computer, phone…). When I don’t understand, I just click haphazard. It’s not going to blow up anyway.

Learn every day, and not alone

Learning a language is like a sport: you need persistence. Don’t sleep for 6 days and then wake up on Sunday craving for new words and study the whole day, but rather find time (30-60 minutes is already enough) to learn that language every day. Don’t let a day pass without using that language.

I try to spend more than half of my study time speaking with someone, either exchanging to taking lessons.

Conclusion: language immersion works under the right conditions

In the end, it comes down to your language learning needs. Are you working to become fluent or just functional? Are you a world traveling polyglot, or working a 9-5 job? Everyone has different goals and constraints on their language learning. So incorporate the real world and the internet in a way that makes sense for you.

Stefano Lodola lecturing about learning languages

Do you want a complete guide on how to learn a foreign language?

The pictures shown in this article are slides taken from my on-demand course on Udemy “Fluent. Simple. My proven quick-start guide to learn any foreign language”. There I share what I actually do to learn foreign languages, in the form of a presentation based on contents that I usually show in polyglot clubs.

After this quick-start guide, you’ll know exactly what to do from day one. I put popular tools and personal tips together into a complete language workout for your brain. These tools can be used to learn a language in the spare time that you have each day and can be applied without going abroad.

This is not a generic guide: I only recommend methods and materials that I actually use myself and find useful. This treasure of life experience will spare you years of ineffective studies.

The course includes:

  • My experience as a language learner
  • Links to select learning resources
  • Study methods and tips
  • Advice to draft your study plan

To make sure that you’ll actually put that into practice, the course comes with the option to book a 30-minute consultation on Skype (not included in the course enrollment fee). We’ll discuss your study plan and I’ll answer any questions that you may have.

Click here to read the course program and watch the free preview.

Take it today and become a language learning machine!

Online Italian Lessons

Meet your language coach

As a language learner, I was raised speaking only Italian, but now I speak nine foreign languages.

As a teacher, I’ve taught Italian to adults in language schools and universities.

I’ve lectured in polyglot clubs and coached students on their way to fluency.

I’m eager to share my secrets with you.

Stefano Lodola

Minutes Consultation
Slides in the Presentation
/5
Rating from students
Absolutely wonderful! So excited to start my lesson plan.
Italian language student
Victoria Kelly
USA
Stefano's Language coaching was an excellent use of my time, Stefano helped me to understand what programs and resources he has found most useful in acquiring new languages. I feel more focused and confident and am working on my self-study program now. Thank you, Stefano!
Italian language student
Neal C
UK
My lesson with Stefano was engaging and gave me a better idea of how i should approach my language studies in the future. I thank him greatly and I hope to implement these new methods into my everyday life. He is very knowledgeable and will explain any questions one may have in great detail. Definitely recommended to those who are interested in starting a new language or improving their method of study.
Italian language student
Ayrton vidović
Croatia

Start learning a language now!​

+1
Share
Tweet
Share
Pin