What is the Secret to Language Immersion?
If you are trying to learn a language like English, you have probably heard about immersion language learning, or ILL. This is because immersion learning is the most effective way to acquire a language. And I say ‘acquire’ because that is exactly what the brain does—it slowly begins to recognize and assimilate a language naturally, without studying, memorizing, or painful classroom grammar exercises that are associated with ‘learning’ a language. Does that sound too good to be true? Well it’s not, and in fact it’s the same way you learned to speak your native language: effortlessly.
In fact, traditional classroom exercises and studying grammar books can be counterproductive to learning languages. That’s because our brain naturally remembers things when there is a real-world context and an emotional memory associated with it. This happens constantly in our everyday lives when we interact with friends and family, or take part in memorable or fun activities.
When I tell my English students to watch movies, Youtube videos, television series and listen to music in English to improve their level, they don’t do it. Why? Because they simply can’t believe that doing something fun or passive is an effective way to learn something. That’s because in school we try to learn languages in a very unnatural way, beginning with memorization, spelling and grammar, and hoping to be able to speak someday. But the brain functions in the opposite way—the more passive listening you do, the easier speaking will become.
How does immersion learning work?
Just like the name suggests, you must immerse yourself in an environment where the language is always present. This can be done through traveling of course, but many schools offer immersion learning classrooms or you can create immersion on your own. An immersion learning environment involves using culture; the culture of a country is closely related to the language and provides a natural context in which to use the language. In an immersion classroom, for example, lessons are not based on textbooks, but on activities involving culture such as folklore, music, food, theater, movie, comedy, poetry, books, and stories to name a few examples.
In today’s culture of technology, another way to get “virtual immersion” is to switch all your electronic devices and social media profiles to the language you want to learn: your everyday repeated use of the device, website or Instagram English With Nab will automatically (i.e. passively and effortlessly) teach you the modern vocabulary of electronics and the internet.
Spending time with native speakers and/or listening to native speakers is a very big part of immersion learning. Listening to podcasts, music or watching films in the language are very effective if done regularly, but sharing a meal or playing a game with native speakers are immersion activities that will quickly improve your language level, often after only one time. This is because the learner isn’t focused on memorizing things, but rather on performing the task or social activity at hand. The language comes as a kind of “bonus” to the enjoyable experience you are already having. In fact, typical joke among people who have been in an immersion environment is that going out for a few drinks with locals seems to “magically” unlock one’s ability to speak a language. But there is no magic involved—only your brain’s natural ability to remember things in an emotional (i.e. fun or memorable) context. We are also encouraged in a social environment to take risks and make mistakes, which is a crucial element to becoming fluent. This is never the case when we are in a boring classroom, reading a textbook individually!
How can I immerse myself in a language?
I have mentioned many different things above that you can do at home to start to immerse yourself in the language you want to learn. But the most effective way to do immersion learning is to travel and stay for a length of time in the country where you will be completely immersed in the language and the culture, surrounded by native speakers. You can organize a trip somewhere on your own or with a school, but beware not to be in a large group of people from your own native language, as this will prevent you from being fully immersed.
Traveling abroad is without a doubt the most effective and most enjoyable way to improve your language level. Don’t hesitate to take advantage of it! And in the meantime, follow my advice for creating your own immersion environment in small ways that are guaranteed to make a big difference!