Language Immersion – How and Why Does It Work?

Language Immersion – How and Why Does It Work?

That’s a great question!  In order to understand this we need to review some definitions, myths, and misconceptions about immersion language learning!

What Is Language Immersion?

Immersion is “the act of dipping something in a substance, completely covering it.”  It might be something physical, such as plunging your body into water, or metaphorical, such as becoming totally immersed in a project.

The Latin root of immersion is “mergere,” or to plunge.  The idea of immersion as a physical submergence came first and the idea of something being absorbed in a situation came about later.

A Day in the Life

So let’s take a look at what it means to be “immersed” in American culture.  But first, let’s define culture as "the way of life for an entire society."  As such, it includes codes of manners, dress, language, religion, rituals, and art.  

Now we’ll focus on the English-speaking element of America culture by beginning your day:  You wake up, and from the time you jump out of bed until you lie yourself down to sleep, you are surrounded by English;  If the alarm at the side of your bed is set on news or music, it blasts English; you are greeted by your family or friends in English while you make your way into the kitchen, where the TV is reporting the news, in English; after breakfast you make your way out to the car, passing a few people with a polite, “Good morning,” reciprocally (where I live it could be Spanish or another language, but the default is definitely English!).

In your job you most likely speak, read, and write English in some shape or form all day long.  You take a break from work for your dentist appointment- English.  You join your work colleagues for lunch- English.  You attend a company meeting where presentations are given to various contributors from within the company- English.  When the workday is over you jump in your car and turn to your favorite FM station, and voila- English.  A happy hour has been planned and you meet your friends for drinks- English, and dinner- English!

Back home again for some relaxation in front of the TV, surfing channels- English.  Time for bed, and indeed all you can remember from the day is…you guessed it, English!

Now, read through the above again, only this time, substitute English with the language you want to improve or perfect, be that Spanish, French, Italian, German, Portuguese, etc, and you’ve got the picture.  This is REAL immersion and what we should all be striving for in immersion language learning.  And at the opposite end of the spectrum is no immersion at all;  and that is what most language learning companies offer- no immersion learning at all!

What Immersion is Not

Language Learning in a Classroom Environment in Your Hometown:

If you’re one of 20 students in a 90-minute class, your teacher can interact directly and personally with you for about 4.5 minutes (90 / 20 = 4.5) if spread equally between all present.  Now, you can listen to what the teacher says and repeat it, but you’re not having a conversation.  You can break out into pairs or small groups to practice conversation, but you will be speaking with your peers, who may or may not be good influences!

And chances are you’re not too interested in the topic she’s broadcasting.  Plus, the speed at which the class moves is relatively slow as the teacher needs to accommodate all participants, even if there are various levels of ability and drive.  And when you leave the classroom, well, just check out the paragraphs above regarding immersion in American culture- you will revert back to English.  Those 4.5 minutes won’t last you long!

It will take you 100 years to learn to speak a foreign language this way!

Language Learning with Apps:

We all know the apps, right?  They might include a lifetime license and the promise you’ll become fluent in 30 to 60 days!  I’ve been around foreign language speakers for decades, and I’ve personally never met anyone who learned to speak a language through an app.  If you’re an experienced language learner like myself, or you’ve mastered a foreign language and just need a tune up, it’s possible you can realize some benefits from the app.

But a first-time foreign language learner, no way!  Sure it’s only 20 to 30 minutes, but what awaits you when you finish your self-taught lesson?  That’s right, English immersion.  And by the way, what’s fun about talking with your phone or laptop?

I’d budget 80 years to reach fluency!

Language Learning Abroad with a Group – It’s not Immersion!

So you’ve purchased an international tour or program that claims to be immersion learning, maybe even the best immersion or a really fun way to learn a language.  Finally, you’re immersed in the culture, right?  Nope, you’re not there yet, not even close!

It’s still a group experience with the entire group in the same hotel.  You may stay in a beautiful mansion or boutique hotel, but you’re still part of a group, with group meetings and group events.  You may make some friends, but you will be speaking English most of the time, interacting with the people you paid to be with!

So while you’re physically within the country’s borders, your day-to-day interaction is mostly with English speaking “new” friends, or strangers.  The chances of you interacting with someone local other than those involved in your program are slim to none.  Even if there is a recommended “rule” that you speak the foreign language between yourselves, it’s not going to happen.

And sadly, you probably won’t have any memorable cross-cultural discussions or even experience much of what the culture has to offer other than the standard tourist activities.  You might as well watch Anthony Bourdain’s programs on his travel adventures- now he had a good time.

If you can get away from the group and explore on your own, you might have an immersion experience.  But I would budget for a 50-year journey to be realistic- and that’s costly!

Online One-on-one Learning:

Now you’ve got something here.  Your tutor’s facial expressions, lips, even tongue, are in plain sight.  You’re listening as you see your online instructor speak, and they can see you and can more easily help you.  Body language plays a huge role in communication- and that’s our goal, learning to communicate.

There’s no one else there, so your 60 or 90-minute lessons are specific to you, and if your teacher has been paying attention, they can direct the conversation toward topics that are of interest to you- topics that are relevant!

You say your goodbyes and shut down your computer, and what awaits you?  English, however this moves much quicker than the above two options; you just can’t practice what you’ve learned once the class is over.  But now you’re down to 25 years.  If you can’t afford a plane ticket, stay here!

REAL Immersion!  Language Learning with a Private Instructor and Cultural Immersion:

Now you’re talking!  At Language & Luxury, we understand that cultural immersion plus personal, one-on-one language study is the fastest path to fluency.  This is based on personal language learning experience- and logic.

In our program, this means no tour buses, no groups or strangers, and no classrooms.  Whether it's learning French in the vineyards of Bordeaux, mastering Spanish on the lively streets of Sevilla, or immersing yourself in Italian in the heart of Tuscany, Language & Luxury ensures a seamless integration of language acquisition and luxury living.

We place you in the culture, with a private instructor, who gets to know you, how you best learn, and your interests, so that you can finally become conversational in the language!  So rather than speaking English with your group, you practice your chosen foreign language with your native, experienced instructor, both in your Private Lessons as well as during your Cultural Activities.  These are also led by your instructor and are more like “learning while walking around!”

These Cultural Activities could include a walking tour through an open market, where you will be discussing the multitude of foods displayed, or sampling local delicacies, and practicing ordering in your new language.  Or a walking tour through an interesting park or museum, learning about and discussing the city’s art and history.  Food and drink are also explored as this tends to be everyone’s favorite, be they tapas in Spain, Mole and Mezcal in Oaxaca, Mexico, and myriad options for sampling delicacies in France and Italy.

Or try sharing a meal with your instructor at a restaurant where only locals dine, even just a coffee or aperitive and open discussion with your instructor.  Don’t forget to interact with the service people, and sometimes we even arrange group encounters with local friends who are aware that you’re there to learn the language.  Perhaps we can’t duplicate your “day in the life-” level of immersion at home, but that’s the goal, to interact- practicing conversation- within your new, chosen culture.

You roll up your sleeves with your private instructor, focusing mostly on conversation, adding in grammar, common expressions, and cultural issues as you desire.  You’ll probably finish with two or three pages of notes and some exercises on something you’ve mutually agreed needs more practice.  But when you leave your meeting place- either at your accommodations or in a nearby local café- you apply what you’ve learned to real situations.  You need to ask directions, eat or drink something, introduce yourself and complete simple transactions throughout the duration of your stay!

And language learning is cumulative, meaning that you’re constantly building on what you’ve learned before.  For example, you’ll learn much more in your second week than you learned in your first week.  And if you’re lucky enough to remain in-region for a four-week period, you’ll probably learn more in the fourth week than the previous three-weeks combined!

But How Does Immersion Work?

That’s a fair question, let’s address this using red wine as an example.  But first, don’t think that adults can’t learn languages, it’s just not true.  I learned to speak Chinese in my 40’s and  Italian in my 50’s.  And it’s a myth that we don’t learn languages like children; the mechanism is very similar. But as children, we were blessed with the perfect environment, surrounded by adults who nurtured us, where we learned what to say to get what we wanted, with lots of positive reinforcement- and time.  You could call it “intense immersion!”

Language experts agree that the key to language learning (again, think of learning as a child), is to start with “significant input”.  That means when you hear something you feel is important, something relevant, it’s much, much easier to learn.  

Let’s address the process with red wine.  If you’re immersed in a foreign culture with a goal to improve your language skills, and your favorite adult beverage is red wine, you can bet that you’ll learn how to order red wine, how to pay for it, thank the service people for it, the names of the local varietals, how to ask for it in grocery stores; the list goes on and on, all in the local language, because it’s significant TO YOU, it’s relevant.  

And  when you’re immersed in the culture, many words and expressions become significant to you because you have to speak to get what you want- just like a toddler!  This doesn’t happen when you’re surrounded by English speakers.

And what about grammar?  Of course it’s necessary to learn grammar, but it can be mixed in with the conversational practice as needed.  For example, if you only know the present tense but you’re asked to explain what you did over the weekend, well, it’s time to start learning the past tense, because you’ll want to!  

Some Personal Examples:

People often ask how I learned to speak many foreign languages and, while the journey wasn’t difficult, it did require some time for life and learning.  But it would have never happened had I stuck to the slow and frustrating path of group learning.

My particular journey wasn’t at all planned!  When I first signed up to study German in high school, I had no idea that my personal life, professional career, pastime, passion, and now business venture would lead me through a process of exploring foreign languages and cultures while becoming somewhat of an expert in them.

I didn’t grow up speaking a foreign language at home.  I studied German in high school, and I even joined a summer study abroad program in Germany.  I studied German at university and completed another summer study abroad program.  I even graduated from the University of Kansas with a B.A. in German- but I still couldn’t speak the language!  

My study abroad programs in Germany were a great time, but I was interacting with other American students, so of course we spoke English together most of the time.  Several years later I was working in the travel business as a Tour Manager and had the chance to spend two consecutive summers in Germany, immersed in the culture, working and conversing with the locals; and I finally became conversational, you could say fluent.  But the whole process took me over 10 years, and I knew there had to be a better way.

A few years later I found myself in love with a young woman from Mexico City who eventually became my wife.  Now, armed with motivation, I moved to Mexico City and in 10 months I learned to speak Spanish better than I had ever spoken German after 10 years’ effort.  Why?  Immersion!  I lived in the culture, with a private language tutor (not my fiancée), and had no choice other than to sink or swim!  I had to speak Spanish well enough to make it through the day, to get what I wanted and needed.  And it worked!

Upon my arrival in Mexico City, rather than enrolling in a group Spanish Language course, I hired a private, one on one, experienced Spanish teacher with whom I would meet for two hours a day, Monday through Friday.  My teacher, Estela, walked me through the Mexican courtship playbook, the Mexican family playbook, Mexican history and culture, and, of course, the language required to interact in all aspects of Mexican life.

But it was more than just for survival and to enhance our courtship; I wanted the locals to get to know me.  I especially needed to learn to be myself in Spanish, meaning my energy, my wit, my sarcasm, learning to tell jokes, speaking sincerely with her parents and siblings, building friendships, etc.  This all seemed painful at the time, but it actually happened naturally and relatively quickly.    

There is nothing more RELEVANT and USEFUL than vocabulary and expressions that allow your true personality to shine through!  With respect to grammar, when you have the need to communicate relevant and useful information, you also have the desire to do so correctly; so grammar becomes a necessity and much easier to learn. So, Estela brought out the grammar workbooks and we got to it!

Making Small Steps, Advancing in the Language Learning Process:

A big turning point in language learning is when you master- or at least, complete- your first foreign language transaction.  I remember my first complete transaction in German like it was yesterday, although it occurred during my study abroad program on my first trip to Europe when I was 17 years old.  This may well have been the point at which I became convinced of the power of language learning.  Quite a rush came over me after I successfully completing the transaction 100% in German!

It happened in the touristic center of West Berlin, as it was known at the time.  My high school German teacher had recommended a famous German cologne called “4711”, or “Siebenundvierzig elf”, in German (in Truman Capote’s novel, “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” Holly Golightly wears 4711 cologne!). I had wanted to take home a gift to my mother, so long before approaching the kiosk where I suspected I would find it, I repeated the dialogue over and over in my head; I was hoping whoever was manning the kiosk would not respond in English as they so often did.  

I got up the nerve to walk up to the kiosk and asked the pretty blond behind the counter, “Haben Sie 4711?” (Do you have 4711?).  She happily responded, “Ya, habe ich!” (Yes, I have it!). “Wieviel kostet das?” (How much is it?), and she told me, I paid, and then we said our goodbyes.  Walking away I felt like Superman to have completed the entire transaction in German! (Later I reviewed my trip diary and in the words of a 17 year-old Kansas boy, “I felt great after I left. I wish I could have done more of this.”)

Now, I’m sure she spoke English, given her job in a busy tourist area, but I had practiced enough that she noticed my confidence and determination and spoke to me only in German! But why did I practice and why was I was I so confident?

Because it was relevant and necessary to purchase my mother a gift…THAT was the major difference between what I learned while immersed in the culture and what I had learned in school.  

But during these study abroad programs, seldom was I truly immersed in the culture, although I did enjoy a great sightseeing tour of Germany with my new American friends!

Conclusion

People say that I have a gift for languages, but the reality is that I struggled to learn my first foreign language just like everyone else; and I couldn’t speak it well even after receiving a degree in German!  When it comes to learning foreign languages in the U.S., we just don’t do it right.  Learning languages through recordings, like Rosetta Stone, just doesn’t work!  Group study is too slow and you get very little practice.  You can always travel to a foreign country on a group tour and make friends, but you’ll speak English 95% of the time.

What worked for me will work for you as it has for many Americans.  Personal language instruction, one on one, with a professional language instructor experienced in teaching adults, living in an actual neighborhood in one of the world’s great cities; and cultural interaction, fun and interesting activities that will ensure you get immersed and actually practice the language are what work.  And while living like a local, you will also create those lifelong memories and live those unique experiences.

If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”
‒Nelson Mandela

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