Not everyone can pick up and move to China or Taiwan for a year or a month or even a week—if only it were that easy!
Yet there’s really something special about traveling and entering a complete immersion environment when it comes to language learning. You get to be so surrounded by the language that you can barely escape.
So, how do you get that experience without paying international airfare?
Here are 15 ideas for creating an immersion environment at home.
This list is also by no means exhaustive. Once you start thinking creatively about how you can have as many interactions—both virtual interactions and interactions with real people—you’ll discover that there really are thousands of permutations for creating an immersion environment at home!
15 Awesome Ways to Create Chinese Immersion at Home
1. Change your smartphone to Chinese.
I did this a long time ago. Instead of saying November 1, your smartphone will now display 11月1日.
This is very annoying to anyone who does not speak Chinese and needs to use your smartphone. But forget about them.
Perhaps you’re not going to learn to discuss Confucian principles with just this hack alone, but it’s great for reinforcing things like dates, times, everyday vocabulary and technology-related vocabulary (which, nowadays, is our everyday vocabulary).
2. Change Google’s default language to Chinese.
Changing the language on Google is a good way to practice words that are related to the internet and computers.
Changing your language to Chinese in Google’s Account Settings means your basic Google text will change, so instead of “images” it says “图片 (tú piàn).” It means that you’re more likely to see results in Chinese.
It also means that your associated Gmail, YouTube and Google + accounts will all be displayed in Chinese. So, be prepared to do some trial-and-error clicking at first!
But just because Google is set to Chinese doesn’t mean you have to search in Chinese—just search for whatever you usually would, in the appropriate language. The only quirk is that sometimes Google thinks you’re in China or Hong Kong and gives you results for some business in Shanghai when you were really looking for a dry cleaner in Chicago.
If you really only want to see your results in English, make sure you go into Search Settings and tell Google your results preferences after changing your Account Settings.
3. Browse (or join) Weibo.
Like to hang out on social media? Why not use that time to practice your Chinese?
If you create an account on Weibo, which is a Twitter-like social media platform popular in China, you can participate in the chatter or just browse through other people’s conversations.
4. Listen to Chinese music.
If you’re going to rock out while you cook or shower, you might as well rock out in Chinese. Singing along with a song can improve your pronunciation, and repeatedly listening to the same song is an especially good way to both practice pronunciation and build your vocabulary.
My personal favorite for listening to music online is Spotify—and they have an extensive collection of Chinese music. You can also look for Chinese music on Youku or YouTube. Here are some singers and specific Chinese songs to check out.
5. Listen to Chinese podcasts.
Are you ready for something a little more challenging? Listening to podcasts in Chinese is a good choice for more advanced learners, and can be a way to really dive in deep to a particular subculture or subject, and learn very specific vocabulary.
It’s also a good way to get connected to Chinese culture. It’s fairly easy to find Chinese podcasts on the iTunes store, and you can listen to them while you walk your dog.
6. Watch videos on FluentU.
One of the best strategies for at-home immersion is through watching videos. You can hear real conversations and listen to how Chinese people use words and phrases in their usual lives.
If you choose your videos wisely, it can also be quite fun.
That’s one of the advantages of watching videos on FluentU—the videos are already curated to be both appropriate for language learners and interesting. FluentU captions these videos and builds engaging flashcard decks, playlists and courses around them, helping you learn vocabulary and grammar concepts from each video.
Don’t just watch videos, use FluentU and get some great reading practice in at the same time.
7. Label objects in your home with Chinese Post-its.
The idea behind immersion is that you can’t escape Chinese anywhere. Labeling things in your home is a great way to remember what a 桌子 (zhuō zǐ- table) is or how to write 窗子 (chuāng zǐ – window).
To get started, check out the Chinese-language sticker set from Vocabulary Stickers. It covers the most common words for everyday items, and the stickers are even conveniently color-coded by tone.
Labeling actual items is a hack for beginning learners, but more advanced learners can place Post-Its of words, phrases, idioms and full sentences they’re trying to learn around the house as well. This way, every time you look in the mirror, there’s a vocabulary word (or something more complex) staring back at you.
8. Talk to your pet (or yourself) in Chinese.
Part of becoming fluent in a language is spending a lot of time speaking the language. You might still be feeling shy about speaking to people—and you might not have a ton of opportunities to speak Chinese in an actual conversation.
If that’s true, it’s important to think creatively about how you can use Chinese and practice making the words come out of your mouth. Tell your 小狗 (xiǎo gǒu – dog) about your day, what you’re making for dinner or vent your frustrations about work. Or just talk to yourself if there’s not a pet around.
Most people already have an ongoing inner dialogue about things they’re thinking and doing—so instead of talking quietly to yourself in your native language, do so out loud in Chinese.
9. Write a journal in Chinese.
Let’s face it: Writing in Chinese is hard but essential. Even if you were to live in China or Taiwan, you probably wouldn’t find yourself writing by hand in Chinese very frequently.
But no matter where you live, you can write a journal in Chinese. Writing in a journal—especially writing in one by hand—is a great way to reinforce and practice your character writing skills, as well as to practice vocabulary.
An added benefit is that the vocabulary you’re practicing likely includes words that are useful to you personally, since you’ll mainly be describing your activities and your hopes and dreams.
10. Follow a recipe in Chinese.
Cooking from a recipe in Chinese is a cultural experience. After all, Chinese food is quite different from Western food and the recipes aren’t written in the same way as Western recipes.
It’s also an interesting linguistic exercise, especially because there’s a number of culinary terms that are difficult to translate into English.
Cooking authentic Chinese food—even at home in your native country—is a great way to practice your Chinese and get some of the cultural benefits of immersion. Here’s one place to start when looking for recipes.
11. Go to events at the local Confucius Institute.
If you live in a medium-sized or larger city, chances are good that there’s a Confucius Institute associated with one of the local universities. I’ve been to Autumn Festival celebrations and a discussion of the legacy at Deng Xiaoping at my Confucius Institute—which is just to say that there’s a huge variety of activities.
These events attract local people in the Chinese community, teachers at the Confucius Institute and non-Chinese people who, like you, are interested in Chinese language and culture.
12. Go to a religious service at a Chinese-language church.
Want to really immerse yourself in the local Chinese community? Find out if there are Chinese-language churches or places of worship. A religious service is a great language experience—it’s all about reading and listening, right?
Before and after the service, you’ll likely meet people who will be more than happy to talk to you. They might be curious to know why you’re attending their place of worship, but in a welcoming, positive way.
13. Read a Chinese-language local newspaper.
Let’s just be honest—there are times when you don’t want to read the paper on your computer screen. You want something you can hold in your hand and spill coffee on.
If there’s much of a Chinese community at all in your city, chances are good that there’s a Chinese-language newspaper around too.
The only potential pitfall is that most Chinese-language newspapers in the United States are written in traditional characters—but that’s only a drawback for some learners.
14. Shop at a Chinese market.
You’re going to need some supplies to follow those recipes you’ve found in Chinese, and where better to buy them than a Chinese market? This can be as much or as little of a language experience as you want it to be.
If you’re looking to maximize your language benefit, strike up a conversation with the shopkeeper or with other customers. In my experience, Chinese markets are full of things to be curious about. Simply asking what something is or how to use it is a great way to get to know the shopkeeper—and to practice your language skills!
15. Check out a library book in Chinese.
I love libraries. My local library has books for babies in Chinese and literature in Chinese and everything in between. Find a book that seems interesting and tackle it. There’s a bonus here—libraries have a ton of other events.
I recently discovered that there’s a weekly Chinese-language children’s storytime at one of the libraries in my hometown. You bet that’s the next immersion activity for me.
Did reading through all 15 ideas get you ready and raring to go with even more creative immersion methods?
This is really just a start, a way for you to start thinking outside the box about how to create immersion environments at home.
I think it’s a good idea to have a mix of things you can do using technology, things you can do with more low-tech methods and some immersion ideas that involve getting out of your house and meeting people. Hopefully you agree!
加油！(jiā yóu – Come on!)
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