4 Hacks for Learning a Language Through Immersion Without Breaking the Bank
Complete language immersion is within your grasp.
You have the ability to learn a language by being immersed in it, whenever and wherever you want.
Whether you aren’t able to go abroad or whether you already are in a foreign land, these tips will still help you.
So stay where you are, and read on.
- What Is Language Immersion, Exactly?
- The 10,000-hour Rule
- 4 Hacks for Learning a Language Through Immersion Without Breaking the Bank
What Is Language Immersion, Exactly?
I’m sure we’ve all heard the term thrown around quite a bit and are familiar with it, but its popular meaning has changed quite a bit from its original meaning.
While you might think of language immersion as actually living in a country where they speak the language you’re learning, the term was actually originally intended to describe classrooms where the target language (the language being learned) was used exclusively.
Language immersion from the very beginning has been about learning a language outside of its spoken areas.
Let’s focus on that for a minute, because it’s really important. Language immersion is just using the language you want to learn all the time.
Somehow, we’ve come to think of living in a foreign country as some sort of mystical experience, whereby the language will creep into our brains and slowly grow itself, like some sort of beneficial tapeworm.
First of all, gross.
Secondly, the truth is that to learn a language you just have to practice. And immersion, whether at home or abroad, is one way to do a lot of that quickly.
The 10,000-hour Rule
You may already be familiar with the 10,000-hour rule popularized by Malcolm Gladwell. It’s come under a lot of flak lately, but the research on neither side is definitive, so I think it still serves as a handy guideline.
Basically, the rule says that if you study something intensively for 10,000 hours, you’ll have a good shot at being a pro. Language is no different. Study for 10,000 hours, no matter where you’re living, and you’ll be at the top of the heap.
But never forget that these 10,000 hours have to be focused. If it’s not difficult, you’re probably not learning. Watching 10,000 hours of anime with the subtitles turned on has, I think it’s safe to say, produced no masters of Japanese listening skills.
This is why you should carefully form a detailed plan, allocating a certain number of hours each day to the four main skills: speaking, listening, reading and writing.
Some time should also be set aside just for nailing down grammar and vocab.
While everyone wants to emphasize different things in their learning, it’s a good idea to be well-rounded. Working on one skill set will reinforce what you’ve learned in another.
But what should you actually do? And how can you really achieve total immersion?
4 Hacks for Learning a Language Through Immersion Without Breaking the Bank
1. Technology: It’s changed everything
Well sure, you might say. That sounds great, but language is a different kind of knowledge. You have to speak to people and most of the people you need to speak to live far, far away.
And yes, many of them will most likely live far, far away from you. But that’s starting to matter less and less.
Common pieces of technology that you use every day can be repurposed for language learning.
For example, your iPod or iPhone can easily be converted into a handy listening immersion tool. All you have to do is take a movie or television series and convert it into an audio file.
Then, when you’re out walking around, turn on the file and disappear into a world of foreign sounds. Continually finding new files and converting them might be a bit time-consuming, but it’s worth it to have your surroundings take on the tones of a distant language.
There’s also the option of using a virtual immersion program for a bit more guidance and help locating material. FluentU, for example, bases its language lessons on culturally-relevant videos pulled from all kinds of authentic mass media. It offers videos like movie clips, music videos and new segments in 10 different languages.
FluentU also has interactive subtitles and review quizzes so you can follow what’s being said and remember it afterwards. The subtitles let you click on any word to see a definition or save it as a flashcard, while the quizzes are personalized, displaying questions based on your progress with every word.
The FluentU program gives you a chance to practice listening, writing, reading and even speaking. And since it’s available as an iOS or Android app, you can continue your immersion learning from anywhere.
Speaking is probably the hardest skill to practice when you’re not living in a country where the language you want to learn is spoken, but by having online language partners it suddenly becomes possible to get speaking practice anywhere and at any time.
If you’re looking to connect with native speakers, there’s a long list of websites that now offer language exchanges online.
Some websites, like Livemocha, will even help your language exchange along by offering guided conversations.
There are similar platforms for writing. Take Lang-8, for instance. Here you can submit a piece of your writing in whatever language you like and have it corrected by a native speaker. All you have to do in return is correct someone else’s writing in a language you speak.
2. Letting the people come to you
Globalization. For better or worse, it seems like it’s here to stay. For language learners, this is undoubtedly a blessing.
In both the USA and the UK, there are significant pockets of recent immigrants and long-established ethnic communities that continue to speak a foreign language.
Of course, some languages will be easier to find than others. Obviously, if you live in the United States and you want to speak Spanish, the odds are pretty good that you can find someone to speak with.
But don’t rule out the less common languages! I’m currently living in Prague in the Czech Republic, but I’ve managed to meet dozens of Japanese people.
Oftentimes, you just need to meet one speaker of the language you’re learning and they’ll connect you to a whole community of speakers of that language.
One of the easiest ways to find these groups, if you’re not already in the know about a local ethnic community, is to go looking for local foundations or cultural centers.
For example, for Japanese there’s the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center as well as the Japan Foundation operating inside the USA.
Others examples include the National Hispanic Cultural Center, the Goethe Institut and the Korea Foundation.
While you’re at it, be sure to hit up your local universities for any cultural clubs or international exchange programs they might run. If you can speak their language at all, study abroad students will happily befriend you and help you out in exchange for help with their English.
3. Your very own immersion mindset
If you have the right mindset, you can live anywhere and learn a language.
If you have the wrong mindset, even living in the deep Siberian wilderness surrounded by country folk who’ve never heard a word of English won’t help you learn Russian.
Many an expat has lived years outside of their home country without learning much more than “Hello” and “Thank you” in the language of their new country, relying solely on English or a native spouse to translate for them.
So if that mindset is what we want to avoid, what mindset should we have?
Well, we should start with a “no English” language pledge.
This is famously used by the Middlebury College immersion program, but it’s something you can do by yourself. If you work or have one of many other legit reasons for being unable to spend all day every day avoiding English, then choose clear goals that are challenging but not impossible to accomplish, like setting aside four hours each day to read, write, speak listen and even think in another language.
Don’t forget the last item on that list.
Being able to internalize a foreign language is incredibly important to learning languages and learning them well.
If you want to have an immersion mindset, then naturally that mindset should be in your new language.
4. Letting the immersion come to you
If you do want to go all out and have the classical immersion experience but still can’t quite find a way to make it abroad, there are numerous language immersion programs that can be found throughout the U.S. and elsewhere.
While many of these immersion programs are intended for younger learners, there are also some for adults.
The program at Middlebury College in Vermont, already mentioned above, is particularly well-known and has a long track record of having students take a “no English” pledge for their time at the school.
You can also check out your local universities to see if they have any public immersion classes up for offer.
This type of classical immersion experience would undoubtedly be beneficial for any language learner.
But remember, if you put in the effort, you can flip your everyday life inside out, leaving English safely tucked away for only when it’s really needed.
All you need is motivation, a computer, some adventurous friends and a new way of thinking.