Think about how you learned how to ride a bike, swim at the pool or play hoops in your backyard.
Nobody stuck a book under your nose and told you to read about bicycles, swimming or basketball first.
You learned these things through immersion.
In other words, you learned by jumping in and actually doing the activity, and unsurprisingly, this is the best way to learn.
The fundamental concepts of immersion are quite obvious. Learning by immersion is actually something we naturally do without much thought. Most of us learned how to speak our native language because we grew up around people (family, friends, etc.) speaking it around us. We didn’t consciously decide that we were going to immerse ourselves to learn the language, it just happened.
Why Immersion Trumps Conventional Book Learning
A study was done by researchers from Georgetown University Medical Center, where subjects were divided into two groups and were observed using a technique called electroencephalography (or EEG), which measures brain processing along the scalp.
The two groups were both asked to study an artificial language. One group studied the language in a formal classroom setting while the other was trained through immersion.
After five months, the results clearly showed that the immersed group displayed the full brain patterns of a native speaker. This is mind boggling, since 90% of committed language learners are still learning a language using the traditional classroom setting (and paying a premium price for it).
The researchers also concluded that for adult foreign language learners to become as fluent as native speakers, they must think like native speakers.
However, the fundamentals of immersion taught and provided to these study participants are not automatically set up for the rest of us when we try to learn a new language. This is mostly because the location we live in prevents us from being fully immersed in the language every day. Perhaps there is a limited number of people (or absolutely nobody) speaking the language around us. Resources to practice might be hard to come by. Still more important, you might find yourself struggling to make room for language immersion in your daily schedule.
Well, hang tight—here we are going to explore four great ways to become totally immersed in any foreign language of your choice.
4 Daily Ways to Totally Immerse Yourself in a Foreign Language
1. Make it a “need” instead of a “want”
There is a big difference between want and need. While “want” is something that is pretty nice to have, a “need” is something you cannot live without.
“Want” can often be confused for external needs, such as impressing those around you, sounding smart or feeling better about yourself. Meanwhile, a “need” comes from within and serves as intrinsic motivation that is long-lasting and sustainable.
This is extremely important to immersion. Think about how it feels (or how it might feel, if you have not yet had this experience) to be in a foreign country, completely surrounded by a foreign language you do not know. You need to start learning quickly, or you will not be able to eat, find a bathroom, locate your hotel or direct a taxi driver to your destination. To get immersion at home, you need to simulate this level of urgency and importance.
So ask yourself: Why do you “need” to speak your target language?
Then come up with at least three powerful reasons. Dig deep. These should be powerful enough to make you want to take immediate action in learning the language.
Listening to the stories of language learners, here are some powerful stories I have heard people give to back up their language learning goals:
- “Need to be able to communicate with my family members.”
- “Need to speak Spanish to have a deeper connection with my spouse.”
- “Need to teach my child so they can be grounded in their cultural roots, before they forget the language.”
- “Need to learn in order to communicate with my boyfriend’s/girlfriend’s family.”
- “Need to get around safely and avoid being taken advantage of as a foreigner while traveling.”
- “Need to learn in order to have a deeper cultural experience, and make the most of my travel experience.”
- “Need to hear people’s stories and learn about their lives.”
- “Need to learn so I can meet friends without worrying about being alone.”
- “Need to study abroad to complete my major and find a worthwhile career that I love.”
- “Need to expand my knowledge because the world is becoming globalized with international business opportunities.”
- “Need to learn a second language to improve your resume for career advancement and additional opportunities.”
- “Need to work with clients who speak the foreign language, or I’ll be out of a job.”
2. Absorb all information in your target language
Start by making a list of all the information you absorb throughout the day, from the moment you wake up to hitting the sheets for bed time.
Here’s what this might look like:
- You wake up, turn off the alarm on your smartphone and quickly check up on messages.
- You turn on your computer and read emails or open up your social media profiles to see what’s happening.
- You read a printed (or digital) newspaper over breakfast, on your commute or at work.
- You listen to radio in the car or a podcast while you walk around town.
- You get home after work and watch movies or TV shows, or you browse Netflix for a while.
- While at the gym, cooking or in the shower, you listen to your favorite music.
That is a lot of language input! Seems like a waste to have that all in English, does it not?
Now think of how you can change everything into the target language you want to learn.
- Change your smartphone’s language setting.
- Change your computer’s language settings and enable a foreign keyboard layout.
- Find your favorite news source in your target language, or find a new newspaper from a country where the target language is spoken.
- Stream live radio broadcasts and download podcasts in the target language.
- Watch movies on Netflix with foreign language audio and English subtitles.
- Rock out to popular songs in your target language (i.e. “Vivir Mi Vida” – Marc Anthony for Spanish learners!)
Some changes will be small at first, but these changes accumulate into providing an immersive experience for you as time passes.
The key to this strategy is that you do not go out of your way to immerse yourself in activities that you normally do not do. Follow your daily routine to the minute, but just change the language setting on your life.
This means that if you do not like reading newspapers, you will not go out of your way to read them. If you enjoy watching movies, continue to watch the movies you enjoy (do not even change the genre) and use tools like Netflix to listen in the foreign audio with subtitles. If you love authentic, real-world video content in foreign languages, try using FluentU to track down great videos and learn actively from them with interactive subtitles and fun, varied learning exercises.
Forcing yourself to do something you do not already enjoy is one of the fastest ways to stop your learning journey, because your brain will quickly come to associate the foreign language with negative, boring and arduous experiences, rather than positive ones.
MosaLingua, which offers apps for learning Spanish, Italian, French, German and Portuguese, gives you access through its web app to a specially-selected library of native materials for learners, such as e-books and websites, which you can browse through with the aid of a translator tool. You can even save words and phrases you don’t recognize as flashcards and review them later.
Of course, if you are just starting to learn, this all may seem confusing for you at first. But as you accelerate your learning journey with a professional coach (or another method) you will start to make out a few words, then a few sentences, and before you know it, you will begin to understand a good portion of the foreign language information you are absorbing.
3. Keep a journal (or blog)
This may seem to be mainly beneficial for your writing skills, but improving your writing skills (in any language) will help you become a more effective communicator in both written and oral forms.
If you already have a daily or weekly journal you write in, continue to write with the same frequency, but do it in your target foreign language.
If you do not keep a journal, then buy a blank one and start writing on a weekly basis. Then you can gradually increase the frequency as you feel more comfortable with the process. You can write about anything, including how you feel, what you are most excited about, what you plan to do today and what you have learned.
If you would like more of a structure, you can borrow the five minute journal format. It is easy! When you wake up, take five minutes to answer:
- Three things you are most grateful for today.
- What will make today great?
- I am… (something positive, for example: happy, strong, fearless, intelligent, a supportive friend, a great boyfriend/girlfriend, an entrepreneur, etc.)
Then at night before you head to bed, answer:
- Three amazing things that happened today (and why).
- How could I have made today even better?
*Feel free to adjust the questions as you wish. No length limit.
The best part about following the five minute journal format is that you will not only improve your language skills, but you will feel happier, more grateful and more excited to explore your feelings about language learning and beyond. This will help keep you in the right frame of mind to keep learning.
4. Work with a professional or a partner
Language is learned with people and used with people. That is its main purpose. This means that immersion in language learning does not happen alone.
For most of us who are not living in a foreign country, this leaves us with two options:
- Find someone who speaks the foreign language (and wants to learn your native language) and try to help each other out by spending half the time speaking one language and the other half speaking the other. This is known as a conversation exchange, and it can be highly beneficial.
- Work with a qualified teacher online. Find someone who is professional, trained and 100% dedicated to helping you succeed.
In summary, the biggest differences between the two comes down to money and time.
Pros: You can make friends from around the world, and it is completely free!
Cons: Your partner is a native speaker but not a professional educator.
Conversation exchanges require some time investment on your part. It can take a significant amount of time to find the right partner—someone who is fluent in your target language and wants to learn your language. You also want someone who has a personality that meshes nicely with your own, who is in a location/time zone that is convenient for both of you and who has good time availability.
From there, scheduling and keeping a consistent schedule to practice is also a burden at times, and from personal experience it is rarely sustainable. Language partners tend to come and go, as people’s lives, availability and levels of interest and commitment change. Of course, there is always a chance you will find a great, long-term practice partner, and maybe even someone you can stay with when you visit their home country (and vice versa).
You also have to keep in mind that 50% of your time needs to be dedicated to helping the other person. So in a 60-minute session, you are actually practicing your target language for only 30 minutes.
Lastly, your conversation exchange is a native speaker, not a professional trained to help give you proper feedback, correct all your mistakes, provide clear and thorough explanations for language lessons and guide you to the fastest ways of learning the language. But you never know—you might get lucky and find a partner who’s capable of doing exactly that!
Pros: Often leads to faster learning, saved time and better guaranteed accountability and success on your part.
Cons: This costs money, and you will not necessarily be building friendships with people.
Working with a professional teacher allows you to receive 100% attention focused on helping you succeed, seamless scheduling experience to guarantee you availability when you are free, immediate feedback and constant accountability.
We have seen that working with a professional will not only save you from wasting time by accelerating your learning speed, but you can focus on what matters in your life, whether it is your work, family or your hobbies, instead of coordinating schedules and spending extra time teaching your native language to someone else.
Following these action steps, immersion can happen at the comforts of your own home.
All it takes is a little creativity, dedication and help from a native speaker or language coach.
So now you have no excuse to wait until tomorrow—you can start getting immersed in a foreign language right now!
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