Many people suggest language immersion is the best way to learn a language, and I would agree it can be very effective, but it’s important to know why. Having previously explored the reasons behind when language immersion does not work (mainly that we stay trapped in our native language bubble and don’t put in the effort), now it’s time to take a look at what happens when is does work.
Having experienced language immersion in both Spain and France, I’ve thought a lot about what makes this method effective. There are several attributes that come in to play, but the nature of the immersion environment is important. To explain, I’ll use an analogy …
Language immersion is like going to the gym
Learning to speak another language is like a lot like building a new muscle in your brain. If you want to build a muscle in your body, a great place to go might be the gym. There are weights everywhere, you are surrounded by other people lifting weights, and it’s easier to focus on lifting weights. Surrounding yourself with all the tools you need can make it more likely to actually lift weights. But it doesn’t do the work for you. You still have to go to the gym everyday and lift weights. How many people buy gym passes and eventually never use them? Or go to the gym and don’t really get anything done? And going to the gym is not the only successful way people build muscles, right?
Similarly, being immersed in another language and culture, puts you in an environment where you are more likely to succeed because you have the language is all around you, everybody else is doing it, and there are less distractions / more incentive to focus on learning the language. These are great advantages to help you learn a language. But just like the gym, it doesn’t do the work for you. And similarly, it’s not the only way.
Here we’ll explore in more detail the essential features of this gym-like immersion environment, which in turn can be used to better understand how you can reach your language fluency goals no matter where you are.
1. Continual exposure
When learning a language you need to stay with it. Language immersion is good for this because the language remains all around you, and at any point during they day, you may come across it or be forced to use it, so it will keep it fresh in your mind. Keeping with our gym analogy, it’s like looking around and seeing all the weights makes you think about exercising and makes you more inclined to use them. Also when you’re learning, you need constant reinforcement to help things stick in your memory. Even after you’ve learned the language, the longer you shelf it, the more of it you will loose. I’ve even heard of people who traveled for so long in another country they started loosing their aspects of their mother tongue! Just like going to the gym once and lifting weights won’t likely have lasting effects, you must be continually exposed to the language in order to keep it fresh and memorable.
2. Speaking with native speakers in real conversations
Having real conversations with native speakers is much more difficult than classroom learning. If you only learn Spanish in a controlled environment like the classroom, you may find yourself, like I did, completely lost in the real Spanish-speaking world. In real life people will use words and expressions you don’t understand, they will not speak slower for you, and you will do all this while trying to cultivate some kind of rapport or relationship with someone i.e. feeling self-conscious. Even words you know from class, you may not recognize when spoken by a native speaker in a real-life situation. By being exposed to the real deal, you know what it means to speak the language, and how far you have to go to be able to communicate.
3. There’s no other way out
Nothing succeeds unless you remain motivated, and nothing is more motivating than necessity. When you really need something, you are forced to communicate in the language, no matter where you are or how well you speak. Furthermore, you’re motivated to learn because the more you learn, the easier your life becomes, the easier it is to go grocery shopping, the easier it is to meet people, and even build meaningful relationships. It’s not about passing some test – this is your life!
These three attributes are the most distinct advantages of using the language immersion environment for learning a second language. Getting back to our analogy, even if you go to the gym, there is still work to do once you get there, because just going to the gym doesn’t automatically mean you build muscle. You still have to lift weights, and there are specific techniques involved making muscle building more effective and efficient.