In How to Learn a Second Language

When Language Immersion Doesn’t Work

Everyone talks about immersion being the best way to learn a language, but it’s not a guarantee.  It’s just one of many tools and options to learn a language, and there are ways that it can go wrong and you end up not learning a language. You must stay motivated, exposed to the language, and know how to practice efficiently.

It may surprise you to know that it is entirely possible, even mildly common, for people to move to another country and not learn the language. This is especially true if you’re staying for just a month or two, but I’ve met people that have been in a country 10 years and never learned the language.

If you end up taking on an immersion experience, don’t underestimate that work you will need to do. There are some unique challenges involved when you move yourself to another country, and it’s good to be aware of some of these potential pitfalls that can impede your progress.

1. Experiencing culture shock at the same time

The immersion experience is a fantastic experience, but it is not only about learning.  Picking up an moving somewhere else has all sorts of additional challenges including navigating the city and daily life, meeting people, and how to occupying your time and get settled in your new surroundings.  While learning a language may be a priority, it’s not something you can do every minute of the day.  In addition, from a mental aspect, if you are having trouble navigating your new surroundings, it’s harder to stay focused on learning the language and taking advantage of all that immersion language learning has to offer.

2. Meeting locals is difficult

Meeting people can be difficult no matter where you are – foreign country or not.  Now add to that being in a brand new place, with a different culture, where you don’t speak the language (very well).  The easiest people to meet are those who have a natural curiosity towards foreigners.  Those who are not used to being around foreigners may just find you weird and strange.  Furthermore, it takes patience on their part to speak with someone who doesn’t speak their language very well, and someone whom they can’t joke with and really be themselves. And unless you’re in school, you don’t always have an easy way to interact with local people other than at the bar.

3. The Expat Bubble is enticing

Now that you’ve found yourself in a foreign country enjoying all these new experiences, guess who are the people that can share and understand what you’re going through the best? Other expats! And it’s so easy with them.  Being part of the expat community is usually an interesting and fun group to be around. While they can make you feel more at home and help you navigate the pitfalls of a new and foreign culture, they are less likely to help you improve your language skills.

4. English is very common almost everywhere

Luckily and unluckily for you, English is becoming the “lingua franca” or the common language for international communication. Especially in the big cities of Europe, you can find many locals who have at least rudimentary English. And because English is so popular, even some locals that you meet will be interested in hanging out with you because they want to practice their English!  And if their English is substantially better than your foreign language skills, you may find yourself in the habit of mainly speaking English together.

4. The learning part is not substantially easier

If there’s one element that impacts your key to success at learning a language it’s that it takes work. It’s possible to learn a language in any environment, with just about any set of resources, depending on the effort that you put in.  That experience can be enhanced by immersion through being more efficient and interesting, and thus motivating, but still requires us to put in effort in learning. And effort is best put into the type of practice that helps you make progress . What doesn’t work is just showing up and expecting that you will learn by some form of osmosis.  If you like this strategy, you’d be better off saving yourself the plane ticket and try putting your language book under your pillow at night instead, as you will likely return a similarly ineffective result.

5. You still have to go out and get uncomfortable

To expose yourself to the language and the culture, even when you’re in the country, requires substantial effort.  Sometimes it’s uncomfortable for people who aren’t used to do so.  It’s not something you may do in your own country – reach out to others.  And since internet is everywhere you can find yourself alone in your room talking to friends or family from home and watching TV or working in English.

6. Your need a high enough level to be able to interact

While immersion is great, it is most useful for reinforcing what you have already learned as opposed to learning new things.  In most cases even with an intermediate level, you will struggle to understand native speakers. This is why we also don’t recommend traveling to a foreign country without first learning basic Spanish.

Also, when immersed in a culture, ear training plays a big role in how you are able to interact. Imagine just listening to Spanish radio all day without having studied any Spanish.  It will not teach you Spanish.  What it will do is help you recognize particular words and sounds.  But this assumes you know what words your looking for.  This is why material with subtitles where you can go back and hear what you missed is an essential type of practice, to help you follow a conversation.


So, failing to learn the language is not difficult to do – make a few expat friends, find a job teaching English or in an English-speaking company, and watch American T.V. shows on your computer at night and it can almost feel like you never left home!  When these things happen, learning the language doesn’t become a necessity, which means you need additional motivation. In addition, you still need to study and practice on your own to take advantage of your language immersion surroundings.

Having covered the case when immersion doesn’t work, in the next post we look at when language immersion does work (or at least the aspects that make immersion work, even if you’re not in another country), and how you can use this information to speed up your language-learning process.

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