Language Immersion Why it’s the Fastest way to Learn

Language immersion is and will remain the fastest way to learn a language.  I recently came back from Switzerland and an re-enthused about language as a fantastic learning experience.  while I was away, I was complemented many times on my German (I speak high German and understand most Swiss dialects and some French) even though I hadn’t spoken much in several years.  I learnt a base level at primary school, which got me pronunciation early, but very limited conversational skills.  Then I went on exchange. 3 months was enough to get me up to fluency through language immersion.

What is Language Immersion?

Language immersion is putting yourself into the language you want to learn 100%.  Hear it, read it, speak it, think it, dream it (it is cool to dream in another language).  The best way is to be in the country and learn it there, but there are also language immersion courses which are improving now.  Another way is with books, audio programs, movies and practice.  The idea is that you simply spend as much of your time as possible only thinking and working in your new language.  Importantly, while you are doing this, you try to avoid your mother tongue.

What I learned on my last language trip

Once you know a language, it may take a week or so to regain fluency, but it comes back quickly. Even if you haven’t spoken for years, you start learning new words immediately too.

On this trip, I had the kids, and my goal was to get them fluent.  What I noticed is that even with being in the country, they learned slower than I expected because they had continual English around them (initially from me and from each other).  What this taught me is the immersion means immersion.  You need to dive into the language, and you need to also avoid your native tongue as much as possible.  If there is an easy way out, then it is just too easy to switch back.  Part way though our trip I switched to German with the children to give them an extra boost.

I believe a key reason why so many language courses fail to make good progress is that teachers continually switch back to English, to explain things (like grammar).  Continually switching means it turns into a study class rather than an absorption class and therefore takes years longer to make progress.

Immersion Technique, Children and Learning new Knowledge

Immersion is the way that children learn language, in fact, it is the way young children learn everything.  But as they learn more, it is natural to begin associating new knowledge with old knowledge. This is good for learning many things because you can slot new knowledge into your existing frame of reference.  Unfortunately, a language is such a big chunk of new knowledge that it doesn’t really fit well with existing knowledge, and is best learnt from scratch without trying to link it too much to an existing language.  It is faster and easier to link them later and this is a separate skill that you need if you want to translate between languages.  I’ve done this, and know that it is a different skill, because it was so tiring.  Children need their sleep, and just the same, if it makes you tired, you know you are learning a lot.

Think of learning a new language like putting a jigsaw together… Start anywhere you can.  Some parts will be easier (like corners), doing it with someone is good, eventually, it will all fall into place, so have faith.

Ways to immerse yourself in a language

  • Firstly keep in mind that when you are studying your new language, you are only studying that.  Try not to use English (or your native language)
  • Even if you don’t understand the words, just listen or read them and repetition will help them fall into place.
  • Reading books is a great way to learn a language
  • Avoid dictionaries and grammar explanations completely until you can understand the explanations in your new language.
  • Specifically look to have massive exposure through one method (eg language immersion, reading or audio program) but also ensure you get exposure to multiple learning modes eg read a book, then read out loud for a bit then listen to an audio program then do some speaking then watch a movie.

Language immersion benefits

  • Coincidence really helps.  It is amazing how when you have just heard a new word,it seems to keep popping up as if to reinforce your knowledge.
  • Humor is a great way to remember things.  When you are learning a language imersively, you will make funny mistakes.  These are gold for learning languages (immersion or other ways).
  • Multi-modal exposure speeds progress for a similar reason as humor. It gives dimension and context to your vocabluary
  • Focus is good for anything.  It would be tougher learning geography and maths at the same time, so avoid 2 languages at the same time and focus on only one language.
  • Repetition is required to learn most things.  It’s a simple fact, and immersion in a language gives you repetition on a mass scale.
  • Progress using language immersion is faster than with other methods, and when you make progress, you get encouraged to learn more.  It gets faster and faster.

So language immersion is the fastest way to learn a language.  Immersion is even better than intensive courses which are expensive.  We have had several exchange students stay with us to learn English.  Some have attended intensive language courses and others have not.  I would say that there is minimal difference in their language progress, both ways are good, but travelling to a daily class was probably unnecessary because language immersion is so effective.