An introduction to learning a foreign language through immersion

Language learning by immersion

There are several approaches to learning a language. In this entry, I would like to talk about immersion.

When people talk about immersion, they often refer to international schools or classes in which part of the curriculum is delivered entirely in a second language. If started early enough, beginning by telling or listening to stories, or playing games in the language, young students are adequately equipped to develop bilingualism. Their young brain is more malleable when it comes to processing new sounds and vocabulary; they will be more susceptible to pronounce their new language without any trace of an accent. Enabling students to deal with complicated concepts in a foreign language prepares them for higher education or employment in foreign or multicultural environments.

But there is another way to learn a language by immersion – be it complemented or not by formal classes – and that would be to move abroad, in  a land where your target language is spoken.

There are different ways of doing it: younger people can spend a holiday with a family or go on an exchange program with their schools. Here, in Europe, with the development of programs like Erasmus, there has never been such a movement of students across the continent, spending the last year of their BA abroad, being teaching assistants, getting enrolled for PhD in dynamic research centers… Some are expats, moving for prolonged holidays or for employment reasons, while others, like me, have joined a volunteering program.

All of these people may not have the comfort of a classroom to practice their language skills. Depending on their daily environment, they may have to depend on their target language or at least English as a communication tools. Here are a couple of tips that could help.

The power of absorption

Think about people in the Nordic countries, who understand English so well. Fair enough, they may have strong accents, but their mastery of the language is impressive. But ask yourself how it came about. Was it particularly successful language classes, or constant exposure to non-dubbed American and British TV-shows? Scandinavians also like to travel around and, considering that their languages are not very commonly spoken, they need to turn to English to make themselves understood. This passive exposure to English gives them amazing skills without having to rely on a lot of formal education, as the process functions as an absorption.

Let it go!

Being immersed in a foreign language is like learning how to swim. All your bearings are lost and it kicks off your survival instinct. You become more resourceful, while learning practical vocabulary that you use everyday, before building up on that. Of course, without prompts learned by heart in a classroom, knowing how to begin a conversation can be tricky. People often joke that starting to speak in a foreign language is best done while drunk. It all boils down to inhibitions. In other words, let go! Remember that we all make mistakes. Log on to Livemocha’s blog to read some funny mistakes we have made. Yours truly once mistook the word “gravy” for the word “gravel” when she was talking about the trail she went hiking on…

By the way, the picture on top of this page shows me singing the poems of Jakob Sande in a little Norwegian café. I dared!

Build up vocabulary

Once you start being able to understand “niche” programs like political broadcasts or scientific documentaries, you will notice recurrent vocabulary and phrases, and reading on those themes will reinforce what you have heard. For example, here in Norway, I log on to the NRK radio online and listen to Politisk kvarter, a 15-minute daily political program. The representatives who are invited talk about current issues that I will be able to read about in the newspapers. If they use a word I cannot spell, chances are that I’ll pick it up later in Aftenposten. This is a good example of (double) contextual exposure.

Cultural communication

Spending time abroad will give you the advantage of learning nuances and idiomatic expressions that are not always taught in a classroom. Picking up a regional accent or a dialect is a very good incentive to travel. You will learn to speak like a native and not like stock characters in a school book.

Immersion helps you communicate, learn the non-linguistic components of a form of communication, like facial expressions or even silences. It is a form of language learning that is turned towards other people and is dependent on their existence and willingness to communicate.

Of course, few people will get immersed in a language and pick it up entirely by ear or by reading the newspaper without backing up their learning by formal exercises and activities, but we will cover this aspect in the next blog entry.

What about you? Have you ever learned a language by immersion?

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