I experienced immersion for the first time when I moved to Japan, almost six years ago.
All of a sudden, I was surrounded by words that meant nothing to me and by symbols that in my mind didn’t make any sense.
The excitement of being in a country I had dreamt of for years kept me going. Everything was new, everything was beautiful or crazy or weird and everything deserved a picture.
A basic knowledge of Japanese, together with my obsessive need to be organised, helped me through the bureaucracy at the start of my new adventure.
At the end of the day, though, I was exhausted. My brain went on strike and wouldn’t collaborate anymore. All I could do was listen to some music, speak to my friends back home in my native Italian, read a book, watch a silly video and go to sleep early.
Immersion in an almost new language for the whole day, not only when I was in school studying, was tiring. After a while, I felt the need to lock Japanese out for a bit.
Soon I met people from the whole world. Breaking the 日本語で話しましょう /nihongo de hanashimashou/, “let’s speak Japanese” rule, we started to use English to get to know each other outside of the class.
Part of me was feeling guilty: I came all the way to Kyoto to improve my Japanese and now I’m hanging out with Swedes and Italians? Shouldn’t I try to make only Japanese friends instead?
In hindsight, taking some time off from Japanese and investing it into making friends was one of the best decisions I took, back then. Without taking a break, finding support and sharing some good laughs, I would have burnt myself out.
Many language learners think of immersion as some sort of magical elixir that gives you effortless fluency. Just move to a country, breathe the same air as the natives and you’ll learn the language by osmosis.
The truth – you don’t say – is a bit more complex. Let’s first have a look at what immersion is, then we’ll try to understand why it’s not easy and finally how we can enjoy its benefits without getting overwhelmed.
What’s immersion, anyway?
Immersion means that you surround yourself with native-level language and you do everything you can in that language. You create for yourself an environment where you are constantly exposed to it, both actively and passively.
This can often happen when you live abroad, but moving to a country doesn’t guarantee you’ll be able to immerse yourself. A lot of people live in the expat bubble and rarely leave it, learning barely a couple of sentences to get by.
It doesn’t mean that you need to be in another country to be in immersion, either. You can make friends (in real life or online), watch television and movies, read the news, write your journal or your shopping list in your target language. This creates an effective immersion environment where you can develop your skills.
What are the benefits of immersion?
It’s hard for a (text)bookworm like me to admit, but we can’t find all of the answers in our grammar exercises. We need to get out there and discover how the real language sounds like, too. This is when immersion comes in handy.
- You learn natural language, the one that the natives speak. To stop sounding like a textbook, nothing is better than learning some slang and idioms or how to understand connected speech.
- You also learn non-verbal communication. When speaking with someone, a lot of information happens through facial expressions, gestures or sounds. These change from a country to the other and you can absorb them by spending time with native speakers.
- And you learn much more than the language. When mingling with native speakers or consuming materials aimed at them, you learn about the country’s culture, habits, traditions. You understand which topics are fine and which are taboo and you get accustomed to the cultural norms. Through a change of perspective, you re-discover your own culture, too.
- You extend your comfort zone and let go of some fears. Creating relationships with people who speak your target language, speaking gets easier bit by bit. For many introverted and anxious learners, this is the hardest thing to do. The best way to get through it is to find someone you’re comfortable with to practice.
What are the limits of immersion?
As I mentioned earlier, you won’t magically learn a language just by being in an immersion environment. While there are people who claim that long exposure to the language, whether you understand what you hear or not, will get you fluent, this is not going to work for most learners.
Immersion needs to go hand in hand with study and with a more traditional approach to language learning.
- It works best from an intermediate level up. When you’re a complete beginner and you don’t understand a word of what you hear or read, exposure isn’t enough. You need to create some solid foundations of grammar and vocabulary to make the most out of your immersion experience. When the language becomes comprehensible and you can produce your own content, then immersion becomes effective.
- Making friends with natives can be hard. There are a lot of differences among cultures, some being more open and some more reserved. It also depends a lot on you and your personality: as a shy introvert, I have trouble making friends in any language. In any case, it’s not easy to find someone who wants to talk with you just because you’re learning their language, especially while you’re a beginner and you can’t hold a conversation. A good way to start is to find someone interested in a language exchange.
- If you’re living abroad, it can get lonely. You’re far away from your family and friends, in a country where you don’t know anyone. Staying positive, looking for a community and staying consistent in your studies is tough when you’re on your own. One can slip into the trap of living in the expat bubble without even realising.
- It’s overwhelming. In many senses, constant immersion in a language that you don’t master yet is draining. It exhausts you and makes you feel like your brain is melting. If you underestimate the fatigue and stress you go through, it can also lead you to a language learning burnout.
So what can you do to have a positive immersion experience and avoid burning yourself out?
Choose your own immersion
Since I moved to Sweden, I’ve been getting exposure to my target language daily.
At home, we speak mostly English, so I can decide when to practice and when to chill. When I’m out, though, it’s impossible to pause the exposure.
Spending the day with my boyfriend’s family in a constant flux of Swedish conversation, for example, keeps my brain stimulated for the whole time. At night, I’m utterly drained.
In the enthusiasm of the first weeks, I’ve been gathering newspapers, binge-watching TV and tried to speak as much Swedish as possible. After a while, though, my head shuts down and won’t let any more information in.
So I started to reduce my immersion time in little bits.
We scheduled 2 days for Swedish at home. We try not to speak English and only watch movies or shows in Swedish.
Outside the house, I avoid English as much as possible. At the restaurant, the supermarket, shops or offices, I stick to Swedish.
With media, I tackle a little bit at a time. I don’t read the newspaper as I would in my native language. I go through the titles, pick one article or two I’m interested in, and try to read and understand only those. Also, I don’t binge-watch TV, but only one episode of a show at a time, then take a break to do something else.
As I get more comfortable with the language and to exposure to it, I increase the language dosage a bit. When my brain starts to go blurry, I take a break.
For those learning in an immersion environment you created at home, limiting it is not going to be difficult. But also those living abroad can give themselves time off by taking a nap, watching a few videos, listening to some music or reading in their native language. Or even dancing through their room like crazy and singing along to their favourite song. This is also a way for introverts to get some quality, refreshing me-time.
Knowing your limits is key. You surely are committed to making progress and the best way to do so is to keep your motivation and enthusiasm alive. Killing them through exhaustion would only make you want to break up with this language.
On Instagram, @aspoonfuloflanguage used an effective analogy: even professional athletes don’t train 24/7. They take time to stretch, rest, nourish their bodies. And we should do the same with our brains to be able to keep strengthening our language learning muscles.
Don’t feel guilty for taking time off. Actually, set yourself reminders to do so.
Nourishing your mind and being kind to yourself is the first step to take for a successful, effective and satisfying immersion experience that won’t break you.
Have you ever learnt a language through immersion, whether abroad or at home? What are the benefits and the limits you noticed? Do you have any tips to deal with the overwhelm that might come with it? Share your thoughts in the comments!