We often hear that one of the best ways to learn a foreign language is by traveling overseas and living in a country for a period of time so we can become immersed. The idea is that if we live in the country where the language that we want to learn is spoken, we’ll be surrounded by the language whether it’s by seeing signs, hearing people talk, maybe having to write using the language, and of course speaking the language with people we come across. It’s true that when we travel, we’re surrounded by a different culture as well as a different language, but can being surrounded by a different language always be called immersion?
According to the Google definition, to immerse means to “involve oneself deeply in a particular activity”. Working with that definition, simply being in a place where we’re surrounded by a language doesn’t automatically mean that we’re immersed in the language. Consider, for example, the student who goes to study abroad for three or four months in Tunisia. This student takes intensive language classes five days a week for four hours each day. Outside of the classroom, they do homework and study. However, the student hasn’t made any friends and in fact, barely talks with the locals. The conversations between the student and the locals are limited only to shopping and services: “I need…” or “Can you give me…?” or “Where is the nearest…?” Maybe the student watches TV shows in their native language, maybe they listen to music from their home country. The point I’m making here is that being in a country doesn’t mean that one has immersed themselves. By the same token, if we are students and we want to immerse ourselves, it’s not always necessary to leave our countries. Yes, the last part is true, you can actually immerse (or at least semi-immerse) yourself while you’re in your home country.
Using the definition that was mentioned above “involving oneself deeply in a particular activity” how can we immerse ourselves when it comes to language learning? How can we involve ourselves in the activity of learning a language? Let’s take a Brazilian student who’s learning English as an example. She lives in Rio de Janeiro and around her, the vast majority of people speak Portuguese. No problem, she has some friends who speak English. Some of them are expats from English speaking countries, others are fellow Brazilians who have learned the language very well. When she’s with these friends, she only speaks English. She texts these friends and others that she met online in English. She also sends emails and comments in English while online so her writing can improve. She watches movies and TV shows (especially on Netflix) and listens to music in English. She also has a nice collection of novels, magazines, and poetry written in the English language. Although this student is a Brazilian living in Brazil, she might spend at least a couple of hours each day using the English language and she has succeeded in partially immersing herself in the language that she’s learning. Rather than using the language only in textbooks and to answer homework assignments (like our first student), this student is living and breathing the language that she wishes to learn. She has involved herself deeply in learning English, she has immersed herself.
Although location can play a role, at the end of the day, immersion is less about place and more about action. The action that you take, and the constant and consistent effort that you exert when learning your new language is what determines the level of immersion that you’ll experience. If you’re interested in learning a language so you can get the immersive experience, but you don’t have the time and/or money to do travel abroad, don’t fret, you can get close to the same kind of benefit while you’re living in your home country. In fact, this might even be a better situation, because the more you learn while you’re in your home country, the more you’ll be able to do and experience when you’re finally able to travel abroad. With a little bit a creativity and a lot of hard work, the immersive experience can be right in the palm of your hands.
Question of the day: What steps can you take this week to make an immersive environment for yourself in your home country?