Total Immersion – The Sink or Swim Way of Learning a Language

For beginner language learners, there is nothing scarier than being flung into a situation where no one speaks your native language, and you have to use the language you are learning to survive. Having to communicate your needs while your vocabulary has holes in it and you still need a good minute to get out a sentence, is enough to get the palms sweating for even the bravest of learners. But nerve-wracking as it sounds, it might be the single most effective way to rapidly increase your language skills.

How Total Immersion Works

This method, known as total immersion, emulates the way a child learns a language. There are no vocabulary lists and no grammar explanations, you just hear and speak the language all day long. Even when you are tired, even when you are hungry, you can’t fall back on the crutch of your native language.

It sounds scary but I can confirm from personal experience that it works. I put myself voluntarily through this experience twice – once with French (when I was an intermediate learner) and once with Italian (which I had only studied for a couple of weeks before my trip). Both times I lived with a host family that I’d never met before and spent all day speaking the language. I still vividly remember the frustration of not being able to communicate my needs or socialise in a normal way for the first few days. I would collapse exhausted into my bed each night, with new words and phrases swirling round my head.

But after a couple of days, things already began to get easier. I started discerning words from the hopeless jumble of speech around me. And no sooner was I learning it than I was using it myself in a new context. I picked up the phrases and intonation real people use, not the irrelevant or over-formal material you often learn in traditional language classes.

Why Total Immersion Works

It works for three reasons.

Firstly, the sheer amount of input you are getting is far more than you ever would under normal conditions. When you practice for literally all your waking hours, you are bound to see an improvement.

Secondly, by learning like a child, you are forcing your brain to process what you hear the way a native speaker would – mapping new words straight onto their corresponding concepts, rather than by translating into your own language, which is much slower, but more common for learners. A brain scan study at Georgetown University found that total immersion learners mapped more information more effectively than classroom learners in the same amount of time.

Thirdly, and most importantly, in total immersion learning, there is no room for a comfort zone. From day one, you are looking people in the face and trying to speak to them, whether you know what to say or not. When you then begin to master your environment, the confidence rush is huge. In a short time, you get to a confidence level that many classroom learners never reach, because they’ve never had to leave their comfort zone.

Naturally, this boost in confidence and ability may not be forever. As the Georgetown researchers found, when you get back from your immersion experience the work is only just beginning. It will take a long time to truly consolidate all that new stuff in your brain, and if you don’t use it, you’ll lose it. So while you’ll quickly see results, you must also be prepared for the long, hard slog that constitutes lasting learning.

How Can You Get Started?

Are you sold on the idea? Well, the good news is there are many affordable ways to have a total immersion experience – you can try couchsurfing, wwoofing or workaway, all of which will offer you the chance to stay with a host who speaks your target language for free.

Just remember that merely going to the country isn’t enough. You should go alone – if you take a friend, you two will inevitably fall back on your native tongue in a low moment, and all will be lost.

Also, make sure that you spend most of the day with native speakers. If you stay in a hotel, you won’t be around the language enough.

And finally, make sure your hosts are willing to keep the pledge, too – no matter how difficult communication gets, resist the urge to switch languages. If your host ever talks to you in your language, even if you’re desperate, insist on replying in their language. If you slip even once, you’ll find it happens again and again, completely undermining the immersion principle.

If It All Sounds a Bit Much

Fair enough, this does all sound a bit extreme and this style of learning isn’t for everyone. You can still imitate some of the conditions by creating partial immersion, and you will still reap the benefits, though in a much more limited way.

Try having the radio on in the background in the language you want to learn; finding a conversation partner who is willing to only use their language with you; or treating your classroom as an immersion environment by only speaking the target language with your teacher and fellow students.

Is Total Immersion for You?

This is really the question it all comes down to. In the end, it’s all about the decision – are you willing to go through a really intense difficult period and then enjoy stress-free learning forever after?

Or do you prefer an incremental approach, where the stress is never very high, but it never really goes away either?

Personally, I don’t regret my immersion experiences at all- I learned a new skill, gained new self-confidence, and made new friends. And living life in a language you don’t understand is not as scary as you may imagine. Your hosts will want to reach out to you, and there is nothing to match the feeling you’ll get when you suddenly realise that you can reach out to them as well.

This post was written by Melissa G – our English and Spanish teacher in Berlin.