I'm traveling this week, visiting huge scenic landscapes and beautiful national parks in the big, wide-open western states. It's a lot of driving, a bit of hiking, and nights in hotel rooms, and I'm doing it all alone. But I'm not complaining about being alone. On the contrary, I like it, because it allows me an opportunity for do-it-yourself immersion.
When people talk about immersion in a language, they usually mean that you go to the country where the language is spoken, and live there for several months or years until you become fluent in that language. But not everyone can do this.
But you can create immersion for yourself, no matter where you live. It's more effective with more time, but it can work even with as little as an hour or two.
So how do you do it?
The reason immersion works is that it gets you to do things in a language that you wouldn't do if you were just learning casually, whether that's ordering a coffee, or reading a newspaper, or talking about your day. So all you have to do is think about those things and do them.
I'm spending a lot of time in a rental car, but I've got my iPod plugged into the radio, and I'm listening to only Italian music. And even though I do have a lot of Italian music, I am hearing some songs more than once, and noticing that I understand them better the next time around. Why? Because I'm forcing my ears to listen in only Italian all week. And they're responding by learning to do it.
And it doesn't stop there. I'm also narrating to myself everything that I do. There's no one around to say I'm acting stupid, so I'm doing it. If I stop to take a photo, I say "Che cosa faccio ora? Faccio la foto della montagna!" If I'm driving, I say "Sto guidando la macchina. Da dove? Vado da Salt Lake City a Casper."
I'm also using my time (and lack of English interruptions!) to think of how to do things. If I'm thirsty, I think of how to say that. Then I think of how to fix that problem, where to find a store, etc. Then I think of what I would say to the clerk when I buy water. And so on. I may not be able to actually complete the process in Italian but I can do it in my head beforehand.
And another great exercise is that I know people will ask me about my trip. So I'm already retelling the story of my vacation to myself before I'm even done having it. This way I am thinking about how to say things, and looking up the words I don't know. Hopefully I'll be able to successfully discuss my week in Italian when I return home.
Obviously, I've also set my iPod and computer settings to Italian, so when I stop to use them I don't break my immersion. And I've brought with movies and reading material, so instead of turning on the tv in the hotel room, I can continue my self-imposed immersion.
You can do it
Most of us would probably prefer to do immersion in a country where the language is spoken. But if you can't do that, it's not a good enough excuse. You don't even need the five-day trip alone that I'm using right now. Everyone has a few hours when they're alone that can be turned into a perfect immersion opportunity.
Maybe you live alone. If so, you have all night and weekend to create an immersion environment. That's what I did with Spanish. I watched only the Spanish channels on tv. I even bought recipe books in Spanish and cooked only hispanic food when I was home.
Maybe you're married with children, and your alone time happens on your commute to and from work. Or on Sunday nights after you put the kids to sleep. Even if it's only an hour or two, it's still an opportunity to do everything you already do now, but block out the distractions in your native language and do it all in your target language.
It's fun, it's safe, and it's great for your progress. So stop making excuses. Immerse yourself!
Want to see my favorite language resources and courses?
I listed them here.