How To Do Language Immersion On Your Own

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!


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Author: Yearlyglot
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  • I'm currently living in Australia but am engaging in a process of French immersion. I've changed my Mac's operating system to French, along with my facebook, gmail etc... I have a 3 hour French lesson weekly at the Alliance Francaise, I listen to French music and on the train to university I read French self-teaching books. I also have a few fellow learner friends and we try to talk in French to one another where we know how.BUT, the cruncher is... I've made friends with a bunch of French exchange students, who I hang out and party with every week. I enjoy their company and soak up as much French language as I can while chilling with them. With one of my newfound French friends, I have agreed to meet with her once a week to swap a French/English lesson with one another.Immersion is absolute gold!

  • Also, just discovered your blog. Looks incredibly interesting. Will be coming back soon :)

  • You said you and your fellow learner talk to each other when you know how. Here's a great way to improve: talk to each other even when you don't know how!For example, if you want to say somebody is crying by you don't know the verb "to cry", say "that person has water in the eyes". If you want to talk about your boots but you don't know the word, just say "tall shoes".Doing this keeps you thinking in your target language, and it also helps you to figure out which words you need to learn. Remember: it's not learning when you do what you know; it's only learning when you do something you don't know! :)

  • Excellent advice! I do try my best to think/stay in French, but as I am quite new to the language my vocabulary is limited, making it difficult to even say something such as "eye windows" instead of glasses :P But, because of the immersive environment I have established, I am learning words everyday at a much faster rate than I would otherwise.

  • In that case, another thing to try to do is stay in French but use English words when you don't know the French ones. This way, you're saying what you want to say, but not completely dropping back into English when you do it.

  • Hi Randy,I thought I was the only insane one, but it appears I just found another one :)Speaking with myself in English has become a habit to me and I do it pretty much all the time I'm on my own (English is my third language).But it all started years ago when I had a job where I spent 8 hours pretty much isolated from others 90% of the time. I was an order picker in a large warehouse so I was driving around on a little truck and picking boxes off the shelves. I had to go by picking lists and call out the product numbers to myself so I started doing it in English. I completely substituted my native language to English when picking the orders and it worked for me quite well. Eventually I started commenting my other activities and I also started speaking with myself about everything that I was thinking at the particular moment.I'm sure there were times when I was overheard by someone and they probably thought I was mad. People generally don't speak with themselves and it is considered to be a bit weird. But I wouldn't care less because that was the only way I could practice English at work where there was not much communication going on.So yes, it's a great way to practice a language if you've limited opportunities to speak that language with others!

  • I'd love to be able to think in my target language (french) but first I think I need to bridge the gap between begiiner to intermediate first. How did you do this? Also, how did you go from intermediate to advanced? I'm really stuck.

  • There's only one way: just do it. You have to put in the time reading and writing, listening and speaking, so that the words are in your head when you need them.There is no substitute for time. The only way to make it happen faster is to spend more time per day doing it.

  • I talk to myself in other languages practically every moment that I'm alone (or think I'm alone!).

  • Absolutely, my net-book computer runs Ubuntu in Chinese, I talk to myself in Chinese, my dog obeys commands in Chinese, my kids and wife are not learning Chinese (but understand a lot of basic Chinese as I use it on them). I learn German in Chinese (audio lessons in Chinese, Chinese - German dictionary on my IPod etc.) Maybe I should learn German in German but Chinese is more important to me.

  • Learning one language in another is awesome. I started doing that recently as well.

  • Ciao amico! Mi e' piaciuto questo articolo! Studio l'italiano anch'io. Jerry

  • Ma non studio io. Imparo. Secondo me studiare e imparare non sono la stessa cosa. :)

  • Scusami, hai ragione tu! Addesso, sto ascoltando la musica di Eros Rammazzotti. Lui e' forte!

  • Se tu voglia chattare in italiano con gchat o skype, sarebbe forse un pò meglio di qui. :)

  • Sorry to post on such an old, dusty post, Randy... I have a question, if you ever come to read this: did you use to watch your italian films with subtitles (I mean didn't you use even italian subtitles?)?

  • I have found that using subtitles allows you too much room to "cheat", so you never really become very good at comprehension. I watch with no subtitles, and infer what I can from the actual movie.

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