As I was replying to a comment on this lovely blog the other day, I got to read more about one of my regular reader, Angel. She is a Pokémon nut and challenging herself with the impressive language combination Mandarin, Japanese and Russian. Such an ambitious and fearless lady. You'll be hearing more from Angel very soon as a regular writer here on the blog
In her comment on my blog, Angel mentioned immersion classes. She says:
Another reason I'm reviewing Japanese again is one of the interviews I saw in your book mentioned immersion. I want to take immersion classes once I finish reviewing everything (and) make sure that I'm not just going by the level I ended up at in college.
What's an Immersion Language Course?
Immersion is an interesting topic, and one of those words that always come up in language learning a bit like "polyglot method" or "language exchange". There is a bit of misinformation and myth around when it comes to the topic, so I decided to give you guys the Fluent summary.
First of all, let's look at the word. The OED has immersion as the "deep mental involvement in something" and points out that in foreign language learning it means your teacher will only teach you using the foreign language. That's all - immersion is not dependent on where you take the class or who you're learning with, it just means fewer explanations and more target language content. You do not have to live anywhere but where you live right now to make this work.
Advantages of Immersion in Language Learning
Many language learners dream of immersion classes as they promise quick results and otherwise unattainable levels of confidence, all wrapped up nicely with an impressive target language accent.
And all of this is kinda true - immersion works particularly well when building up to bilingualism, that means speaking two languages at practically native level all the time. This type of class challenges the brain in unique ways while forcing a learner to engage with the way language is used. There's no time for getting lost in grammar and rules, the point is to listen, copy and learn how to use language right.
Some more reading about advantages of immersion can be found over at Omniglot.
Guided Immersion Classes
Stephanie from To Be Fluent is an immersion language teacher in Canada, and she's keen to point out that sometimes explaining complex grammar and style issues does require English. But here's how she describes her classes:
We do lots of grammar, and also lots of reading and discussion. We read an article and discuss current affairs every morning. We also work a lot on oral interaction: asking and answering questions, telling stories, listening to dialogues (most of them work-related), doing role-plays of work-related situations (ex. running a meeting, giving instructions to a new recruit, dealing with problems at work, writing a memo). We also make time for "fun stuff" like watching French TV shows and playing games.
Immersion classes sound great! The key ingredient that the learner must have along with some determination is clearly time: It cannot happen while you're spending most of your days out of the foreign language environment. A true immersion environment requires at least a few hours spent speaking the new language, every day. That's probably why many people develop a simplistic view that learning a language comes naturally as a result of moving to a new country. The better logic looks like this: No fluency without classes, no immersion without time, but time can definitely equal immersion and will give you results.
Andrew Weiler, who writes at strategiesinlanguagelearning.com, makes the important point that people forget the dream of "Learning like a Child, naturally, carefree" is bobbins, because adults are not children. Immersion classes used too early in language learning will result in frustration and the feeling that you're "stupid" for being unable to learn just by copying. Your ego thinks it can understand things first time, and you'd be denying yourself a core understanding if you jumped straight in at the deep end.
And furthermore, immersion is a teaching method that focuses on communicating by sound and vision and can neglect important learning methods like note-taking and revision. The way to use it is key here.
Immersion is a trendy word among language learners and I have an allergy to trendy sometimes (anti-authority streak? teenage rebel?), so I do not personally use the word when describing how I teach or learn a language. The thing I find particularly important when I teach a language is that "immersion" must not mean "there is a teacher rambling at me in a foreign language and I can understand every 6th word".
Immersion will be right for you if you can follow these three simple rules:
As we've seen above, immersion means putting in the hours to study a language. Of course listening and reading are core parts of this, but producing target language sentences every day is another big part. Immersion classes work extremely well as language learning holidays or short programmes, but they're much rarer as ongoing programmes over the years. So when you decide that this is your chosen language learning method, make sure your schedule can handle it.
Good immersion tutors know that the key is to adapt your teaching and content to the skills or the learners. With that in mind, it's easy even for complete beginners to learn through gentle immersion, and I believe that the structure of guided lessons is a perfect environment. If you feel that you have to tackle immersion-style learning all by yourself, make sure you have Skype and italki ready for real world practice.
3) Know Your Limits
If an overambitious learner may use a bombardment of random target language content as a learning technique, they might as well just look at a flag for an hour. Don't put unreasonable demands on your understanding. Instead, know that it is a lot better for your learning to address the words and structures that you don't know, than to hope you will just assimilate them as if by magic. The "copy and speak" method does work, but only if you actually understand the input that you are getting.
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