What Is Language Learning Immersion? (And Why Can't I Make It Work?)

avatarMille Larsen
9 mins read

The myth of language learning immersion

If you've ever studied a foreign language, you might have come upon the concept of immersion. People often think that you should submerge yourself completely in a target-language environment to “learn from osmosis”.

There are many different versions of this. Most often you'll hear that you should go live in the country. By being constantly surrounded by the language, you'll be sure to learn to speak it fluently.

Others propose other solutions like changing your computer's language to the target language. Some suggest listening to foreign-language radio all day. And then there's the old "sticking post-it notes with translations in all objects in your house". And other things like that. Then there are people who suggest that you can learn a language from listening to audio-books while you sleep!

The last one, I kind of like.

Still, I am very skeptical about all of this.

Immersion in languages learning – mostly a myth

Jumping into water from cliff

Does it help to jump and never look back?

When people propose that you surround yourself with the target language in order for it to slowly seep through and become “automatic”, they often have a false idea about how immersion really works.

People seem to think, that if only you hear and read the language a lot, you'll learn it, but it's not as simple as that.

The truth is, that whenever you try to force yourself into such a target-language environment, instead of learning the language, you learn different ways to cheat and to avoid having to learn anything! You'll find that your post-it notes will become invisible to your eye after a while. They'll be a mere distraction that you can easily avoid. After all, you know what a fridge is, and don't actually need to check the note all the time.
So you don't, and eventually, your guests are the only ones you'll take notice and wonder if you're okay.

Language learning immersion by switching your computer's operation system to French.

Do you really need to learn any French to get this working?

The same goes for changing your computer's operating system language. Rather than finally internalize the French word for ”restart” redémarrer, you'll recognize the word as a pictogram or an icon. You'll remember the picture of the word all-right. It's the symbol for restarting your computer. You'll know what clicking the thing does, but it won't be a word to you.

Whenever you put yourself in a situation where you need to make sense of a foreign language environment, your brain starts problem-solving. But even for the most intelligent among us, the brain will try to cheat. It'll try and get the answers the easy way. Our brains always take the path of least resistance, which actually makes sense. You don't want to waste energy on anything not necessary. This is more or less the reason why immersion is not working for you. Rather than learning the language, your brain finds other solutions.

So how can we force ourselves to learn?

What is real learning immersion?

In my opinion, learning is a form of creation.

It's about creating solutions to understanding the incomprehensible. The kind of immersion that many people falsely assume will work, does find solutions to your problems. But you always end up with something else than actually learning the language. - Like internalizing what the icon for restarting your PC looks like in French. You create a picture in your mind, of what the word looks like in its written form. Real immersion needs to be another kind of problem solving.

What do I mean by that?

To really solve problems (and not just find shortcuts) means that you need to analyze whatever you hear or read and draw conclusions from it. This doesn't mean that you have to dissect everything you come upon with dictionaries and grammars. Instead, you should surround yourself with foreign-language material that you understand pretty well, only a little above your level. You need to have foundations in the target language that permits you to draw conclusions and figure things out from context.

Listening to a 10-minutes radio show and trying to figure things out will probably work better for you than listening to 8 hours of incomprehensible input non-stop. If you're not yet at the appropriate level, it'll just be too much, and you'll quickly zone out.

Immersion is not mindless osmosis

People usually speak of language learning immersion as osmosis. Osmosis is a term borrowed from biology. It basically describes the "evening out" of different concentrations in liquids. Imagine that you put a wet sponge in a glass of salt water. When the water inside of the sponge gradually gets salty too, that's osmosis (well.. sort of). So in terms of language learning immersion, you're the sponge, but instead of placing you in a glass of salt water, you're flown to Spain, where you will seep in a Spanish language-environment for a few months.

Now, the idea is that this should help you learn Spanish.

But I'm afraid that the reality isn't that simple.

There's no doubt that it can be helpful to surround yourself with the language, but you need to make the best of it. You have to take control and work actively at making sense of the language. Otherwise it'll remain white noise, and you'll quickly get used to getting the information you need by other means.

The post-its, and switching your operation system's language would be more useful, if you'd already studied the vocabulary beforehand. That way, seeing the icon won't be a new symbol to connect meaning to. It would be repetition. Real immersion is about constantly being reminded about vocabulary, grammar concepts and language chunks. Everywhere you go, there will be something that draws you back into the language.

How do you use real immersion then?

Immersion done right, is two things: 1; diving into foreign language material that is just at the right level, that permits you to make sense of things, and 2; doing it a lot.

The first point is something I usually do by reading extensively. I use a reading method that suggests that you read for pleasure, and choose texts that that are only slightly above your level. This way you learn new vocabulary seamlessly. This is my primary learning method, and also the one favored by many accomplished language learners. I use an app called LingQ to make it easier, but you can do it too, simply by studying material in the right level. Go read my review of LingQ.

Immersion is basically reading or listening to comprehensible input that you can make sense of, and then doing it a lot. In many cases, however, you'll grow tired quickly and lose focus. This means that you're limited to shorter study sessions, which makes it – by definition - “not immersion”.

For it to really be effective on the larger scale, you need to already be at a high level, or else you'll lose focus whenever something becomes difficult or you are distracted. Don't worry about it, though! If you keep at it, you'll reach a point where there's a place for immersion.

There's something to be said about short study sessions, however. They're much more effective than listening to incomprehensible white noise all day. Short study sessions they keep bringing you back to the language in stead of blocking it off for the lack of transparency. I wrote an article about fitting short study sessions into your everyday life, that you might want to read.

Let's put language learning immersion at its place.

So we have concluded that immersion really just is a question of consuming foreign language material that is comprehensible to you in large amounts. We can now rule out a few things that don't fit that description.

Putting a post-it on your fridge and everything else in your house isn't immersion, but if you're having a discussion with someone about how his milk went sour because his "frigo" wasn't plugged in, that's immersion. The situation gives you the opportunity to figure out what the French word "frigo" means.

Watching hundreds of hours of Japanese manga, isn't immersion either, unless you're at a level where you can figure things out from context.

And when you switch your operating system or favorite video-game's language, it isn't immersion, unless you actually understand the information prompted to you on your screen.

If you do these things without really feeling that you're getting anything out of it, you're dead right. There isn't something mystical and magical happening inside of your brain, that you're not yet noticing. It's simply not working. You might be wasting your time, and if you're serious about learning your target language, it's important that you admit it and get over it, so that you can spend your time more efficiently.

So shouldn't I do these kind of things?

That's not what i am saying.

You can do it when you have nothing better to do. Go ahead and watch a few hours of subtitled Russian soap operas if you feel like it. Spend your day listening to podcasts in French while you work instead of the usual music-radio. Or stick on the post-its if you really want to (or if you want your guests to leave early).

These things won't help you a lot as learning activities, but they might serve the purpose of motivating you, or they can help provide you with a deeper knowledge of the culture. Then there's also the few moments when you remind yourself and actually try and listen attentively. These can be valuable for your understanding of intonation and melody, and you might even recognize a word here and there.