By now, you’ve probably seen the big language companies – Rosetta Stone, Busuu, Babbel and the like – make claims of creating “immersive” environments for language learning.
That would be all well and good if it was even remotely possible for a computer program or web browser application to immerse you in anything.
To get at the root of the problem here we need to take a step back and ask ourselves what “immersion” really means in order to figure out how you can best simulate it without going overseas.
To me immersion means surrounding oneself with the language and the culture that speaks it.
If you were to get up and travel to Madrid, you might actually stand a chance of “immersing” yourself in Spanish.That is, assuming you actually left the hotel, avoided tourist hotspots full of other English speakers, and generally made an attempt to converse with the locals in Spanish.
Sounds like no problem (right?) but you might be surprised at how many tourists or even expats never actually take the time to learn the language of the country they’ve been staying or living in – sometimes for years or even decades.
Unfortunately, unless you have the ability to move to a neighborhood with a very significant population of speakers of your target language – like a Chinatown or Little Italy – you’re going to have a difficult time completely creating an immersion environment without traveling.
But all is not lost!
There are still plenty of things you can do to simulate a limited immersion environment without having to leave the country, or even your own town.
What do you spend most of your time doing in a day? Probably working. Unfortunately under normal circumstances there are probably only so many things you can change about your work environment that won’t hamper your ability to do your job, so for now we’ll focus on things you can do around the home and in your leisure time.
John Fotheringham, polyglot, linguist and the creator of Language Mastery authored a book called Master Japanese: The Beginner’s Step-by-Step Guide to Learning Nihongo the Fun Way.
There is also a Master Chinese book that follows much the same style.
Rather than teaching you Japanese, the entire book is more or less devoted to teaching you how to learn a language, something you don’t typically see among language books. The pages are filled with tips and tricks for filling your life with Japanese and creating as solid an artificial immersion environment as I’ve ever seen.
It’s a great read, even for those not particularly interested in learning Japanese or Chinese. Much of the advice can be applied to any language you’re interested in. I highly recommend grabbing yourself a copy.
So, where do we begin?
The trick to creating a successful immersion environment is really as simple as hurling yourself headlong at your language. For now, don’t worry about programs like Pimsleur or Rosetta, we’re going to focus mostly on converting your home and surroundings into as much of a learning experience as possible.
Start off with electronics. Your smartphones, computers, keyboard input, television and nearly every other digital electronic device that features words can typically have its language changed to a selection of the world’s more prominent languages.
This is a big step for those of us who are glued to our phones, and it will certainly take some getting used to, but that’s the point isn’t it? Resist the urge to change your language back when things get rough.
Did you save the instructions for your television, blu ray players, game consoles and computers? Probably not, I’d imagine.
If you do happen to have them floating around somewhere, they should explain how to change all of these devices’ languages.
If not, luckily most of these things can be found fairly easily in your device’s settings or online following a simple search.
Changing your desktop or laptop keyboard is a big step, and not for the faint of heart. But then again, neither is immersion. If you’re just beginning in your new language, this may not be the best idea just yet. If you can’t read the characters yet you might want to hold off until you can.
But assuming you can, there are several options for changing the input for your desktop, laptop or tablet keypads. If you use Windows, Microsoft has you covered and you can check out this tutorial.
Never one to be outdone by Microsoft, Apple isn’t going to leave you hanging either. If you’re a Mac user; go here.
Now that your computer is willing to accept your new language input you have a couple of options. Amazon carries a variety of multilingual keyboards, such as these:
You can probably find just about any other major world language on Amazon as well.
Alternatively you don’t have to buy a whole new keyboard. They also sell keyboard stickers for all of the above languages, plus many more, that cost quite a bit less than buying a new keyboard.
You would however need to research the format.
Music and movies
It’s no secret that these entertainment items are a good way to learn a language, but if you’re looking to create an immersive environment you’re really going to need to focus on bulking up your collection of foreign language stuff.
Netflix has recently begun expanding its foreign film selection – especially its Spanish language offerings – and serves as a reasonable place to start. I’d recommend checking out www.foreignfilms.com for a very large selection of films, both new and old. The website will actually allow you to search by country and will then direct you to Netflix if it carries it, or Amazon where you can purchase a very wide selection.
When it comes to finding foreign language music, I’d suggest starting with YouTube. It’s free, it’s global, and you can find almost anything. It’s a great way to explore new bands and artists without paying for albums you may or may not actually enjoy.
Once you’ve settled on an artist, it usually isn’t hard to find their work on iTunes, Pandora, Spotify, Amazon or their own websites.
If gaming makes up a significant part of your leisure time, changing the language of your games can be a useful – if occasionally frustrating – method of reinforcing your language studies.
Unfortunately most games don’t come with an especially wide variety of language support, but the most common languages that I’ve seen are German, Spanish, French, Russian and Japanese. Not all games come with full audio support in these languages, but some – especially those made outside the US or UK – will.
However almost all games have subtitles and in-game tooltips available.
As with your other devices and keyboards, if you’re a console gamer you would be advised to change the language on your systems. It’s easy enough to find instructions on how to do this for most systems, but catering to the newest generation of gaming consoles I’ve located instructions for PS4 and Xbox One.
*Note, Xbox users may be required to change their location in settings to change their language. Stupid, but you do what you’ve got to do.
If you’ve ever been to one of the big American bookstore chains like Barnes & Noble you’ve probably noticed that the foreign language section, frankly, sucks. It’s usually one measly little shelf with a handful of the very biggest titles such as The Hunger Games, A Song of Ice and Fire, Twilight and Harry Potter.
I don’t know about you, but I’d rather read something new.
The trick to finding foreign language books on Amazon is to input the word “edition” in your search. Seems obvious, but searching for “French language books” doesn’t find you reading material, it finds you textbooks. Great, but not quite what we’re looking for.
So if you want to find To Kill a Mockingbird, you would search for “To Kill a Mockingbird, French edition” and voila: Ne Tirez Pas Sur L’oiseau Moqueur
Seems simple enough, right?
In edition to this, Kindle users might be pleased to know that a huge selection of classics are available for free download. Once again, make sure you use the keywords “[language] edition” in your search.
Family, friends and keeping yourself on the straight and narrow
Unfortunately this is where things might start to get a little bit more difficult.
Creating an immersion environment is going to be the most successful when your family or roommates are on board with your project. In fact having more than one learner is really going to be the ideal situation.
But as I’m sure most of us have encountered, not everyone is going to share your interest in learning languages. When it’s your spouse or sibling or roommate it can be especially difficult, but you just have to do the best that you can in lieu of the perfect environment.
If you are able to work with another person it might be a great opportunity to institute the swear jar. I go into a lot more detail in this article about what that is and how it works, but it’s a great way to keep yourself focused on only using your new language – especially if you’re not learning alone.
Lastly, go out into the world!
One of the most successful teaching techniques I ever witnessed was enabled by one of our volunteer English tutors when I was working with The Literacy Volunteers of Eastern Connecticut. This tutor took his conversation group on a field trip around the city of Norwich, CT.
Each learner brought in a wad of cash and they spent the better part of a day riding the city bus around town, getting off at each stop and discussing all things related to their exploration, from transportation to the various shops and buildings that they encountered to shopping terminology.
It was an extremely successful immersion technique and the learners loved it.
Now, those learners had an advantage that you might not have. They’re already in a foreign country, so virtually everywhere they go they are immersed in the English language. You won’t quite have that raw and unfettered a linguistic experience, but you can take steps to make sure that similar explorations – even around your neighborhood – help you on your way to achieving your language goals.
To do this pre-plan a route that you will take, or a destination you’d like to visit such as a museum, a library, the mall, or anything at all that you might find interesting. Take a pad of paper, or some sort of audio recording device – if you have a smartphone that will work – and take notes or narrate your journey to yourself.
Nobody has to hear your recording, so it doesn’t matter how bad it is, how often you mess up, or how simple the language. All that matters is that you’re speaking your language. You can review the recordings later and try to build on your exploits.
Depending on where you live you might even be able to find communities or individuals who speak the language you’re learning. Most people are excited to hear English speakers attempting to learn their language for a change and you never know where such interactions could take you.
So don’t be shy! Get out there and talk, be it to yourself or someone else.
There are many, many more ways that you can surround yourself with your new language. The trick is to maximize your exposure to your 2nd language while minimizing your use of your first.
It’s difficult, and it may not be for everyone, but immersion is almost always going to be the most effective way to learn a new language.
If you have the resources and the time to pick up your life and travel abroad, great, you should do it. But most of us are not so fortunate.
So while artificial immersion may not be quite the same as the real deal, it’s about as good as it’s going to get and with the right amounts of motivation and effort should prove an effective way to reach competency in your new language.
What other techniques do you use to immerse yourself in your language learning projects?
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