Immersion is an excellent way to learn a new language; arguably the best way. Admittedly I’m biased. I can’t take much credit for the fact I speak French and English; I learned without it giving it much thought. My parents decided to move abroad and that was the end of it; it was sink or swim. Or rather, speak or forever be silent (which, frankly, to someone like me, is almost worse). And despite my biased preference for total immersion, there’s a science to back it up. Studies have indeed shown that an immersive environment is a far more effective way to become fluent in a new language than a classroom setting.
Total immersion is simply not an option for the vast majority of people. It would be quite the commitment to wave your employer goodbye as you roll-out your suitcase claiming you’re moving to Mexico because Duolingo’s not doing the trick.
I’ve heard several students express this same frustration. Ever since I was in my late teens, language tutoring was my obvious side-gig. I’ve tutored tens of people over the years, of pretty much all ages. And I appreciate the frustration that can often follow the initial honeymoon phase when you’re learning a new language.
It can be tedious to turn up to class one week after another to make marginal progress. It’s easy to forget the things you learned and it’s inconvenient to have to keep looking over the notes you made every evening in an attempt to tattoo the new vocab in your mind.
Although this method may well work for some, it’s not the ideal scenario for many. In the same way, as when you studied for an exam, the information might last for a few days or weeks, only to dwindle once you’ve done the exam.
To absorb a new language more organically, in a way that it’s likely to last long-term, immersion is the best way forward. And whilst moving abroad may not be viable for everyone, there are ways to immerse yourself as much as possible in the comfort of your own home. Here are some pieces of advice I gave to my students, which could serve you well in your language-learning-endeavors.
There’s an important insight I should share: you’re not too old to learn a language. This is the same response I gave a student of mine who was over 70 years old when she came to see me. Whilst it may be true that the best time for learning a new language is the ‘critical period’ during your childhood and early teenage years, neuroscientists have confirmed that the brain is built for lifelong learning. It continues to create and even fix neural connections throughout your life, which again, means ‘No, you’re not too old to learn a new language’.
With that annoying itch scratched, let’s get into it.
Practice Spaced Repetition
The reason why immersion is so effective is that you’re constantly surrounded by the new language. As a child, I was exposed to English in school, on TV, at the park, at the grocery store, at the doctor’s office. It was constant. But the reason why this form of learning was so effective isn’t just the fact it was repetitive. It’s the fact the repetition was spaced. The difference is important.
It’s not just repetition that creates learning. You could go to bed every night reading a list of new vocabulary, only to forget the majority in the morning. The key lies in spacing the repetitions out throughout the day. Because it’s retrieval that creates learning; actively recalling what you’ve learned.
In the immersion context, say the lady at the check-out used the same expression my teacher used in school, I’d be forced to think back to the context in which my teacher used it. What do I think my teacher meant, and how could it apply in this context?
My teacher said it when she offered me a pen; “would you like a pen?”. This woman is using it again, “would you like a receipt?”; is she offering me something? Drawing inferences from these contexts, hearing the terms “would you like”, I’d probably realize this is something one says when offering someone something.
A good way to practice is using flashcards. I’d hand my students a set of 30 flashcards every week. I only wrote the word or the phrase in Spanish/English/French on one side. They had to go home and write out the description on the other side (researching online/using a dictionary).
The first night they were to read both sides of the cards; memorize them. But on the remaining nights, they could only read one of the sides; they had to recall what the word, phrase, or the relevant description meant. They had to do this every evening; it took just approximately 15 minutes to complete.
If you give this a try, leave the flashcards you get right in a pile to your right, and those you get wrong on a pile to your left. When you’ve completed the exercise, read both sides of the flashcards in the ‘wrong’ pile to memorize these again.
Incorporate the new language into your existing habits & actively apply it
A great way to practice is to apply your learning throughout your day-to-day. Think of any habits you already have which require writing or speaking. If you don’t have any in particular, and at the expense of seeming completely random, I would recommend journaling.
I’m a big fan of the Five Minute Journal. It’s a really quick and effective way to start your day on a positive note and practice your language skills at the same time. All you have to do is write down 2 things you’re grateful for, 3 things that would make today great, and 2 affirmations. Then before you go to sleep, you write down 3 amazing things that happened during the day and 2 ways in which the day could have been improved.
Write these out in the new language. If you don’t want to use your phone in the evening to assist you, buy a little pocket dictionary you can keep at your bedside and use that. Or turn to your beloved flashcards to assist you. Simply write whatever it is that you would write in your own language, in the new one.
Other ideas I used to share with my students include buying a calendar or diary in the language you’re trying to learn. If you have time, fill it in in your new language too. Sure, it’s likely to take a little longer, but it’s an investment you can make at the start of your day or week that’ll serve as a form of spaced repetition and help you retain the information in the long-run. Another simple trick is to change the language setting on your phone (just please, make sure you make a note of how you get to the ‘change language’ setting before you do this).
Expose yourself to the language throughout the day, every day
Whilst the point above is about ‘actively’ applying your new language, either by speaking it or writing it, exposing yourself to the language by simply having to listen, also goes a long way.
An easy way to do this is TV. If you have Netflix for example or another streaming service, you can usually change the language. Change it to the language you’re trying to learn. I always advised my students to change the subtitle language too. This way, you can see how the words are supposed to sound, and this visualizing can help you with memorizing.
Another easy way to incorporate your new language in your day-to-day is to listen to music; better yet, memorize the lyrics to a song you like. I remember when we moved to a small town in the south of Belgium, my Dad told me he’d buy me a cinnamon roll if I memorized the lyrics to ‘Ma Philosophie’ by Amel Bent. 11-year-old me was all over this. I think it took me an entire Saturday to get the job done, but boy did I enjoy that cinnamon roll.
The plus side to this, is songs are catchy. Learn the lyrics of a song and, as much as you’ll probably live to regret it, you’re likely to be replaying that track in your head for days.
I’d also advise, especially as you begin to build your confidence, to join language exchange groups, events, and perhaps even clubs. A quick Facebook search is likely to reveal a number of language exchange groups and meetups in your local area. If not, Meetup.com is a great place to start; you can even find meetups online.
I for example belong to a French online book club, and my sister and I sometimes attend virtual events hosted on Eventbrite to practice. You can search by location, so even if you’re in the US, you can attend an event hosted in Italy for example. A couple of evenings ago we attended a virtual vegan cooking class in French; take a look and sign up for whatever catches your eye.
If you workout to exercise videos every morning, find one in your new language. If you meditate, listen to a guided mediation in your new language. If you enjoy listening to podcasts, you know the drill…
Label your physical environment
This is a minor piece of advice but one that’s particularly helpful in the very early stages of learning a language; I don’t suggest you live amongst post-its forever. Labeling the objects around your home and even leaving yourself notes, can really help you incorporate the spaced repetition concept into your day-to-day.
You can go from labeling kitchen appliances to leaving yourself “have a good day” notes on your bathroom mirror. Get creative with this one, and make sure to rotate the labels out and bring in new ones as they become familiar.
I understand it can be daunting and, more often than not, frustrating. And frankly, it’s not what you signed up for. Learning a language is supposed to be fun and exciting. It’s supposed to empower you as opposed to leave you feeling drained.
If you’re feeling like this, you’re not wrong. Learning a new language is supposed to be fun, and it can be easier. It’s often safe to assume that if we’re ‘studying’ we’re being productive. And it is indeed sometimes the case. But if ever there’s a situation in which ‘learning by doing’ applies, I would argue it’s learning a language.
This isn’t to say you won’t have to study, there’s a necessary element of memorization involved. But don’t wait too long to start applying your learnings in practice. Immerse yourself in the language without having to even step out of your existing environment. You can begin by applying the tips I describe above. See what works for you; feel free to let me know how you get on!