How Can Immersion Help Language Learners?
It is no secret that humans who are acquiring a new tongue are most successful when they are fully immersed in the language.
Firstly, it is vital to remember that language never exists in a vacuum – successfully conversing fluently in a foreign tongue means viewing it as part of the entire gamut of social and cultural existence. One obvious example is working in a foreign language; from personal experience, the preliminary encounters will be exhausting, stressful and frustrating. You may feel like giving up completely. However, the linguistic silver lining is gloriously bright once you get through the initial stages and build up a perhaps surprising confidence. The inextricable relationship between language and professional life means ones linguistic capacity is heavily influenced by their job.
When I first moved to Paris, the prospect of starting my first full-time job in a foreign language that I had learnt in school was daunting, to say the least. In fact, my first role as an au-pair and English tutor required only a basic grasp of French. However, after spending several months in this sector, I decided to pursue casual restaurant work in order to step up my immersive pace, so to speak. Working in a restaurant using French with everyone except a few enthusiastic English and American tourists meant I was making the transition from timid to confident (albeit whilst spilling wine on a couple of people). The fact that my colleagues were in broadly similar age brackets meant the language became just as much a part of my social life as it did my education. There is no substitute for experiencing direct, regular interaction with native speakers and integrating into their lifestyle.
What is clear to me retrospectively is the inherently social aspect of language and the necessity of connecting vocabulary and grammar with the everyday fabric of life. Immersion is so pleasingly automatic; new structures, phrases and pronunciations filter through your cognition when you are not even actively thinking about them (you may even be asleep). Being surrounded by the native tongue and not feeling culturally and psychologically immersed would be like staying completely dry in torrential downpour.
The remainder of my time in Paris was spent working in myriad roles, including client service and even insurance brokerage. In terms of my ‘extracurricular life’, theatre, literary seminars and cultural trips were a key element and – on an everyday basis – spending time with French colleagues and friends. Going to bars regularly with native speakers is not only enjoyable for the obvious reasons, but it is one of the best ways for the new language to enter into your natural surroundings and gradually feel like home. When you find yourself being just as witty in your second language as you are in your maternal language, you know you are doing something right. Idioms and shorthand expressions should begin to flow and with diligent practice on the accent, you may even start to pass off as a native speaker yourself.
There is, of course, always the great temptation to revert back to English and lean on your trusty fellow Brits when things seem a challenge; the problem with this tendency is that, despite the short-term emotional payoff, your brain won’t have the opportunity to fully form the new language identity that you originally wanted it to create. After all, language and identity share an inseparable symbiosis.
To summarize, the phenomenon of immersion is something that no language learner or teacher should neglect; of course, we aren’t always able to spend time in the foreign country itself. However, immersion need not have geographical boundaries. Radio, TV, email, Facebook, books and film are hugely effective. That said, the unrivaled advantages of actually living in the country are numerous. When it comes to teaching, try to depart from the textbook framework and instead push towards fully incorporating English into students’ wider lives, not just as a necessity, but as a powerful social, professional and cultural tool.