Total immersion in language learning - a must for consolidation and fluency.

Total immersion in language learning is the situation where the learner spends time in an environment operating solely in the target language. In this way the learner is completely surrounded by the target language, this being defined as the language that the learner wants to learn.

I am a big fan of this method, and know from personal experience how effective it is. I lived in for years in Fiji where everyone spoke English, so I only picked up a smattering of Fijian and Hindi, (including all the swear words). However, from there, I went as an 11 year-old to a boarding school in a French colony (24/7), New Caledonia, where nobody spoke English, and I was writing my diary in French within weeks.

Can't get No Total Immersion?
If you cannot get into a total immersion situation, there is much that you can do.

CREATE A SIMULATED IMMERSION language learning situation on a regular basis within your normal day-to-day life.

For a learner the immersion phase in the language learning process will really catapult your learning ahead, particularly if you communicate exclusively in the target language, and ditch your mother tongue.

As an example, if one is learning Spanish one might go to a Spanish speaking country or area where Spanish is the native tongue. One might then take classes where all the instruction is given in the native tongue, in this case Spanish.

One is then immersed in the language, and surrounded by the culture of the target language-speaking community.

Living with a host family will further bolster this learning process, and give you further insights into the mentality of the culture.

In reality it is very unlikely for people to really become fluent in a language without extensive periods of some form of total language immersion. Only a tiny percentage do.

Learning the language in its natural environment

One of the benefits of such a strategy is that one sees and feels the language in its natural environment, and the learner sees, hears, feels and 'lives the language', seeing expressions, words and phrases in context, complete with the physical movements, facial expressions, hand motions and tone of voice.

In this situation, the third ear starts to come into play at a subconscious level. This is the mind's innate ability to learn the patterns and structure of a language when one is surrounded by it.

For best success with language learning, use language as a TOOL

The most successful language learners adopt language learning as a tool to communicate.

The above might sound like stating the obvious, but it is not unheard of for people with years of high level academic language study to be too frightened to utter a word, for fear of making a grammatical error.

As Chris Lonsdale says The Third Ear, don't grammaticate!

... if you wish to really learn and use a language. Talk!

Talk, talk, talk!

That's it! talk, talk, talk! Correct yourself, get others to correct you.
Then keep talking.
Use hand signals, or English if you get stuck.
And do ask people to have a licence to correct you. Do not be offended by being corrected.

Initially in the total language immersion situation it might seem incomprehensible

Initially the talk and language might just sound incomprehensible.

The locals will speak seemingly at machine-gun fire pace, with their words slurring one into the other, not clearly as one heard on one's language learning recordings, or from one's teacher.

Feelings of being overwhelmed while learning the language!

The situation can, at first feel overwhelming. Expect to encounter feelings of futility, overwhelm, and maybe even despair.

However do not force it.

Just let it flow over you, for as long as it takes.

After a period of exposure, particularly where the student has made a conscious positive decision to have an open mind and to learn the language, all the hundreds, and thousands of words, phrases, conversations, expressions start beginning to make sense.

Neural pathways are laid in the brain making more and more connections. As one is exposed longer and longer in this environment, more and more patterns start to emerge, and be recognized.

One will recognize more and more of the repeating patterns in greetings, small talk, and chit-chat.

The more that one can get into one's brain before and during the total immersion period, the material that is sitting in the subconscious ready to make that next neural connection.

The brain starts to make connections and 'make sense' of the grammar, the language structure, the way sentences are constructed. This combines with your 'previously learned' material and all those inputs from reading, learning, vocabulary learning, memory triggers, conversations etc.

Get stuff into your brain... however it suits you!

So the more you can get into your brain the better. By whatever means works for you! Hence my conviction in the 200 Words a Day! system which allows you to get thousands of words into your brain very quickly. Then if you go into a total immersion situation, so much of it will start clicking into place.

Accelerating the total immersion learning process

To accelerate the total immersion learning process one should have one or more of the following on constantly, when appropriate.

  • Radio
  • Television, Films, DVD, video, movies
  • Music
  • Podcasts

Combining your learning with some structured tuition, language teaching textbooks, courses etc will accelerate the learning process, and reinforce much of what is learned when in conversation.

However if you prefer some tuition in your mother tongue... it...

Some people may prefer to take some tuition in the mother tongue, finding the tuition exclusively in the target language being too big a step. Perhaps those starting from a lower base will be more likely to feel this way.

I prefer to advocate trying to express yourself in the target language, but if this is too great a step, then take some tuition, with a reputable and skilled teacher who will guide you.

Once the teacher has said something in English, get the teacher to repeat each phrase in the foreign language.

As you progress, try operating less and less in English, and operate more and more in the target language, until eventually all tuition should be given in the target language.

Avoid speaking your mother tongue

In the total immersion situation one should avoid speaking one's mother tongue, and start talking to yourself in your head in the target language.

You know that little voice in your head?

Well as soon as you can, get that voice in your head to talk to yourself in the target language. Nobody else need ever know!

You'll start to realize you are getting really fluent when you start doing mental arithmetic in your head, and the internal conversation is in the target language.

The more that you can exclude yourself from your mother tongue the better.

What if you cannot get into a long term total immersion environment?

The longer the period of total immersion, the more effective it will be.

But it may simply not be possible to get the time to do it. What can one do?


Simulated language immersion

You can create a number of simulated total immersion language learning situations. Read all about some such strategies by clicking the link.

Total Immersion™ Courses by Berlitz

There are hundreds, possibly thousands of courses that claim to be total immersion language courses.

We do not claim to be one of them. We are not. Our teaching is in English, for fluent English speakers.

There is however one trademarked Total Immersion™ course. That of the Berlitz company.

Berlitz is one of the world's biggest language teaching companies, and a publisher of many courses and many excellent, well-priced language learning books. In fact I rate their company and books extremely highly.

Berlitz also offer a structured course called Total Immersion, which according to their website has a typical teaching day running from 9 in the morning to 5:15pm. Courses are personalized to match the student's learning style, and include periods with two coaches engaging in three-way conversations.

These are intensive courses of about 2 to 8 weeks and designed for people who need to pick up a language quickly.

However, these courses, while a total immersion teaching experience in the classroom, are not total immersion in the full sense of the language experience because the student is not necessarily living in a native-speaking household, living in a country or area where the target language is being spoken, and therefore is not being exposed 24-7 everywhere he or she goes outside the classroom.

Outside of the classroom, a typical English-speaking student usually goes back on a bus or train swamped with English language signs, and full of English speaking people to his English-speaking home to switch on English language TV and chat to his or her English speaking family.

This is not real total immersion.

This is not like when I went to a French speaking boarding school in a French colony. There was no other language spoken other than French. Signs, newspapers, chocolate wrappings, movies, comics, cartoons, church services, TV, radio, classrooms in all subjects were all in French. All the people around spoke French. I stayed with a non-English speaking French family on the weekends and Wednesday nights. I was immersed in the local culture 100%. Not just during work hours. It was not just the language. I was 100% engulfed in the culture, the customs, the practices, the local events, birthdays, parties, mealtimes etc.

While I have no doubt that the course is excellent, do not confuse Berlitz's Total Immersion™ Course with the practise of total language learning immersion which is a much deeper thing.

Here's how make a Berlitz's Total Immersion™ Course a real total immersion language learning experience.

  1. Live with a family speaking your target language.
  2. Take the course in a country that speaks the target language as their first language.
  3. Drop your native tongue.
  4. Do not read, see, listen to anything in other than the target language
  5. No internet in your mother tongue.
  6. Hang out with only native speakers when not in the classroom environment.

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