Language Immersion Is a Loaded Phrase

Magic is wonderful. When I was a child and lost a tooth, the Tooth Fairy would magically leave a 25¢ coin underneath my pillow while I slept; Santa Clause would bring me presents on Christmas Eve night; early on Easter Sunday morning, the Easter Bunny would hide chocolate eggs and a basket of goodies for me and my brothers to find. As we get older it becomes our turn to make magic for our own children yet I have met quite a few grown adults who still naively believe in something quite magical: they think that living in a foreign country will magically teach them a foreign language.


I have met dozens of people who have spent months or years of their life in a foreign country and are barely conversational in the language of that country or know almost nothing. Most of them are expatriates. What is an expatriate? An expatriate is someone who moves to a foreign country, usually for economic reasons, with a particular goal in mind and who fully plans on returning back to his or her country of origin after achieving that goal.

Many Mexican immigrants to the USA are actually expatriates, which is why they can live there for thirty years or more and never learn much English. They come to get a better paying job, plain and simple. In their expatriate communities they often fly the Mexican flag, have their own restaurants, have street venders who sell Mexican products and they all speak Chicano Spanish. If you can talk to your neighbors, watch TV, buy a car, go shopping and get a get a job without knowing good English, why bother to learn it?

I don’t mean to harp on the Mexicans. All expatriates are like this. There are similar Chinese speaking and English speaking communities in most big cities in the world. If all you ever do is stay within your own little expatriate bubble you will probably not learn the language of your host country no matter how long you live there.

College Study Abroad Programs

Here is a pretty typical scenario, at least in the USA: Jenny has studied German for four years in high school and for the past two years at her university and feels ready for a “cultural” experience. She spends a lot of money and goes with a group of fellow German students and a fun German professor to spend a few months in Munich. When she comes home, she finds that she is only a tiny bit better at German than when she left.

Why can’t pretty little Jenny speak better German? It’s because she spent most of her time hanging out with her fellow American students and English speaking Germans. When she went to buy things, she found that the German required was not very difficult and that a great deal of shop keepers, waiters, etc. could speak better English then she could German. Although she was promised language immersion, she sheltered herself with her native language.

Do Your Own Preparation First

The US government ranks language proficiency with a five point scale:

1 – Basic knowledge of the language: You memorized a bunch of key words and phrases but can’t do much more than carry on very short conversation.

2 – Limited proficiency: You have studied all of the grammar principals and have a functional vocabulary. You can get your point across and understand the main idea of what people say to you but the language barrier is still very present.

3 – Proficiency: You can converse at length about a certain number of topics but start to have big problems when you stray from those topics. You still get things wrong here and there but few people have trouble understanding you and vice versa.

4 – Advanced proficiency: Your are fluent. Your accent is noticeable but slight and you can function in the language almost as freely as most native speakers.

5 – Near Native Proficiency: Your command of the language is as good as or better than most native speakers. People have to pay very close attention to notice traces of your native accent.

If you don’t have enough desire to get at least to a solid 2 in the target language before you start your language immersion it’s doubtful that you will get much better than that. I recommend getting to a 3 which is entirely possible for most languages. Getting to a 3 first will make it so getting to a 4 in the foreign country becomes very doable and even fun and enjoyable.

Get Out of Your Comfort Zone!

You can study a foreign language all you want and for as long as you want but it is doubtful that you will get beyond a level 3 without some good language immersion experience. When in the country, banish your native language from your mind. Force yourself to eat, drink and sleep in your target language. If you can, don’t go with a big group of people from your native country. If that is unavoidable, ditch the group and interact with the locals as much as possible. Start conversations with strangers in the park. Foreign experience is necessary for a high level of fluency but simply being there is not enough.


5 Responses

  1. I can definitely relate to this, as I studied abroad in college, but was wondering why my Spanish skills did not improve more significantly afterward. The exact reason was because I relied too heavily on conversation with my American friends and English-speaking Spanish friends. I even hung out at Irish bars, where Americans were always to be found. I simply did not step out of my comfort zone, but that was a lesson I learned pretty quickly, and I have vowed not to do that again.

    Right now I would say that I am a 3.0 to 3.5 (according to the scale above) in Spanish and would love to obtain that same level in Portuguese, but my ultimate goal would obviously be to get as close as possible to 5.0 in both languages. In order to do that, I know that a real language immersion experience is what I need — but I must prohibit myself from speaking English during that experience.

    Thanks for the words of motivation 🙂

  2. How disappointing, because I know I’m a 3, at least according to the government. Ryan, did you get the description of the ratings from an official government site?

    I do need to study and practice more diligently, and I can’t thank you enough for your site. Your posts always motivate me to work harder on my language skills (even if I don’t always actually do that hard work).

  3. Jeff: Thanks for sharing your story. To get to the 4 and 5 level I would have to go back to Latin America, as you can tell from the video I made in Spanish.

    Travis: I’m glad that you (and Jeff too) feel motivated by reading this blog. I’m a 3 in Spanish as well. It’s hard to get past a 3 when one doesn’t live in a country that speaks that language. I did get those levels from a government site but I restated the definitions in my own words.

  4. 2 points:

    1. Immersion is the best way to learn a foreign language if you’re under 12 years old. In fact, a language so learned is a native language. (You can have more than one.)
    Linguists have long observed this. It is how we acquire our first language.
    Apparently something happens in our brains that causes what Noam Chomsky calls the Language Acquisition Device to disappear.

    2. I studied abroad once and my command of German improved greatly.
    i) I avoided other Americans like the plague (as I was advised to by UMass, the University of Michigan students apparently went to Germany to practice their English).
    ii) It was my 5th year of college NOT my junior (3rd) year.
    So I had 4 years of German, before I arrived, and I passed the language exam that let take regular classes.

    * ** If you do a junior abroad, you are wasting your time and money. ***
    Wait until you’ve already graduated and had 4 years of the language here.

    P.S. My college degree is in Linguistics.

  5. I think that language immersion is great for kids and for those adults ready for that phase.

    Adults need to have already achieved a intermediate level of the language otherwise they are wasting time and money. Unless you plan on staying immersed in the language for more than 1 year.

    There are so many basic things that need to be learned before you are ready to interact in a foreign language at that level that you would better spend your time preparing and learning the basics than just spending 3 weeks in Mexico.

    I was in an immersion situation and the first 3 months were useless because I couldn’t understand anything. Had I been prepared those 3 months could have been a great learning experience. Fortunately I was there for 2 years and I was able to learn French fluently within 1 year.

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