Why Immersion Is Over-Hyped and Possibly Detrimental to Language-Learning

By Jonty Yamisha

A common belief exists that if you want to reach fluency, you need immersion. People who hold this view argue that only by going to a faraway country and surrounding yourself with your target language can you finally talk like a native speaker. Anything short of that may help you learn a few words and phrases, but you won’t get close to fluency. 

The truth is that immersion isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. There are many misconceptions about its benefits. And it’s important to highlight what those are before you make it too far into your language learning journey. That’s because having the wrong impression about immersion can actually set you back not just financially, but on your journey to learn a new language

Obstacles to Learning Through Immersion

It’s easy to get lost in the pictures of people adventuring to distant countries, ready to immerse themselves, but that’s often not an accurate picture of the experience. Instead, eager language learners can find themselves in for a huge culture shock once they realize just how difficult immersion can be. These are a few of the many obstacles they face. 

You have to find the best place to practice…

Choosing the right city in the right country can go a long way to helping you learn a language, but it’s not so clear cut. Major metropolitan cities often have high concentrations of English speakers, meaning you’ll have fewer opportunities to practice your language skills. And while smaller cities can have more native speakers, they may not be as welcoming to foreigners who don’t speak their language. 

You have to avoid English speakers…

Finding a place where you can practice your language skills can be equally frustrating when you quickly discover how common English is. You may pack up your bags, book your flight, and land in a new place only to discover that everyone you try speaking with quickly switches to English when they see that you’re struggling with their language. Worse, they’ll see your friendship as an opportunity for them to practice their English.

You have to find the right “teachers”…

Think about the last time you tried to make friends outside of work or school. Running into random people at the bar is an option, but it can go both ways. Meet-Ups, pop-ups, and other socials can help make it easier. However, finding someone patient enough to work with you on your language skills isn’t easy. If your language abilities are low, it can be extremely frustrating and exhausting for native speakers to talk with you in their language. As a result, you might find your interactions often happen in English most of the time.

You have to push past exhaustion…

Learning a language is hard work. It’s no different than spending long hours studying, training for a marathon, learning to play an instrument, writing creatively, etc. Many people forget this. Instead, they feel they can trudge through hours of language-learning without a break. But that’s not how it works. Eventually, you will tire and need to rest your brain. 

You’ll be working against biology. Learning a new language changes the physiology of your brain. So, you’re literally building new gateways to store knowledge. This takes time. As a result, there are limits to how much you can learn on any given day. Trying to push past that limit can further frustrate and exhaust you while rapidly pushing you to burnout. 

You have to learn to embrace discomfort…

There’s nothing easy about moving to a new country to learn a new language. There are numerous obstacles to overcome along the way. You have to get used to the country, culture, customs, and people. And while every activity can feel like an adventure, at some point, you may crave the ease you were so familiar with at home. 

You’ll have to constantly go outside your comfort zone. Talking to strangers, struggling through conversations, making mistakes, all of this will be the norm. It can be uncomfortable for a lot of people, which is why so many people shy away from speaking when it comes to learning a foreign language. But if you want to get the most out of an immersion program, you’ll need to embrace it.

You have to avoid constant temptation…

There will be the ever-present temptation to meet up with expats and speak in English. Make no mistake, immersion is hard. It’s not so much a vacation as it is a 24/7 learning experience. It can be a marathon for your brain. Trying to having conversations with people using a language you’re not quite so familiar with can leave you regularly exhausted, looking for a break. 

Expat communities are the perfect excuse to “get away”. But they can also be a tempting distraction that can leave you spending more time with your own culture and language and less time focusing on immersion. 

You have to prepare…

If you think that you’ll be whisked away to fluency the moment you land in a foreign country for an immersion country, think again. You need effective strategies for immersion to work.  Not only that but to get the most out of the experience, you’ll need to have a background in the target language. Knowing even just a passing level of French, for instance, will go a long way to helping you get the most out of a language learning experience. 

You have to be in the right mood…

Brains are very finicky organs. You need to be in the right mood to learn. If you’re anxious, depressed, hungry, or stressed out, you’ll have a much harder time learning anything, let alone a new language. 

People who often have the best immersion experiences are usually quite comfortable in their language abilities before they go. When they arrive, there’s still the challenge to push themselves and try new words and phrases, but they’re not starting from scratch. 

Showing up in a new country with very little knowledge of the language can backfire by making you feel alone and frustrated, panicking every time you desperately try to communicate with someone else. This is far from the best environment to try out your new language skills. 

Our Brains Are Cheaters

Perhaps most detrimental to an immersive language-learning experience is that our brains find ways to cheat the system. Instead of listening, decoding, and learning, we find short-cuts. It’s often not intentional. You don’t spend a lot of money to fly and live in a foreign country and learn the language only to actively sabotage your efforts. 

Instead, it’s often more subtle. Stress prevents learning. You cannot learn when you’re not comfortable and at ease. And immersion is far from comfortable. When you’re in a new country, you’re learning constantly. That takes its toll. As a result, your brain will look for ways to quickly help you acclimate to your environment to reduce anxiety. 

You’ll also develop “little tricks” to shortcut comprehension. One common trick is to skim input for keywords that you quickly jumble together so you can get an idea of what’s being said. And while you may be able to get by, you’re not pushing yourself to fully comprehend and speak a language. That’s not fluency. 

Comprehensible Input: The Foundation for Any Effective Language-Learning Strategy

Immersion often fails because those who attempt it don’t have the necessary language skills to succeed in an immersive environment. The input they’re exposed to is far too challenging for their ability level. As a result, they shut down, stuck in limbo as they listen to words they don’t understand. Stephen Krashen touches on this when he talks about comprehensible input. 

If you listened to nothing but college lectures in your target language on your headphones, do you think you could learn a language? Without any context? Just the words…? The answer is most likely not. Why? Because you have no context to apply what you’re hearing and the material is far too challenging. In short, you lack comprehensible input. 

What Is Comprehensible Input? 

Comprehensible Input is information that is just outside your ability to understand it. Krashen defines this as (i+1), where “i” stands for your current level in the target language, and +1 refers to stimuli that are roughly one step more challenging. To effectively learn a language, you need information that’s just challenging enough to keep you interested, but not too easy that it’s boring.

And this is where immersion often fails. It’s simply not enough to be surrounded by the language. You need to have SOME understanding of what’s being said. You don’t need to know every word. But ideally, you need enough comprehensible input so that you don’t feel bored or overwhelmed, a kind of goldilocks zone. 

Why People Believe Immersion Is Necessary

Language is a skill. And skills only get better through use. But there are only so many language learning programs, grammar books, and games you can use to advance your abilities. At some point, if you want to be fluent, you’ll need to speak in your target language. That’s where immersion is most beneficial: it gives you opportunities to speak, to use your new skills. 

People who often praise immersion programs forget where they were at with their abilities when they left. Most likely, if their program was successful, they probably had either a very strong foundational knowledge of the language or they had mentors willing to work with them on location or they were willing to work really, really hard. 

Immersion does work. But it’s not easy, and it’s often not the best avenue for most language learners. Thinking that it’s going to be a walk in the park can turn what should have been an adventure into a nightmare. And that’s why anyone interested in immersion should ask themselves if they have the abilities necessary to get the most out of the program.

What’s a Better Alternative to Immersion?

On the surface, it may seem like the best way to learn a language is to simply jump in the deep end and learn to swim. But languages are complex, and without the right skill set, you could end up drowning. Arriving in a new country without the confidence or ability to speak in your target language can leave you frustrated and burnt out, believing you can’t succeed at reaching fluency.

Remember: there’s more to learning a language than just being able to hear it all the time. Your brain needs time to process and familiarize yourself with it. And you need abilities that are strong enough that people will want to interact with you. Finally, you need to be able to put yourself into situations that provide the right kind of practice.

In other words, you need comprehensible input. 

With a strong language foundation, you can push yourself out of your comfort zone and continue to learn more and more. You can also develop the motivation and focus you need to practice speaking a foreign language. And finally, you can grow increasingly confident in your abilities to speak so that you can hold conversations with native speakers. 

There’s nothing wrong with rewarding yourself with a fun trip to a distant country as both a reward for your studies and motivation to keep practicing your language skills. But you don’t need to shell out thousands of dollars to fly to a faraway destination to make your dream of fluency happen. All you need is a program that gets you speaking, not typing in your foreign language.