Departures_Paris_CDG_2009

The pain of learning languages in immersion

When I was at Oxford, studying was something you did on your own. There were lectures if you wanted or the odd compulsory class, but apart from that it was up to you to force yourself to sit down and work.

We had meetings every now and then with our supervisors to see how things were coming along. Especially in my first year of Beginners’ Russian, these were an important way to make sure you were coping.

I remember one of these very clearly because his time, I told my tutor the truth about how I was getting on. At least, as much as British people can when talking about their feelings.

“Not very well actually. The workload is getting to me. I spend hours each day memorising verbs and vocabulary and the next week it’s all gone again.” I took a deep breath. “I don’t think I will ever speak this language.”

As people do in the UK at moments of difficulty, my tutor reached for the nearest mug of tea and took a big slurp. She looked at me coolly. “Well you are going to Russia next year, so what exactly are you worried about?”

Immersion as the Holy Grail of language learning

Many people see immersion as the holy grail of language learning techniques. No matter what you do, this method guarantees you will just absorb the language around you. Spend six months or a year sitting in coffee shops writing updates on Facebook, and you will come back fluent.

So are the answers to all of your problems really just a plane ride away?

For me the plane ride was the easy bit. It was once the aircraft doors opened that the real problems started.

Experiencing the pain

I spent the first half hour of my immersion experience wandering panicked around Domodedovo airport trying to find the right passport queue to stand in. There were two different floors, and lacking signs. Let’s also just say the cold-eyed Russian border police were not exactly competing for employee of the month that day.

But even after I was let into the country, things didn’t really improve. I found myself living in an unfamiliar place with a language that I still could not speak.

Everything about me started to change. Going to the shops became a source of trauma and insomnia as I would spend all night fretting about buy the wrong thing, getting ripped off, or perhaps even arrested. I went through every single possible outcome in my head and tried to work out whether I had the language to manage it. Invariably, I did not.

The sheer stress of not being able to communicate actually started to hurt me physically. Every day for the first few months I would return to my Russian home with my head spinning, my eyes closing, and my feet reluctant to put my snow boots back on and head back ‘out there’. Within minutes I’d be in bed with a hot drink and Netflix until the next morning.

The hardest thing about immersion is that you can’t just close the books and see your friends. And every time you do pick them up, you feel totally overwhelmed by knowing so little of what you need to get anywhere, that it’s not long before you’ve put them down again.

Fighting the pain of immersion

My experience was that this gets easier as your language gets better. It’s not necessarily to do with culture shock, you being right or wrong, or properly assimilating. You just feel better when you can speak to people normally.
Our first contact point with the outside world is usually those instances where we have to speak: shops, cafés, restaurants and so on. For me, smashing these conversations first is the key to building my confidence to speak better more generally.

Before you go to the country, sit down with a teacher on a site like iTalki and ask them how to speak in these specific scenarios. You need 3-4 transactional phrases to ask for things, and get them ranked by politeness/formality. Put together a list of responses to “Do you need anything else?” or “Do you have a loyalty card”, and similarly for “Have a nice day” and “Take care”. Learn these well.

Next is the important bit. When you arrive, start using them straight away. Swap them around, and pay close attention to how other people react. Which phrase makes people laugh? Which turns people sour? Which seems neutral, and which ones do you hear other people say? Gradually, you will start to develop a sense of etiquette, and know how to get the kind of reactions you would expect in your own language.

You need to avoid the downward spiral or getting negative reactions and feeling alienated to overcome the pain of immersion. Because most encounters you have at first in a foreign language are just simple transactions, there is always a way to manipulate them better. In your own language you’ve got a whole set of different phrases to deploy at any moment. In your foreign language you probably don’t. Fixing that should be your top priority.

Since I’ve moved to Spain, I’ve noticed an enormous difference to moving abroad before. This time I can talk. I can ask people what’s going on, crack jokes, tell them about me and chat with them like a normal human being. Because of that I’ve had hardly any culture shock, second thoughts, or any of the signs of the adjustment phase that I’m used to.

It just goes to show: so many of the problems we have in this world come down to the fact that people just can’t talk to each other. When you can, you relax. You think level-headedly, and you start to enjoy life. And that is what living abroad should be all about.


Want to find out more about how I learn languages?

Come to one of my live events! Richard Simcott and I will teach you:

  • the fundamental techniques required for learning any language
  • how to take your languages to an advanced level
  • how to understand the real language native speakers read in books, watch on TV, and use in conversations
  • how to deal with motivation issues and set realistic goals for your success

Our next event will be in:

logo-blueValencia, Spain | 30th January 2016
London, UK | 27th and 28th February 201
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Or… Join us online! Programme starts 4th January 2016

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