Immersion Challenges

You’ve probably heard the advice that to immerse yourself truly in your target language, you should visit a country where it’s spoken natively.

But the truth is that it’s all too easy to play it safe and unconsciously avoid situations that push you to perform at the limits of your language skills. When we spend any amount of time developing a skill outside of performance environments, we tend to get attached to a certain level of pride or even identity around it.

It can be uncomfortable exposing that self-image to real stressors. But it’s also essential.

Not only are there subtle social aspects of language that can only be effectively learned from natural interactions, it’s also practically impossible to make your brain focus on faithful comprehension and reproduction of real language without the genuine threat of failure.

You need high stakes to learn anything as complex as language.

So if you take that trip, you should make a special effort not to live in a tourist bubble, and not to resort to your native language or a comfortable lingua franca at every opportunity.

You need to feel pressure to listen attentively and engage both memory and creativity to express yourself as fully as your vocabulary allows.

In other words, put yourself into social situations where you will be forced to adapt.

Here are some ideas, based on your confidence level:

For beginners

Get a haircut

Barbers and hairdressers talk to their customers all day. Sometimes those customers are talkative, sometimes they’re quiet. So when it comes to your target language, it’s a great environment to push yourself without feeling too awkward if you run out of things to say.

There’s also the matter of explaining what you want, which is not hard but does force you to be clear and double-check that you’ve understood each other if you want to avoid a disastrous result.

Tourists don’t often get haircuts abroad. If you’re observant, you’re likely to get a glimpse of local culture and hear some up-to-date colloquial language in its natural home.

Take taxis

Taxi drivers know the towns they drive in better than anyone.

Like hairdressers, they get some talkative customers and some quiet ones. They’re used to adapting to this, but unlike hairdressers they meet a lot of tourists. If you get confused, there’s a good chance they know some English or a lingua franca.

Talking to taxi drivers is a great way to get some insights into how local people communicate, social attitudes, colloquial expressions, and all the intuitive elements of language that are much harder to learn through formal study.

Urban sketching or a similar activity

If your plan is to live abroad for a while, it’s a good idea to link up with a group that meets regularly to do a certain activity.

One of the best things to get involved in is the urban sketching movement. Not only does it help to visually immerse yourself in the environment, it also puts you in a social situation that isn’t driven entirely by talking.

Intercambio / Language exchange

The wonderful thing about language exchange groups is knowing that you won’t be judged for your mistakes, and the fact that at some point in the conversation you’ll be switching to a language you speak fluently and giving your brain a rest.

Because everyone has the clear intention of improving their language skills at these events, it’s much easier to ask the person you’re speaking with to correct you. In other situations, people might avoid doing so to be polite – and thus contribute to crystallized errors.

Volunteering is a Language Immersion Challenge

Photo by Ron Lach

Intermediate level

Take a yoga or dance class

There’s no better way to master your verbs of space and movement than by listening carefully to specific instructions about how to move.

This is one activity where you’re much more focused on listening than speaking, but it’s also the perfect moment to get comfortable with asking “Can you repeat that?” without feeling embarrassed. You also might end up having some conversations after the class.

Volunteer, homestay, or couchsurf

Having a host is a good way to get immersed into the typical local lifestyle.

You might have some responsibilities, which will naturally push you toward thinking like a local rather than a tourist, but unlike taking a paid job, you probably won’t be expected to have perfect language skills.

Find a hiking group

Hiking is another activity where it’s just as reasonable to talk very little as to talk a lot. Getting into nature with some new friends creates the possibility of some very deep conversations, but if most of the group are locals it’s also an option to just listen.

You might hear some nature vocabulary, but your group might equally get talking creatively, unrestricted by the routines of urban life.

Explore a small town or village that isn’t a tourist destination

Small towns tend to be populated mostly by older people. Instead of youth slang and internet anglicisms, you’ll hear accents and expressions almost frozen in time.

Going to a place like this to have a meal or see a historical landmark can give you a quick plunge into the deep end of a culture that uses your target language. If the people you speak to are not used to tourists, you’ll get immediate feedback on how convincing you are as a comfortable user of the language who has adapted to the local style of communication.

Language Immersion Challenges

Photo by Yaroslav Shuraev

Expert level

Go to an open mic or similar event

If you play music, tell jokes, or write poetry, this is a great way to put yourself in the spotlight and invite feedback.

Of course, an experience like this will be much more impactful if you already feel very confident with your target language. You can test yourself to see if you’re truly integrated and can convince people to talk to you just like they’d talk to a fellow native.

Go on a date and only speak their language

With any skill, the risk of feeling embarrassed is absolutely critical to pushing the very limits of your ability.

The challenge with language learning at a high level is that it eventually becomes too comfortable. The embarrassment of the early stages fades and native speakers see your subtle mistakes as not worth pointing out. You’re hitting the expert plateau.

The key to get out of this is to put yourself in a situation where you feel nervous about how smoothly you’re communicating. What better way to do this than to go on a date with a native speaker, and avoid switching to your own language even if they speak it fluently!

Get involved in team sports

Again, the key here is high stakes. If your team is counting on you to perform, you’ll have to use all your senses not just to move well, but also to listen and express information without hesitation.

The camaraderie you develop with teammates in a competitive environment also means that off the field, when you’re spending time together, you’ll naturally fall into a pattern of speaking openly and fluidly. That’s key to seeing your target language as something that is really part of you, and not just something you’re studying.

Try to convince someone you’re a native speaker

The ultimate test of your mastery of pronunciation and idiomatic fluency: can you actually trick a native speaker into thinking this is your first language too?

Perhaps the hardest thing of all to pull off is grammar. It’s not that you should have perfect grammar; on the contrary, one tiny mistake could give away that this is not your native language, precisely because native speakers would be consistent in their deviations from the codified form.

Tip: Start with vocabulary

Whatever your level, if you’re planning a trip to a place where your target language is spoken, one of the best ways to prepare is to strengthen your vocabulary as much as possible before you arrive.

With a strong lexical foundation, each listening and speaking experience has a bigger impact.

Lingvist can quickly identify the vocabulary at the very edge of your current knowledge and give you tailored sets based on the most frequently used words, helping you understand as much as possible when it comes to real-world scenarios.

Get started here.

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