Once upon a time, you had to two choices if you wanted to get fluent in a language: ① Take language classes, or ② Move abroad. I did both and had a (mostly) great time doing so. But while I think classes can be great for those who can afford the time and tuition and that living abroad can be a profoundly transformative experience, neither undertakings are a requirement for learning a language. Today, anyone with an internet connection, a little creativity, and sufficient discipline can reach a high level of fluency anywhere in the world if they design the proper environment. Read on to see exactly how.
What is Self-Guided Immersion?
In a nutshell, Self-Guided Immersion means surrounding yourself with as much of your target language as possible, even if you don’t live where the language is spoken. Your goal is to make almost everything you hear, read, see, and say on a daily basis be in the foreign language:
- Reading the news? Do it in the language!
- Listening to the radio? Do it in the language!
- Watching a movie? Do it in the language!
- Checking Facebook? Do it in the language!
- Getting turn-by-turn driving directions on your smartphone? Do it in the language!
You get the idea.
Obviously the percentage of time you can realistically spend in your target language will depend somewhat on your life circumstances, employment status, marital status, etc., but everyone can at least increase their exposure to foreign languages in small, meaningful ways.
You don’t have to be immersed 24/7 for this approach to work. Some foreign language exposure is much better than no exposure. As Voltaire, advised, we mustn’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Just start by implementing a few of the suggestions below, and then add in more as you build confidence and start seeing results.
The Benefits of Self-Guided Immersion
The Self-Guided Immersion™ approach I share on the blog, in the podcast, and in my language guides has six major advantages over traditional, textbook and classroom-based learning:
It's More Fun
The Self-Guided Immersion approach allows you to choose fun, engaging materials and activities that you love.
It's Less Expensive
Language classes and textbooks are boring andexpensive. Choose fun, free, modern resources instead.
It's More Efficient
Your custom immersion environment allows you to make use of tiny “hidden moments” throughout the day.
It's More Convenient
Self-Guided Immersion allows you to learn anytime, anywhere. You don’t need to travel to a class or move abroad.
It's More Natural
Humans have learned languages through immersion for hundreds of thousands of years. It’s how our brains are wired.
Self-Guided Immersion allows you to tailor the learning process to your unique interests, needs, and learning style.
In linguistics, “input” refers to listening and reading content. While this is often a more passive activity than output (and you certainly can listen to your target language as you go about other tasks like commuting, walking, washing the dishes, gardening, etc.), you will get the most out of your input activities if you give them your full focus, actively engaging with the content, looking up new words, and making connections with what you already know. Here are some of the best Self-Guided Immersion approaches to integrating more foreign language listening and reading throughout your day:
Change your device & web display languages
With just a few taps or clicks, you can change your smartphone, computer, social media accounts, and web browser to your target language. This way, you get exposure to the language throughout your normal day as you do tasks you would already be doing anyway. See instructions here.
As you can guess, “output” is the opposite of “input” in linguistic terms. This includes speaking and writing, and by definition, tends to be the more active half of the language learning coin. Many people find output more intimidating than input since the former opens you up to making mistakes and being misunderstood. But be brave and realize that you need a balanced diet of both to reach fluency.
Get a language tutor
The single most important step you can take in your language learning journey is getting a language tutor. They will help create a cultural context for the language, share useful vocabulary and patterns, suggest resources that fit your interests, and point out your mistakes before they become fossilized. There are numerous places to find tutors online today but my favorite is iTalki, which has a large number of highly rated tutors, a useful scheduling tool that automatically adjusts for time zones, and a great blog.
Get your writing corrected
While reading and writing practice will both help you gradually improve, getting direct feedback from a native speaker will greatly accelerate the process. One of the best ways to get free writing correction from native speakers is using Lang-8. The clever site uses a bartering system, where you get free correction of your target language in exchange for providing feedback on compositions written in your native language.
Text with native speakers
Some may decry the rise of texting and fear that it’s leading to the fall of civilization as we know it. I assure you as a linguist that this is not the case (see this great TED Talk from John McWhorter if you need more convincing). Texting is a just another mode of communication, and happens to be a great way to practice writing in a foreign language. Use the app HelloTalk to chat with native speakers around the world.
Keep a foreign language journal
Keeping a daily journal in your target language is a great way to practice writing, jot down useful words and phrases, note questions for your tutor, and monitor your progress over time. You can use any app or paper you have on hand, but I recommend the Day One app and a pocket-sized Moleskine Cahier Journal so you always have something with you for journalling and note taking.
Immersion Still Takes Work
Immersion is a powerful tool, but immersion is not the same thing as osmosis. Just as you won’t pick up the local language simply by living abroad (as proven by the large number of expats I met in Japan, Bangladesh, and Taiwan unable to speak a lick of Japanese, Bengali, or Mandarin), you won’t automatically learn a language by simply downloading some foreign language podcasts. You still have to actually show up. You have to actively listen, speak, read, and write on a daily basis. And you have to have the courage to communicate with native speakers.
So no, Self-Guided Immersion is not a panacea. But learning in this autodidactic way is a much more enjoyable and effective way to learn foreign languages compared with traditional textbooks and classrooms.