Tips on making the most out of your linguistic trip
How to learn English through immersion 🤿
How can you learn English through immersion? Here's what how you can make the most out of your linguistic trip.
People often think of learning English by immersion as a miraculous solution to mastering the language: "Oh, learning English is easy, all you need to do is live in an English-speaking country!". The problem is that these misconceptions are most often popularized either by people who have never done it, or by people who have tried but didn't actually come that far with their English studies. It's like saying that in order to become a professional pianist, all you need to do is be a restroom attendant at the opera house.
The environment does help—immersion is great, but it's not enough! The proof are the thousands of expats and immigrants who live abroad yet remain isolated from the rest of the population because of the language barrier.
So, in this article, I want to to use my experience in order to show you how to succeed through immersion in English.
Learning English by immersion - my story
I speak English, French, Hungarian, Russian, and Spanish. Some of these I learned in France, others in the country where the language is spoken or going back and forth between the two. In any case, immersion is an essential step - you want to use it to either learn (see my tips below), or to finally be able to enjoy this foreign language which took so much effort to learn!
Hungarian is a language which I learned through immersion and my methods can be applied by anyone who wants to learn English by immersion.
When I landed in Hungary.=m I had already made a few notes in Hungarian, but really not that much. I had tried learning it in France with two methods (Assimil and Pimsleur) but that didn't bring as much success as I had hoped. I knew a few words and phrases, but during a trip to Budapest, I realized it was very hard for me to use them and the locals didn't understand what I was saying, because of my pronunciation.
There was no way I would give up. After this fun vacation, that was perhaps a bit disappointing from a language point of view, I decided to go live in the country for 2-3 months. I left with the idea that, as long as I would study hard during three months on site, I would be able to speak fluently. (You'll see how successful I was).
Immersion in English or another language is always an exciting journey!
Determined to learn the language, I arrived in the country with a plan - to take advantage of every opportunity to use Hungarian, immersed in the language. This was my first time living abroad and I wanted to enjoy it and learn the language by diving into the culture.
Long story short... my plan worked out!
After two months on site, I could do everything in Hungarian. Of course, with some difficulties (I didn't always speak fluently) but I enjoyed speaking, I did it with a certain ease, I was capable of breaking the ice with new people and use Hungarian all day long.
I had not reached a level of fluency, let alone becoming bilingual (becoming bilingual in three months is an illusion) but I could communicate clearly in the language and use it in daily life. To sum up, I had acquired a solid foundation in the language, I had also learned in two months on site what most people can only learn after years of study.
What made my immersion trip successful?
The first and most important thing is that I had one simple rule:
I allowed myself to speak ONLY the language of the country.
I forbade myself to speak French or English. I allocated only certain times for these two languages on Sunday evening, to stay connected with friends and family back in France.
What's the use in going to the other end of the world if you're going to live at home?
In the same way, what's the use in going to a country to immerse yourself in English if you're going to speak (and think) in your native language most of the time? So:
When learning in immersion, allow yourself to speak only the language of the chosen country.
This principle is the key to success in order to learn English by or through immersion.
I can already hear many objections - "Okay, but I can't speak the language yet, I have to use my native language."
Just like the training wheels on a child's bike, you could use your own language to help you understand English, but use it only at a minimum. But use it only at the bare minimum. Try doing everything in English, that's the goal (and that's what language immersion is!). You're going to discover unsuspected talents and will be impressed by the capacity of the human mind and body to adapt.
What happened when I only let myself speak the language of the country?
I was left with only one choice - to learn it!
I didn't know anyone in the city. So, if I wanted to make friends (and not get depressed), I HAD TO learn the language.
Keep in mind the power of our social nature. We are social animals. If the only way to be a part of a group is to learn the language, we will learn it. It's our survival instinct in action.
In other words, I had no choice.
So, you'll probably tell me, "But Fabien, how did you make friends in a language you didn't know yet?"
It's very simple (but the result of many efforts):
- I met a lot of people.
- I worked on what I wanted to say with my teachers (I had two).
- Then I repeated the same stories with new people that I met, until it became automatic.
Look at it as the work of an actor. An actor rehearses the same lines again and again until it becomes second nature to them. They first memorize the big lines, then the expressions, and then focus on additional nuance and details.
That works for living languages, too.
Once you're in the country, go have a few drinks with the locals to break the ice. It's fun and will even help erase your foreign accent!
I worked on conversation topics and simple stories - things which I wanted to tell people which I met.
It was hard for me to meet them at first, it required a lot of effort.
However little by little, from one meeting to another, these stories would become more and more familiar.
My output was becoming more and more fluid. My grammar became more precisely correct and my pronunciation more authentic.
If you want to tell the same story to the same person forty times, they would get bored to death.
If you tell the same story in English to dozens of different people, you will only get better in the end.
Here's what I did exactly when I was working on my immersion experience with Hungarian:
- I would prepare what I wanted to say to my Hungarian teacher.
- She was mostly a conversation teacher and I got lucky to have found a good teacher.
- She had the intuition to guess what I wanted to say. To such an extent that, if I knew next to nothing, that did not keep us from talking the whole time in Hungarian and to only occasionally use a few words in English, only when it was absolutely necessary.
- She had the wisdom to make people repeat and to give them the chance to correct themselves before she would do it herself. By doing so, you avoid the unpleasant side of always being corrected, while also helping you speak better and learn how the language works.
- I knew what I wanted to learn. I didn't do homework (because I don't like it and I compensated by participating in actual meetings) but I didn't show up to classes without having prepared, either. I always had things to talk about and things I wanted to discover.
- I met a lot of people with whom I could use what I had learned during my classes
- As I mentioned, I was improving with each new meeting, I was like a comedian!
- These meetings also made me discover what other conversation topics I wanted to be able to talk about.
- I took notes. I never went out for a drink without a pen and paper. (To note, annotate, and scribble).
- It was a vicious circle! My teacher helped me to prepare. The meetings were great for practice. They helped me explore new ideas, which I covered in class. By doing this, I was improving with each new class and with each new meeting.
- At the end, the lessons and meetings ended up being similar - many people whom I was meeting were helping me learn things I wanted to know how to say, while my classes were more and more relaxed and were like a conversation between friends.
- I was also working on grammar with a grammar book and, on top of that, a teacher who specialized in grammar (a different one from the one mentioned above), quite expensive, which would force me to make progress.
- Grammar was even more important in Hungarian, because the it's so different. Studying grammar allows you to pinpoint the differences between your new language and your mother tongue.
- When we learn grammar via immersion (as a complement to speaking the language!), we at least have the pleasure of being able to observe the grammar everywhere around us and to see how we can use it in order to understand the language.
- For English, it's up to you to see if grammar is hard for you and then map out which points you should work on.
I call this approach a three-sided approach because we attack the language from three sides. We can do it at home, too. The advantage of doing immersion abroad is that the opportunities to meet natives are multiplied ten fold or more, as long as you're open and sociable and you avoid monolingual expats from your home country.
Before moving on and telling you what allowed me to reach a conversational level in Hungarian in just two months of immersion, I would like to talk to you about systemics.
Facing a project, we count too much on our will and motivation. The problem is that these two eventually run out:
- Our willpower decreases as our fatigue grows.
- And, without making visible progress, our motivation decreases with time, while it gives good results when we meet obstacles.
A better resource which you can count on, instead of counting on our will and motivation is the systemic way of thinking.
Instead of falsely believing that the will is enough to succeed, think about the way you can force yourself to succeed.
In my case, the fact that I had forbidden myself to speak English or French, forced me to succeed in Hungarian.
I would either learn Hungarian and make friends, enjoy my trip, and reach my goal (and enjoy life!), or I would stay where I was, like a loner, alone and not speaking to anyone.
Really, it wasn't a hard choice!
I had placed conditions which would force me to learn the language.
Note that this is something which would have never succeeded if I had left with the idea that "I would do Hungarian from time to time, when I wanted to".
In other words, difficulties can do you well, as long as you choose them and you put them to your service.
In order to reach a goal, design a system which would force you to reach that goal.
Linguistic trips are a good way to learn English - you're in a good environment and your environment influences you.
On the other hand, this is not enough to learn English because you can continue doing the majority of things in your mother tongue (people from your country are everywhere and the Internet makes it easy to go to the other side of the world without cutting the tie between our home country).
So, think about this in the context of your goals (in English or another language):
What system can you design which would force you to succeed?
You already know the main part of my story and what allowed me to learn Hungarian or, at least have a solid foundation to be able to communicate and live in the language.
Another thing which helped me a lot was the fact that I read a lot about the way the brain works and how it learns a language. I knew what I had to do in theory and in practice.
I also knew how to break down an enormous foreign language into smaller digest subparts in order to better learn and to make sure I would progress. That's what we call chunking - a key-concept in order to learn a language. As English speakers say, You can eat an elephant, one bite at a time.
Oh, and this first linguistic trip is among the happiest months of my life. Learning a new language, meeting tons of new people, and constantly making progress were giving me a certain sweetness to life (which was even stronger given the place - Budapest is a beautiful city which is very nice to walk around in). This also helped me gain confidence, which encouraged me to then go on a linguistic world trip. Diving into a project and succeeding is probably the best way to build your confidence.
Immersion in Russia
It's good to talk about what works but we tend to better remember what doesn't work, especially when it happens to someone else. This helps us see the traps to avoid.
So, I would like to talk to you about my first contact with the Russian language and about the fact that immersion doesn't automatically allow you to learn the language.
We sometimes think that immersion does everything... that, if we're in the country, we hear and see the language everywhere and every day, our brain will naturally start understanding, assimilating, and that this will allow us to speak. I believe this misconception comes from the way we learn our native language - we are constantly exposed to it, and the rest seems to work like magic! This is unfortunately far from reality.
Children spend their time in immersion, of course, but they spend their time working on the language in one way or another, be it with their parents who tell them stories, or on the playground with other children... This often looks like a game but it's still a form of learning. They learn at the cost of constant efforts, fulltime, and with the necessity to integrate into the group. It's not immersion which does its magic but rather the hours spent discovering that language, which are rewarded.
Also note that they learn very, very slowly - kids spend between 12,000 and 15,000 hours learning their native language! [source - Diane Larsen-Freeman (1991)] I don't know if you've had a conversation with a five-year-old recently... it's cute but it's far from being impressive for five year's worth of work! If you compare that to the one thousand hours an adult needs to reach a C2 level in English, the number is ridiculously low.
In short, immersion doesn't do everything, as I have learned at my own cost.
After having acquired a solid foundation in Hungarian, I went into a world tour which took me to New Zealand, Australia, Argentina, Columbia, and the United States... with a few stops in Hungary so I wouldn't lose what I had acquired and, finally, in Russia. (Russian and Hungarian are two totally different languages and knowing one doesn't help the other in any way).
I went about learning Russian with quite a bit of confidence. I had succeeded in taming Hungarian after all, the language which is often presented as the "hardest in Europe".
I had planned to spend three months in Russia and that's what I did.
The problem - I arrived in Russia with zero knowledge of the language (and too confident which we could safely call arrogance).
I thought I could learn with a few books and through immersion... Moreover, my girlfriend at the time (now, my wife) was Russian. I thought that Russian was entering my brain like a letter in the post box... that's how immersion works, right?
I was quite naïve. :-)
After three months in Russia, I still wasn't capable of holding a basic conversation.
Looking back at it, it's not surprising:
I had not done anything to force myself to learn the language.
I had spent more time in Russia working than doing anything else. Yet, nothing replaces the simple fact of spending time with the language. My capacity to learn was limited by the number of hours invested in practicing the language, which was limited by my choices and lack of organization.
When it came to life necessities (which would normally force you to use the language), my girlfriend could translate anything for me and her family was of big help, too. It was appreciated and practical, but that deprived me of the kick in the butt I needed to force me to learn.
After three months in Russia, I knew more or less the alphabet and, to a certain extent, the pronunciation, but I was far from speaking the language or mastering the basics.
Sometimes, life interferes and that's just a part of the game. At the time, my priority was working. But these are things you should plan and immersion will never be a miraculous solution to that type of problems.
You have to know how to organize yourself. Or, as the saying goes:
By failing to plan, you are planning to fail.
Tips on learning English through immersion
Let's get to the moral of the story. What should you pay attention to in order to have a successful English immersion?
The lesson we can learn from all of this is that:
If you don't plan your immersion so that it forces you to practice English, the language will not enter on its own and you will not get to enjoy what immersion has to offer: countless hours of practice with natives.
Immersion is not a solution, it's a tool. It's up to you to make the most out of this tool, with the risk of regretting not having used your chance.
The traps to avoid
- Thinking that immersion will do everything - no, it's up to you to do the work.
- Allowing yourself to speak your native language - you have to abandon you previous environment in order to integrate yourself in the new one.
- Spending time with people from your home country - run away from them!
The paths to follow
- Design a system which will force you to practice English. For example:
- X number of one-on-one classes per week, depending on your predetermined schedule.
- X meetings per week (which would probably mean sending Y number of messages to potential pen-pals/ conversation partners).
- Practice English every day, multiple times a day, which I call the daily rhythm for learning languages.
- Arrive in the country with at least some knowledge of the language, so you can advance rapidly once you're there.
- Think in English, even if you're only at a beginner level.
- Rethink and reuse the little that you know, especially while you stroll. This will make English more familiar.
- Take naps.
- If you work a lot on the language, you'll probably be surprised how tired you end up being (and that's the good kind of tiredness!). There's nothing better than taking naps, which will allow your brain to rest and consolidate its memory.
When you make goals which depend on you it helps you stick to them and motivate yourself.
If you don't have the time for a quick nap, simply keep in mind that memory consolidates in your sleep and that naps will help you keep your rhythm and better memorize (obviously, as long as you've practiced enough!!!).
I'm not procrastinating, I'm consolidating my memory!
How much time does it take to learn English via immersion?
You're undoubtedly asking yourself How much time does it take to learn English in immersion in total? There's no perfect answer. This depends on the level you're aiming for. The answer is the same regardless of whether you're learning in immersion or not because, no matter where you are on Earth, the question is not so much your location as much as the number of hours you spend using English.
Number of hours needed in order to reach each level.
(Immersion helps you have little reminders when you walk around in a city, when you read signs and listen to the people passing by and it's nice, but that's the bare minimum of practice.)
In immersion, you have the opportunities for meetings, the motivation, the environment, and everything which will help you practice more English without having to struggle. I recommend that you aim for up to five hours of practice per day. Aim for a minimum of three hours per day. If things in English go as well as they went for me with Hungarian (which I hope they do!) you should be able to all the time.
Where can you learn English through immersion?
I would like to focus on the biggest mistake that foreigners make when going on a linguistic trip to learn English.
This mistake is very simple:
All the foreigners from one country go to learn English in the same places!
London, New York, maybe Australia for the braver ones (an enormous country where people are concentrated in the same cities).
It's incredible and the lack of imagination is also a bit sad.
Cities like London are probably not the best places to immerse yourself in English...
So, if you've already gone or you're attracted by such destinations, I can understand that. These are names which are almost legendary and certainly more popular than, say, Sranton, Pennsylvania. And they are beautiful cities... but that's not the point!
If you want to visit those places, you can go there on vacation.
But in order to learn English through immersion, it's better to go somewhere else.
Look for small cities and towns that don't have so many foreigners, and where you'll be next to the only foreigner, which is another advantage:
- You'll be forced to speak English (a good enough advantage to go there)
But also, due to the fact that you'll be among the few foreigners there:
- Everyone will be curious to talk to you!
Your country and culture are certainly fascinating and people will have many questions to ask, which is great practice for you!
Whereas when you're in London or New York, you're one of many people from the same country to order something in a restaurant, with an extremely obvious accent.. So, that loses its charm! What would be charming in a small town, where people have the patience and the curiosity to listen to you, becomes insignificant and even annoying or irritating in a stressed city like London or New York, or even Sydney and Melbourne.
Think about it - would you want to be just another foreigner? Or would you rather live a beautiful adventure in a place where you would be "exotic"?
Obviously, it requires some courage to go to an unknown place as opposed to following the well-known paths. Even better. This means that the brave ones are rewarded.
Go to places that are less popular - and by definition, I can't tell you where exactly, I can only tell you which places you should avoid.
In passing, during my two-three months in immersion, my joke with the locals consisted in saying (in the language), as soon as I heard French people "Oh no, French people! Quick! We have to get away from here!" Not only did I maintain my language immersion, but this also created a funny situation when surrounded by tourists. This also made me stand out of the crowd and be the French person who speaks the local language, rather than the tourist.
I'm not convinced we would always love living in a city and certainly not all the time. Choosing a smaller place, which is prettier in terms of nature and landscapes can be a breath of fresh air, which will make your immersion more enjoyable and will leave you with unforgettable memories.
Finally, if you want a full immersion in English which is also budget-friendly, choosing smaller and lesser-known places will allow you to stay longer, more easily. Or maybe even go right away! Personally, if I have to make the choice between spending two months in the middle of nowhere, where everyone wants to talk to me because there aren't many tourists, and a week in New York... the choice is obvious!
It's up to you to put the odds in your favor when it comes to the choice of your destination : how many hours of English practice will you get by going to this destination as opposed to another one?
Small cities and towns are a smart choice for your immersion in English
How to prepare your linguistic trip
Before going to learn English through full immersion, I advise you to have a basic grasp of the English language. This means, try to at least have a basic foundation which will allow you to read and which will help you when you arrive in the country. This will allow you to start off your English immersion on the right track rather than suffering.
Here are a few ways to prepare your English language immersion:
- Be familiar with English phonetics, in order to be able to understand the spoken language.
- Master enough English to survive.
- No need to know how to talk about rocket science, nor about international politics, but do have a sufficient amount of knowledge in order to be able to find a hostel (or a motel or an Airbnb) and then accommodation.
- Know how to present yourself and say what you're doing there, in order to start breaking the ice.
You can leave with more (the higher your level, the more opportunities you'll have) but I think that that's enough. Be sure not to use your level of English as an excuse not to go ("Oh, I'll go when I'm better!"), that would mean that being a perfectionist and procrastination will come in the way of you living your adventure.
On the flipside, don't expect to learn English just from your trip. Immersion is not a miraculous solution and the sooner you start working on your English, whatever your age, the better your level in English will be.
For your linguistic trip, my tips from a logistics point of view are:
- Go to the country with as little need to work as possible. This will allow you to focus on learning English, working with teachers, and meeting new people.
- Prepare yourself mentally and financially. Set a later date of departure, if that would mean leaving in better conditions. But as soon as those conditions are met, go for it!
- Buy your tickets in advance, preferably two-tree months beforehand (even earlier if you're going somewhere far away).
- It's cheaper that way, on the one side.
- On the other side, and more importantly, you'll be super motivated once you have your ticket! This will help you prepare and work on your English before going.
If you want to work on your English before going, I obviously recommend using Click & Speak because this is the most intelligent product to learn English on the market. It makes you work on phonetics, vocabulary, and grammar in a progressive and lively way, with as little as 20 minutes and up to 3 hours of English per day, depending on your schedule!
Finally, keep in mind that such linguistic trips are to a great extent a personal adventure. Being open and knowing how to approach others, knowing how to break the ice, having a good sense of humor, being a good listener, knowing how to make the first step... these qualities are important and they will develop during your trip, in order to meet people and benefit from your immersion. (Books in English on personal development and communication will be of great help).
That's it. That's everything on learning English through immersion for now. I will talk more about it in a future article, explaining how to create an English-speaking bubble in another country. In the meantime, I wish you Bon Voyage! and a great English-learning experience!