This is Part 2 in a 2-part series on a relationship between language learning and self-knowledge, and treating language learning like a tourist. To read the first part, click here.
Usually, when people go abroad and live in an environment where everyone around them speaks another language, it’s called “immersion.”
I think this term has come into common usage not least of all because of a parallel in religious practice. Those covered in water are thought, not only to get wet, but to undergo a transformation.
“Immersion,” however, suggests a passive process: The human mind plays the role of sponge, newly soaked in another language.
####A Chemical Process
To me this misunderstands the learning process, while privileging a way of learning language that still requires an active commitment on the part of a learner.
Even when the speakers of another language surround us, the use of language still breaks down into discrete encounters.
During some of these encounters, we make a connection between something within ourselves and something outside of ourselves. Sometimes the use of a new language attaches inside of us to an existing opinion or attitude, a thought. Sometimes it joins a set of less cognitive impressions.
Even in immersive environments we can’t avoid moments of true passivity, too. I doubt such periods move the language-learning project forward by very much, if at all.
And so, this process of immersion makes us resemble less a sponge, more the site of a chemical reaction. Ingredients and regents react with each other, and something new is formed in the vortex.
We find the language now at our disposal — but only after it has been built anew on the inside.
A Practical Approach
People overrate, in my opinion, the importance of being immersed and underrate the importance of the reaction that usually takes place during immersion.
Though immersive environments will almost always furnish us with the most opportunities to use a language, we can still imagine a strategy to make the most of any language encounter.
1. Use rote memorization to get the basics down quickly. But stop at the basics.
Rote memorization may not offer us the same pleasures, say, as extensive reading or studying dialogues in a controlled environment, but when you want to take advantage of the highway, you need to use the onramp. Sometimes these are steep.
Learn the core vocabulary. Learn how to make simple declarative sentences in the present tense and how to ask questions. Drill yourself on these things until you know them like a favorite song. You may want to use flashcards.
If you want to get an overview of the rest of the grammar at this point, it may be worthwhile to skim ahead. This, however, will only delay that first real language encounter – that someone in an immersive environment wouldn’t have had the chance to avoid.
2. Find speakers of the language you want to learn and speak to them without using any English.
Imitate the immersed learner and start using the language. Make full use of the basic vocabulary and sentence structure that you’ve learned through rote memorization.
Meet people in a variety of places: cafes, bars, libraries, concerts, or even, if possible, in the workplace.
Video teleconferencing tools, such as Skype, can possibly provide you with some speaking opportunities, but don’t over use them. You want your interactions to involve all modalities.
Seek out multiple speakers as well. Don’t just rely on one ‘teacher.’ You’ll need to make friends, even if you have to drive longer distances to meet them.
3. Once you’re completely bored, go back to step 1, but study more advanced material.
When you first start using a language, you’ll probably feel a sense of excitement. You should be having fun. But when you’ve exhausted your vocabulary and ability to use grammar, you’ll start to feel boredom, little by little.
You’ll be looking for ways to express nuances, but won’t know how. Your mind will now have thoroughly prepared to absorb new grammar and vocabulary — making them less boring and easier to learn.
Of course this ‘method’ breaks no new ground. It’s hardly innovative. But then, neither is immersion. This is simply immersion demystified.
And yet, if you approach a language in this way, you’ll soon — perhaps even the very first time you try step 2 — find some surprises: A turn of phrase you didn’t know you knew, comprehension of a turn of something someone said, even though you never studied it before.
Such surprises indicate the language has taken a step independent of your English mind. It’s moving forward under its own power.
And these surprises, if they’re the best kind, will give you a new understanding about yourself — those parts you never knew existed.