How To Do Language Immersion The Right Way: Strategies For Expats

language immersionToday I’m delighted to feature a guest post from Alicia about creating a language immersion environment for yourself.

You’ll learn about:

  • Why it’s important to language proof your surroundings
  • Different ways you can create your own immersion environment
  • The role culture and tradition plays in your learning

Here’s Alicia…


Learning a new language is an exciting experience but it can become quite overwhelming at times. This is especially true if you’re living abroad in a new country.

After all, you will be surrounded by people who are communicating in a way you can’t understand yet. Feelings of alienation and that you simply don’t belong will be quite common.

So what can you do about this? How can you learn more quickly so that you can actually begin to understand and communicate with the people you meet?

My solution: Make your environment language proof.

Language proofing refers to attempting to make the foreign as familiar as possible.

In order to accomplish the goal, however, you will need to adopt a proactive approach.

Every single thing that you do during the day can become a source of knowledge if you’re open to the opportunity.

Making your environment language proof isn’t going to be easy in the beginning but once you start working on it, chances are that you’ll see almost immediate results.

Let’s look at some of the ways you can start to language proof your environment.

#1 Look For Easy Ways To Learn New Wordslanguage immersion television

Immersing yourself in the local environment will soon give you a chance to recognize many of the words that people are using on a regular basis.

In order to start feeling more comfortable, it’s imperative to accept the challenge of learning new words everywhere that you go.

The good news is that you can rely on various techniques in order to start building a vocabulary in the local language.

The first essential to consider is accepting opportunities as they come along. Many expats and people who are spending some time in a foreign country will avoid situations that force them out of their comfort zone due to the language barrier. These situations, however, are the ones that can gradually improve one’s language proficiency.

Take local television as an example. Right now, you probably switch the channel as soon as a local show comes on. But while watching a movie or the news in English will feel comfortable and familiar, this isn’t necessarily the best approach when it comes to gaining language mastery.

Using TV & Movies As A Language Immersion Tool

One of the best tools you can rely on for the purpose of language proofing your environment is movies with subtitles. With these, you can learn which English word corresponds to a phrase in the local language.

Watch the movie and pay close attention to the subtitles until you begin identifying some of the common phrases. Once you can do this, move on to watching local shows and trying to understand the words.

Watching the local news is also a good idea. News anchors have to meet certain language proficiency requirements. They have the right diction and they utilize the language in a professional manner.

Thus, watching the new can make it a bit easier to “catch” phrases than attempting to watch a sitcom that comes with more colloquial speech.

Other than watching local TV, you can attempt a few additional things in order to make your vocabulary richer within a relatively short period of time. Here are some good activities to try:

  • Try to translate signs on the street
  • Listen to the spoken instructions on the subway and other public transportation vehicles
  • Try to engage in very basic conversations with locals
  • Learn words from your immediate surroundings
  • Add labels to things found in your home and attempt to name each one before reading the label
  • Visit local websites and social media and try to identify words once again

#2 Language Proof Your Communication With Otherslanguage immersion communicate

Many expats commit the serious mistake of limiting their social interactions because they worry about being misunderstood or ridiculed for their lack of fluency.

While such fears are entirely unfounded, most people who have lived in a foreign country for a certain period of time know just how overwhelming they can be.

It’s normal to want to interact with people who understand you but such an approach doesn’t contribute anything to your language proofing efforts.

Try to control the fear and go out there.

Once you gather the courage to approach local people, you’ll find out that they’re probably quite helpful and eager to assist you, whether it’s the lady who works at the local supermarket or the stranger that you approach to ask for directions.

Push yourself to use the words that you’ve already learned in everyday situations. This is one of the best opportunities for mastering the fine nuances and the specifics of the language.

Through your interaction with others, you will learn more about idioms, body language and accents. You will also master the intonation and the non-verbal elements of your communication with others.

Don’t Fall Into The ‘English Trap’

A thing that many expats experience is the willingness of local people to speak in English or another language that they’re familiar with.

While you may feel much more comfortable this way, it’s a good idea to ask people to speak in the local language with you instead.

Needless to say, phrases that you don’t understand can be translated. Still, being immersed in the language is the only way to push yourself and attempt speaking.

You may also want to start carrying a notebook around. Use it to record new phrases and words that you’ve learned through your communication with others.

The notebook will be quite beneficial for the purpose of reviewing phrases in the future or consulting your notes whenever you can’t remember a word during a conversation.

#3 Learn New Language Through Tradition And Culturelanguage culture brazil

The rich linguistic heritage of a nation will be easier to master when you immerse yourself in the local environment and culture.

Understanding the national beliefs, the traditions and the biases of local people is imperative for learning to truly understand a langauge. These things are the contextual backdrop for every single conversation and you’ll need them when you’re attempting to understand things from context.

The relationship between language and culture is quite intimate. There are cultural overtones that build upon the meaning of words and phrases.

While the culture is often harder to pick up for foreigners than the language itself, doing so results in a much higher level of proficiency in the language.

Language & Culture Are Closely Connected

An interesting report on the topic was presented by Canadian researchers. The team found out that certain groups of immigrants had a much harder time when it came to learning the language and fitting in.

The groups that most experienced such hardships were the ones that came from a completely different cultural background, a culture that had very little in common with the Canadian one.

The same applies to Westerners attempting to learn languages like Japanese or Chinese, for example. While the languages are quite difficult, this isn’t the primary reason they’re challenging. The vast differences in the cultural background also contribute to a difficult experience.

#4 Use Local Media To ‘Language Proof’ Your Free Timelanguage immersion local media

Buying a local newspaper or a magazine every now and then is another good idea.

In the very beginning, media articles will be incredibly difficult to go through. You will need a dictionary by your side and you’ll probably still find it difficult to understand the meaning of the specific piece.

Media, however, can be quite beneficial. It will contribute to an understanding of the language that textbooks can’t really bring to the table.

There’s a major difference between newspapers, magazines and language textbooks:

  • Media utilizes a contemporary form of the language that people rely on.
  • Textbooks are much more formal. Many of the phrases featured in language textbooks are correct but they’ll often never be used by the local population because of their stiffness.

Start with online media and newspapers or magazines that discuss topics of interest to you. As your vocabulary expands, you can move on to books in the local language.

Newspapers are great for language proofing because you can write notes on them for the purpose of making sense of a title or an article.

It’s a wonderful idea to dedicate 30 minutes in the morning to language proofing via the use of local media.

Sip on your coffee, open the newspaper and try to understand the major headlines. Underline the words that you don’t understand and get your dictionary to make sense of the confusion.

Online Media & Advertisements

Online media is a bit easier if you’re concerned about jumping into the deep end right from the start. Using Google translate is a wonderful idea when it comes to making some sense of an online article. While the translation service doesn’t always result in an impeccable text, it will give you a general idea about what the article is trying to say.

When looking at media, don’t ignore the ads. They usually feature images that provide some context about the meaning of the words. In fact, all kinds of advertising can prove to be invaluable when it comes to mastering common phrases.

Make A Start & The Results Will Follow

Language proofing your environment is similar to going on a scavenger hunt. You will be hunting for words, phrases and context in an attempt to turn the alien into familiar.

Language proofing can be scary in the beginning – you will be surrounded by words you don’t understand. But the sense of triumph you will get when you start detecting familiar phrases, is unparalleled.

Being familiar with the language will open new opportunities that you simply will not be given access to if you stick to things that make you feel comfortable.

Chances are that you’ll make new friendships and you’ll enjoy diverse cultural experiences every time you go out.

Once you start learning the words you encounter frequently, you will be opening yourself up to new knowledge and a brand new culture.

Although it’s a little bit scary at first, this opening up will result in the kind of authentic memories that you will cherish for a lifetime (regardless of the length of your stay).


What things do you do to language proof your immediate environment? Are you living abroad and trying to learn the local language? Let us know in the comments below!

This is a guest post by Alicia Clarke. Alicia is an experienced teacher with 5 years of work in the field of education. Today, she writes about the various educational topics that she’s passionate about. You may find her on NSW-writers or Facebook

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  • banjonyc

    Great and timely article. I am currently learning thai as i will be living in thailand for 7 month per year. I use so many methods to learn thai. Good advice on consuming media in the natuve language. I prefer music to watching news because Thai news only uses formal Thai and truly no one speaks like that. I am fortunate to have found a language partner who lives in Bangkok. For the first month I am living in thailand, I am spending it with my partner speaking only thai, no english. Im actually very nervous about this as i dont want to embarrass myself or even frustrate the listener who may be busy and wants to get on with their day, but I am going to do it.

  • Luke Truman

    Just a point, you don’t need to live in the Country to get language immersion or apply your methods thanks to the internet you can get boundless resources for almost any language.

    Just today I got 29 comics of the Japanese Manga Gintama ordered online that had been translated into Spoken Cantonese, and there are countless HK dramas and things to watch online