Where do you like to do it? Creating an immersion environment.

On the sofa? In the bedroom? In the car? At work!? I do it in all these places. Everyday. And so should you!

Want more details? Of course what I’m talking about is listening and reading in another language, or creating an immersion environment. Why spend all that time and money travelling abroad when you can recreate another country in your own home?

What exactly do I do on the sofa and in the bedroom? Well I’ll get to that a bit later, but let’s unpack this a little bit first.

Total immersion in a language

Total immersion in a language

Everywhere you look

Every wondered why people’s language skills improve quickly when they move to another country? No, me neither – it’s obvious! When you’re surrounded by the language everyday you can’t help but get better. By being immersed in the environment you learn new words and phrases naturally and in context. Everywhere you look you see the written language and everywhere you go you hear the language being spoken authentically. It’s no wonder you improve quickly. Mass exposure is without a doubt the best way to acquire a lot of language.

But if you’re not in a position to pick up and move to a new country (and let’s face it, who is?!), it’s easy to get despondent and use this as an excuse for your lack of progress. “I’m just unlucky. If I had a job where I could live in another country, I’d be fluent in no time!

So people who move abroad are immersed in the language, and they’re really lucky, etc etc. Fine. But what made you think that you have to live abroad in order to get that immersion?

No excuses

The reality is that many expats actually live and operate in an entirely English-speaking bubble and have to try just as hard as you to learn the local language. If you don’t believe me, go to Japan, where an embarrassing 95% of expats speak next to zero Japanese. Anyone who works full-time faces just the same language learning challenges, no matter what country they live in.

The good news is that with a bit of creative thinking you can create just as much language immersion in your own home as you could hope to have abroad. Here’s how.

Gathering materials

This is the bit that needs a concerted effort. You need to gather things that you can listen to, watch or read in as many different and flexible formats as possible. The guiding principle is that, as far as possible, it should all be material that you’re interested in. This is important – you’re much more likely to learn from something if it doesn’t bore you to death.

Suggestions include:

  • Movies
  • YouTube channels (subscribe to interesting channels and queue up good videos in your Watch Later folder)
  • Audio books (might have to spend some time on Google to find a good source for your language)
  • Podcasts. There are hundreds of them in every language. Explore iTunes.
  • Books. A tricky one because books, on the whole, are long and hard! A good strategy is to look for something instructional on a topic that interests you. That should be motivating enough. I’m always reminded of Tim Ferris’ Japanese judo book as a great example; he was in Japan and wanted to learn judo. So what kind of book did he buy? You guessed it. Think about what relates to your everyday life. Cookbooks? Car manuals?
  • Posters. Why not decorate your house with something nice in your target language. OK, so they won’t be an endless source of learning but they will keep you ‘tuned in’. Fancy these on your wall?
    You know who this is...!

    You know who this is…!

    Japanese power saving poster

    Japanese power saving poster

    Recruitment poster for the tank school of the Japanese imperial army

    Recruitment poster for the tank school of the Japanese imperial army

  • Set your phone, TV and computer to your target language.
  • Change the language of the websites you use most often: Gmail, Facebook etc.
  • Find a good radio station in the language, figure out how to stream it online and set up a bookmark so you can get to it easily. Download their app to your phone if they have one. Here’s an example of one I use for Cantonese.
  • Load up your phone/computer with podcasts. Scour iTunes for things that are of interest to you and download as many as possible so that they’re ready to fire up. One tactic for finding interesting things is to use Google Translate to generate your search term and then stick that into iTunes. For example, if you’re a keen traveller, convert “travel podcast” into your target language.
  • Don’t get your news in the usual places any more. Get it from a good website in your target language.
  • Set the homepage on your browser to an interesting site in the target language.
  • Subscribe to a cable TV channel in the language you’re learning.

Hitting it hard

Now that you’ve got the tools, it’s time to use them. The aims here are straightforward:

  1. Replace as many of your English-medium activities as possible with equivalents in the language you’re learning.
  2. Fill up as much of your dead time as possible with listening and reading.

In the case of 1, this means that rather than getting your news from CNN, you go to NHK. Rather than watching The Wire, you fire up a Brazilian telenovela. Rather than using that same old cookbook again, you get your recipes from another place (and learn something new at the same time!).

In the case of 2, this means really exploiting every moment of dead time you have to crank up the exposure to the language, as if you were actually walking the streets of the country itself. Everyone has some dead time, no matter how busy they are. The key is to identify it and start to use it. Use this time to listen to podcasts, read a book, watch a movie – whatever is appropriate. Here are some classic points in the day when you can do this. You’ll notice that many of these activities would be positively improved by listening to something interesting in the background (who likes cleaning in silence?)

  • In the shower
  • Getting dressed/eating breakfast
  • Walking to the station
  • On the train/metro or in the car
  • Waiting for the bus
  • Lunch break
  • On the way home
  • Cooking
  • Shopping in the supermarket
  • During your workout
  • Cleaning the house
  • In bed, before you sleep

There are many more. At this point you have to take over and figure out how best to fill up your time.

So, where will you do it?

A couple of caveats to this. Firstly, as Steve Kaufman talks about in this insightful video, you can look at language learning as a two-pronged approach. The bottom-up prong is ‘micro’ work studying vocabulary, grammar, and so. The top-down prong is the ‘macro’ – the general but extensive exposure to the language. You need both. Creating an immersion environment deals with the latter. If you do this, but don’t do any detailed studying, you won’t get far, and vice versa. However, I would say that most people focus far too much on the bottom-up and fail to give themselves enough general exposure to language. Therefore, chances are, if you’re one of these people, immersing yourself in the language will help you to balance out.

Secondly, remember you always need to enjoy the process. If you implement an immersion environment and you find yourself flipping out after a certain time, take it easy! Take a break and let your brain rest. Spend a few days in English to equalise. The worst possible outcome is for you to get so frustrated that you pack it all in. Everything in moderation!

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  • alejandro llanero

    muy bueno

  • moar

    Great article, many tips that can be used in our daily lives. Nowdays you can also achieve an inmersive environment with language exchanges in plaftorms like Langademy or italki, and with mobile apps like Go Speaky or HelloTalk.