How to thrive in language immersion programs

By Annie Rose Stathes, Edited by Valeri Boyle
Published February 12, 2014

One of the best ways to learn a language is to immerse yourself in it. Language immersion programs give you the opportunity to immerse yourself in another culture and to develop a more nuanced knowledge of a country’s primary language. Read on for some tips for getting the most out of your language immersion program.

Read, write, speak, and listen.

We first learned our native languages by reading, writing, and speaking them. We also heard our native languages—everyday, in a variety of settings, through numerous people. It makes sense then that we would best learn new languages in the same way. One of the key components of language immersion programs is, of course, just that—immersion. By literally surrounding yourself with a language—through sight, sound, and practice (verbal, auditory, visual, and written)—you’ll be better able to learn a language and/or gain fluency. Also, while language programs are typically designed to assist in language acquisition through a variety of formats, it is incredibly important that you take advantage of your cultural immersion too by reading local newspapers, listening to people speak (in person and on the television or radio, for example), speaking to as many people as possible (in various settings), and writing in different contexts (letters, grocery lists, directions, etc.). During your language immersion program, immerse yourself in the language both in and out of the classroom.

Be patient with yourself.

When you first learn a new language, you basically become an elementary-level kid again. You might find yourself saying things like, “your house is pretty!”, “the ocean is blue!”, or “I like food!” While knowledge of these types of simple phrases allow you to function in a society and even express your appreciation of someone or something, it fails to allow you to discuss local politics, global issues, life’s deeper meanings, and other more mature things you’ll no doubt have an interest in discussing. Not being able to fully express what you would like to express can be frustrating and annoying. However, without the skill and agility you possess in speaking your native language, your conversations will, at some point, be limited. Deal with yourself in these situations with patience and humor. Allow yourself to think and speak simply and concisely and take your time looking up words and asking for help. Day by day and word by word you’ll eventually find yourself speaking more deeply and authentically.

Do your work.

This might sound like an obvious one, but the intoxicating draw of socializing and exploring a new culture can easily pull you away from completing bookwork and other less interesting tasks. However, your bookwork and other tasks are an integral part of your language immersion program. While socializing and exploring are great, and indeed a valuable part of the experience, language programs work best when students do their work and apply what they’ve learned to real-world situations. Language programs give you the unique opportunity to study a language (through books, instruction, and other coursework) and, in the same day, put it to good use. Take full advantage of your language immersion program by doing your work both in and out of the classroom.

Carry a small notebook and an audio recorder.

Take notes of words and phrases you don’t understand and record words and phrases you would like to learn. This will help you remember how words and phrases sound and also allow you to keep track of words and phrases you’re mastering. Plus, if you come across words and phrases you don’t understand, you can always play a recording for your language teacher and ask for a translation. Having a recorder will also allow you to record yourself saying various words and phrases. This is a great way to assess your own pronunciation. Also, if you have your companions’ permission, record your conversations. This will allow you to return to confusing sections and translate parts of conversations previously misunderstood. Finally, with an audio recording, you can listen to words and conversations before going to sleep and potentially dream in your new language. This is another great way to immerse yourself in the language.

Become a more present listener.

There is no better time to work on your listening skills than when you’re not able to speak eloquently or with depth. Use this time to develop your ability to “listen” to and observe what’s happening beyond language. Notice how people connect when they don’t share a common language, or how people communicate when they don’t understand each other. Also, listen to each and every word people speak. So often, when we speak and listen in our native language, we fail to listen to every word; we assume we know what’s coming (and, because of our knowledge of the language, we are often times right), and we stop listening intently. Use this time—this time when your language is relatively limited—to train yourself to observe and listen. These are two skills that will transfer into your everyday life, no matter the context, and ultimately make life even more beautiful.

Annie Rose Stathes is a Colorado-based writer, teacher and political scientist. Her background is in international affairs and she holds a Master of Arts degree in Political Science.