For the starters, let’s quickly understand what’s immersive learning.
What’s immersive English learning?
Since immersion is so critical to develop fluency, I’ll delve a bit into few examples that will tell you why you should embrace immersion. But, if you want to go straight to how to create an immersive environment, scroll down to skip the six examples that follow.
Examples: effectiveness of immersion in learning language
1. ‘Language Pledge’ at Middlebury Language Schools
Founded in 1915, Vermont-based Middlebury Language Schools offer undergraduate- and graduate-level instruction in 11 languages, usually in 6-8 week programs. They require a strict ‘Language Pledge’ from their students, which means you’ve to speak, listen, read, and write only in the language of your study. If you fall back on any other language, you’ll be expelled from the program.
According to them, Language Pledge ‘plays a major role in the success of the program’.
2. How Scott and Vat learnt four languages from scratch in 12 months?
Scott Young & Vat Jaiswal learnt Spanish, Portuguese, Mandarin, and Korean by living in Spain, Brazil, China, and Korea, respectively for three months each. Watch their dramatic improvement from Week 1 to Week 12 in the four languages in their TEDx talk (duration: 63 seconds):
They started from scratch. In the beginning, they had to often refer to dictionary and Google translate. And after three months, they could live in those countries entirely in the local language.
However, it wasn’t living in these countries per se that helped their fluency. What catapulted their spoken skill in these languages is the pledge to speak only in the local language. That is immersion.
Scott says that this immersive learning was so effective that his fluency in Spanish after three months was far better than his fluency in French after staying in France for a year and deliberately studying French on an earlier occasion.
3. Why Dutch people speak better English than French people?
Dutch speak far better English than French. Reason is simple – higher degree of immersion in English in Netherlands than in France.
This is because French don’t speak much English in their day-to-day lives. TV shows from U.S. and UK are dubbed in French. Because of lack of immersive experience, French don’t speak English well even though they go through seven years of advanced English lessons in junior and senior high school.
In contrast, Dutch use English quite extensively in their daily lives. Foreign TV shows often go in English with Dutch subtitles. Higher degree of immersion, in other words.
4. My observation at a non-profit organization
I’ve visited few Delhi centers of Freedom English Academy (FEA), a non-profit organization founded by well-known spiritual leader Deepak Chopra. At FEA, students – mainly high school and older – from families with limited means get free grooming in spoken English. At its dozens of centers in Delhi and few other cities in North India, several batches, each 105-minute long, run through the day from 7 AM to 9:30 PM.
Many students make dramatic improvements in their spoken English in 12-odd months they spend here. And the most important reason for improvement is strict adherence to communication in English during those 100-odd minutes. No matter how lame your English is, you can’t utter a word in your native language. (When everyone speaks in English, good or bad, individuals naturally get comfortable speaking in English without the fear of being judged by others.) In other words, each session is an immersive experience.
I observed that students who had access to an immersive environment even outside FEA hours did even better. For example, two sisters – both FEA students – who spoke in English with each other even at home and who also taught English to younger kids had better spoken English skills than other FEA students. Then there was a young boy who conversed in English with his teacher where he went for private tuition. He too was one of the better ones.
I spoke to few students who dropped out because of various reasons, and almost all of them admitted that their level (of spoken English) slided after they left FEA because they didn’t speak English as often as they used to when at FEA.
FEA students improve despite not being enrolled (some are, most aren’t) in an English-medium school because they speak freely in English in those immersive sessions.
5. Foreign Service Institute, U.S., uses immersive learning to train people in different languages
Foreign Service Institute, United States federal government’s training institute for preparing American diplomats and other professionals to advance U.S. foreign affairs interests, uses immersive learning as a key tool to impart language training. To quote Office of Inspector General U.S. Department of State from its inspection report on the efficacy of immersive learning:
Even short-term immersion in a target language setting boosts language learning success. Immersions of up to 3 weeks at a language institute outside Moscow increase the fluency of more than a dozen FSI students and dozens of Embassy Moscow employees each year.
6. People pick English faster if they’ve little option to speak other languages
Chennai center of the institution for which I developed the curriculum for communication skills has an unusually faster rate of improvement (compared to other centers) in spoken English.
Students at eleven other centers have one overwhelming common language, mostly Hindi. However, in Chennai, there is no one dominant first language among the students and therefore they resort to English as the main language of communication when interacting with those outside their lingual group. Greater immersive experience, in other words.
How to create an immersive environment in English?
Let’s look at how you can surround yourself with English.
For ease of understanding and implementation, this section has been divided on the basis of activities you do in the real world – speak, watch/ listen, read, and write:
For those who’re not used to speaking in English, this is the most challenging part. Therefore, unlike other methods that follow, you can restrict speaking in English to either certain hours of the day or to certain persons you talk to often (preferably every day). Let me explain.
As we saw in the FEA example (example # 4), students spoke in English during the classroom sessions (that’s certain hour of the day). Few spoke outside these hours with persons whom they were comfortable speaking in English (that’s certain persons). A student, for example, spoke in English whenever he was with his tutor. Two sisters spoke with each other even at home.
Pick 2-3 friends who too want to improve their fluency in English and make it a point to always speak to them in English whenever you talk to them. You can talk to them in person or on phone. Both are fine. Key is mutual interest and comfort.
You don’t need to talk to everyone all the time in English, but whenever you speak to these friends, you should automatically switch to English. Although longer the better, spend at least 15-20 minutes every day conversing in English with them. (If you’ve 2-3 friends, you can speak in rotation.) Remember, regularity is key – 15 minutes a day is far more effective than two sessions of 90 minutes each on the weekend.
No switching to your native language during these sessions even if you get stuck. Instead, take a longer route to explain the same thing. For example, if you struggle for a word for striped shirt, say shirt with thin rectangles where alternate rectangles are filled in color.
However, when you’re practicing solo, you should fix certain time(s) of the day for practice so that you build a habit.
2. Watch/ listen
Here again regularity is key. Because we don’t watch movies every day, a good habit to form is to watch English news for 30 minutes daily. Another regular option could be non-news content such as a daily series.
Experiment with content. Finalize few you can understand and you like. And double down on them. (If you like wildlife and nature, you may try channels such as National Geographic, Animal Planet, and Discovery. English on such channels is easy-paced and easy to pick.)
What about English songs?
English songs won’t work for most, because the way words are stretched and dramatized would make them incomprehensible to most. Remember, you should understand as well as like the content. Otherwise you’ll give up.
Having said that, it’s fine if you don’t understand every word of what you watch. Don’t aim for perfection. In due course, you’ll progress and then you can raise the level of your content.
Learn more on listening in this post on how and what to listen.
Replace what you read in your native language with stuff in English. It could be online content, newspaper, novels, or magazines.
Unless you’re an extreme beginner, don’t use a bilingual dictionary. Use an English to English dictionary.
Also, make English the default language of your phone, laptop, browser, social media, and other daily-use stuff.
If you’re like most, you write much less than you speak. But whatever you write, write it in English. SMSs. Emails. To-do lists. Notes. Anything else.
With immersion, over time, you’ll realize that you’ve started pronouncing more and more words correctly, you fumble much less while speaking for want of words, and you don’t have to consciously think of grammar and other rules. In other words, things start getting automated, like it happened with Esha (duration: 1:45 minutes):
The beauty of forcing yourself into an ‘English only’ environment is that you learn the most-used vocabulary, phrases, and grammar rules first (this is more true of a newbie in English), and therefore make quick progress in the beginning.
Do I need to travel to an English-speaking country to get immersive experience?
You don’t need to travel to a country where English is the first language of majority of people.
In their talk in the second example, Scott and Vat mention the case of an American businessman who married a Korean woman and lived in Korea for 20 years. Despite spending such long period in Korea, he failed to pull off a decent conversation in Korean.
To give another example, Benny Lewis, who speaks ten languages, didn’t learn speaking in Spanish despite living in Spain for six months.
Because he rarely spoke the language despite being in Spain.
He, however, learnt Egyptian Arabic while he was in Brazil (where Egyptian Arabic, of course, is not spoken).
Because he spoke Egyptian Arabic with someone on Skype.
What do these examples tell you?
Place doesn’t matter. What matters is practice in your desired language, which you can accomplish even from your place.
Immersive learning isn’t easy
Always remember: a path that yields strong results is not an easy path.
If you watched the video in example # 2, you would remember how Scott and Vat struggled to put together a simple sentence. I witnessed the same at FEA.
You’ll face an irresistible urge to switch to your mother tongue when you fumble for words in English, but you’ve to overcome this urge during your designated sessions. You’ll not understand some of the stuff in English you come across, but you’ve to avoid frustration. Learn why many give up their journey to learn English.
If you can stick to an immersive environment wherein you’re constantly exposed to English – speaking, listening, reading, and writing – and seek improvements, you’ll improve. Without a shred of doubt.