This is a very common question with people starting to learn a foreign language. We have all heard that the best way to learn is to go and live in a country where the language is spoken. And without any doubt it is. However, how many of us can realistically do so? You have commitments and responsibilities that prevent you from taking a few months off to foreign shores. As much as you might wish you could.
So if moving abroad is not an option, what can you do to replicate, at home, the kind of environment and experiences that make living abroad so effective in language learning? Actually, you can do quite a lot. Let’s have a look at what makes “full immersion” work so well, and a few ways to achieve the same.
Using all your senses
When you live in a country, you are surrounded all day long by the language. It is literally everywhere: in the streets where you walk, in the shops where you buy, on TV, on the radio, in the magazines and newspapers, in the adverts all around, on street signs, etc. That means that your ears, your eyes and your brain, get naturally used to the look and the sound of words and phrases. You absorb the pronunciation, the expressions and the flow of the language, just as a child does when learning their native language. And of course you have to interact back.
You are literally using all your senses, most of the time simultaneously. You hear, you see you speak and you do in the language. So how specifically can you replicate the same experience at home?
Engaging your ears
One way is to have tapes and recordings playing around you while you go about your daily activities. Turn your CD player on when you get ready in the morning. Use your iPod or your car stereo on the way to work. Have your tapes going while you do housework or while you exercise. You don’t even have to pay full attention all the time. Your brain will still absorb way more than you can imagine. And, when possible, repeat what you hear trying to get as close as you can to the pronunciation. Repetition is a key to language learning. So the more you do it, the best.
If you like music and songs, that is another great way to learn and memorise words and phrases in a natural and pleasurable way. Anything from Opera to Pop will do, as long as you enjoy it. Enjoyment is the best motivator. When you enjoy what you do, you are more likely to keep at it.
When I was learning English, I used to listen to the BBC world service and other radio stations on a regular basis. Sometimes I would even go to sleep with the radio on! Internet wasn’t yet available at that time, so I would buy the odd magazine or newspaper whenever I had a chance. I even subscribed to a cable TV channel that allowed me to choose a different language for films, if more than one was available.
Engaging your eyes
Another clever way to mimic what happens when you live in a foreign country is to write words and phrases on sticky notes and put them around where you can easily see them. Just as you would see and read street signs and posters, read your notes each time your eyes fall on them. Whenever appropriate, read them aloud, and repeat them. You will find that memorising new words and phrases becomes very easy.
As soon as you are proficient enough, start reading in the language. Perhaps you could read newspapers and magazines from the country. You will easily find some in every major town. Or you can read them on the internet. Usually it is possible to browse a few articles for free online. And you can subscribe to your favorite one for complete issues.
Books are also great. Whether it is a novel or a non-fiction book, choose a topic of your interest. Remember what we said about enjoyment being the best motivator. You can find books for readers of all levels. Sometimes they come with an accompanying audio recording. Or you could find books with parallel text. Meaning that each page of the original is followed by its translation on the opposite page. Poetry, if you like it, is great. Like with songs, the rime and the harmony will help you remember more easily.
Whatever you do, don’t worry if you cannot understand everything. The first time I read a novel in English, I understood less than a third of it. And it was still enough to enjoy the story. On the second read, however, I was surprised at how much more I could get. When you read, you can easily pick up the meaning of words you don’t yet know form the context. Because that is a more active way of learning, you are also more likely to remember.
In that sense another great idea is to start using a dictionary in the language as soon as you can. When you look up for a new word you read the definition in the language you are learning, rather than just a translation. Again, as long as you know enough to get the gist of the meaning, you will pick up other new words as you read. And the more you do it the more you learn, without even knowing it.
If you are a film lover, look for films in the original language. Or check your DVDs for the ones that are dubbed in the language you are learning. You can then watch the film in your own language first, and then in the new language. You will already have an idea of the story, and you can concentrate on the language. Videos and films offer an extra advantage as you will be engaging both your eyes and your ears. With original videos you also start getting a flavour of the body language associated with the culture.
And if you are worried about the cost, don’t. It doesn’t have to be expensive. One of my students buys all her CDs, tapes and videos, very inexpensively, at her local charity shop. They may not be the latest edition, but they work just as well.
Engaging with others
Interacting with others is also a major part of learning a language. Whenever possible, find yourself a study buddy. Meet on a regular basis and chose to speak exclusively in the language you are learning for the duration of your meeting. Go about any usual activity with them, just do it in the language you are learning.
And of course, whenever there is a chance, interact with native speakers. Areas with big expat communities will very likely have organisations that promote their culture and provide meeting places. Usually they are open to anybody interested, and can provide you with an opportunity to befriend native speakers and practice your language of choice in a social environment. They may even run courses, film festivals and various types of events and exhibitions.
Another option is to find a native tutor that offers conversation, one-on-one or classes. Some, like me, may even offer online and over the phone options, so location and time are not an issue.
Less and often
The more of the above activities you engage in on a regular basis, the closer you get to the experience of living and breathing the language. Whether you decide of joining a class, find a tutor or learn independently, remember than less and often is better and repetition is key. Find a combination of methods and topics that interest you and keep you motivated. And most of all have fun.