How to Get the Most out of Language Immersion
Language immersion is often used to describe a perfect form of language learning. The term implies a situation where if we dip ourselves into water, we will come out wet. In the case of language learning, we come out of immersion able to speak a new language, so to speak. In fact, language immersion is a little more complicated that that. The month of June is my Slavic language immersion month. I will describe how I have prepared for it and what my experience has been so far.
We think of immersion as being in a situation where we are surrounded by the language, hearing the language, speaking the language, and being in many situations where we have no choice but to use the language. That is the situation I find myself in here in Lviv.
Ukrainian Language Immersion in Lviv
It is a situation that I have deliberately arranged. I have booked a Ukrainian teacher, Solomija Buk, Director of the Lviv Ukrainian Language and Culture School. I speak with her six hours a day. She then sends me a list of phrases that caused me problems, which I import into LingQ. In addition, I have to cope in Ukrainian in shops and restaurants. I am in fact largely immersed in the language.
This would not be possible had I not had a prior preparation with a different form of immersion. This prior immersion was of a more passive nature. I exposed myself to Ukrainian, as much as possible, while in Vancouver. This meant a large amount of listening, reading, and using LingQ in order to build up my vocabulary and familiarity with the language.
This form of immersion is less expensive than going to the country and hiring a teacher. It is easy to do and prepares you for taking maximum advantage of full immersion when you move to the place where the language is spoken. That is the activation stage.
It is important not just to hope that you will meet a lot of people in the place where the language is spoken, people who want to speak to you in the language you are learning. You need to prepare and set up a program for when you are there. That is why I worked with the Ukrainian language and culture school and its director, Solomija Buk.
Ten days here in this lovely city have activated my passive exposure to Ukrainian. I feel a tremendous sense of satisfaction, even power, as I am now able to speak Ukrainian fairly comfortably, although with mistakes. Certainly I speak much better than ever before.
Before coming here, I was in Bratislava, Slovakia. I attended a conference of polyglots, the Bratislava Polyglot Gathering. To prepare for that event, I spent about 10 days doing regular listening to simple stories in Slovak, which I studied on LingQ using the Czech slot since we don’t yet have Slovak at LingQ. This helped me tremendously in Slovak, as I was able to operate in the language while in Bratislava, at least to some extent.
However, this immersion in Slovak had the unintended consequence that I found myself, while at the polyglot conference, unable to speak Ukrainian with the few Ukrainians who were there. This didn’t bother me. I knew from experience that if I were put in a situation of Ukrainian immersion, my Ukrainian would in fact be activated and become better than ever. This is what has happened.
I have been asked if I was afraid that my concentrated exposure to Ukrainian would hurt my Russian. There is no doubt that in the short term, if I try to speak Russian in the middle of a Ukrainian conversation, there will be interference. However, I am confident that my exposure to a variety of Slavic languages helps me in all of them. Being exposed to different Slavic languages, which have similar structures but different vocabulary, improves my comfort level with the structure of all Slavic languages.
In order to overcome the interference from other Slavic languages, I just need a short period of immersion, which depending on my level in the language I want to speak, might be 10 minutes, an hour, or a couple of days. I know that my level in any of my Slavic languages will come back stronger than ever.
One of the things that I do in order to make sure that one Slavic language doesn’t damage my knowledge of other Slavic languages is confront the differences. When I study Ukrainian at LingQ, I regularly create phrases. Rather than translating these phrases into English, particularly when I know the meaning, I set my dictionary language at LingQ to Russian or Czech for example. That way I see clearly the different ways in which similar ideas are handled in different Slavic language. This enables me to separate these somewhat similar languages. It’s an approach that I think would be interesting to try when learning other languages of related language families, Romance, Germanic, etc..
There are different ways of achieving language immersion. We can immerse ourselves through massive listening, reading and working at LingQ as a form of preparation. To become really fluent we need to speak a lot. This is best achieved by going to where the language is spoken. But we need to prepare ahead of time to make sure we have people who will talk to us for enough time every day, as I have done with Solomija, my Ukrainian teacher. This is preferable to just arriving and hoping for the best. I am most satisfied with what I have been able to achieve so far.