It’s an open secret among experienced language teachers: We love playing games! During my retreats and lessons, I’ve had so many experiences when an hour of Articulate in German helped my students speak fluently with more ease than a hundred other lessons. In this guest post, Italian teacher Gloria presents her top 5 games for learning languages.Read More
You know about vocabulary lists, flashcards and pronunciation guides, but sometimes there’s more at stake than just knowing the language. In this article, you’ll learn about the hidden ingredient you need for avoiding misunderstandings (even offence!) worldwide.Read More
What does it take to start learning a language and stick with it...even through the difficult parts?
Today I have a guest post from linguist and blogger tutor Julia Gracheva. In this article, Julia is all about balance and will give you actionable tips on marrying the two important sides of learning: Joy and Discipline...or Yin and Yang!Read More
If I had 5p every time I read someone telling someone else that the best way to learn a language is to "get a native speaking girlfriend", I think I could retire at 35. But don't get me wrong: having a native speaker on hand at any time of day certainly has its advantages.
Today, you'll hear from English teacher Nick Vance, who is in the lucky position of having that girlfriend. So, how's it working out?Read More
¡Oye! Spanish learner!
If you want to sound cool and know more about where the most typical slang expressions in your target language come from, today's article is going to give you a language boost that you can take straight to Mexico. Check out these 32 slang expressions, beautifully explained by guest poster Raúl Jiménez.Read More
This post is a guest article from Tim Wenger, and I was bowled over by his motivating and positive attitudes about networking. We often hear how this can benefit people in their career, but have you ever thought to use your network by mentioning languages in the same way? Tim has some awesome tips here.Read More
Could you get the benefits of immersion even when you are unable to put aside a month to do it?
This question is at the heart of Anthony's story, which is today's Fluent guest post. I love that he got involved with languages right from the start and really took home immersion to the next level by seeking out community meetings.
Ready to learn more about this? Over to Anthony!
I Learnt Spanish Using Two Different Immersion Techniques And Here's What I Found Out
A few years ago some friends and I decided we would spend a year saving up money for an extended trip to Latin America. It would be my first time outside of the United States. I planned on getting the most out of my first international travel experience and thought learning some Spanish would be a great idea. Long story short, the trip was canceled but I had already started learning my new language and began to fall in love with it.
Even without any travel prospects, I continued to practice my Spanish. 4 years later and I am fairly fluent and have had the opportunity to visit several Spanish speaking countries.
Before Spanish I had never tried to speak another language, so my learning experience was a bit bumpy at first. My language learning journey involved both real and virtual immersion. At different points I switched between the two, usually out of necessity. Looking back I have found some interesting differences.
In this post I use examples that apply best to beginners who can’t quite go for full immersion experience in another country. If you live near a major city you chances of find native speakers might better than you think.
Read on to find out how I made it work.
My Experience with Real World Immersion
When I first decided that I wanted to become fluent in Spanish, I had no idea how to start speaking the language. I knew I wanted to speak it, but beyond that I was pretty clueless. Aside from my duolingo app and a few Youtube videos I had no way to practice. Shortly after I took my first stab at Spanish an acquaintance invited me to a Spanish language group that met through a local church. I saw this as an excellent opportunity and decided to check it out.
The First Meeting: Scary And Exciting
The first meeting was quite an experience. I had never been in a room full of people who only spoke Spanish. It was scary and exciting all at once. I couldn’t understand much back then, but just being exposed to the language was a thrill. It was the first time I had heard Spanish spoken in real life with no English.
I went as often as I could and was able to practice the sentences I learned during the week. It was an immersion experience, but I hadn't even travelled.
I quickly befriended two awesome guys (one from Guatemala and the other from Mexico), who happened to be musicians and love rock music. At the time I was also taking up guitar so it was a natural fit. We started hanging out outside of the group sampling taquerias and talking about music.
Before I knew it I was texting in Spanish, ordering tacos in Spanish, and had Spanish posts popping up on my Facebook feed. The level of Spanish ability needed to do these things honestly wasn’t much, but I realized that a part of my life was now in Spanish, a small part, but a significant one nonetheless. I hadn’t expected it, it just sort of happened.
This was my first real world immersion experience. I had no idea that one meeting with native Spanish speakers could lead to so many other awesome experiences.
My Experience with Virtual Immersion
After a few months of new friends and real life Spanish practice, my job started requiring a lot of overtime each week and I suddenly had much less time and energy to devote to learning Spanish. This is when I started to get involved with language exchanges and online lessons with tutors.
Because my schedule was tighter I began using a mixture of paid tutors and language partners to practice in lieu of meeting up with the Spanish group and my friends, though I would meet up with them on the weekends when I could (most lived 45 minutes away past the other side of the city).
I found digital immersion to be great for weeks when I only had a few hours or so free each day. I didn’t have the time or energy to practice with my new friends, but I could easily set aside 1 hour or so each day to practice with a teacher or language partner via Skype.
Comparing The Two
Structure vs No Structure
What I love most about virtual immersion is that it allows to have more control over how and when you use your target language. If you want to practice language for exactly one hour you can. You can connect with a language partner or tutorand drill a specific aspect of grammar, or you can just have a friendly conversation. For me this is great. I enjoy being methodical and almost systematic with the management of my time and my language learning.
Talking with real people on the other hand is a lot less predictable. Outside of paying a personal tutor it is very hard to find people to practice with on a daily or weekly basis. When you make friends in another language it’s a huge favor on their part to “practice” with you, they’re your friend not your tutor and if they aren’t learning your native language it costs a lot for them to help you.
Learning a language with friends will flow from your natural interaction with them. You’ll have to make a conscious effort to use what vocabulary you know to adapt to whatever situation you find yourself in.
Socially speaking, virtual immersion is easier, less risky, and insanely convenient. You can practice your language with a native speaker in your bed in your pajamas if you wanted too. You can also connect with speakers from around the world. You can literally pick and choose what country you want to meet people from. Virtual immersion is also more anonymous. You can always delete a skype contact or end a chat.
When you are surrounded in real life by native speakers you have much less control. You’re likely to meet all kinds of people in any number of situations, and you can’t just exit out of a chat window if something goes wrong. It’s also a lot harder to put yourself out there in the physical world versus the virtual one. On the internet you can be sure that the other person is a language learner and will be forgiving and understanding if you struggle. In real life you don’t have that guarantee. Before you initiate a conversation you have no way of knowing for sure whether or not the other person will be patient or receptive.
Because virtual immersion is less risky and more controlled the rewards don’t go as far. Yes you get real spoken practice one on one with a real person, but you don’t get the cultural experience or relationship of an in person interaction. I can’t speak for others, but my main motivation for language learning is to make friends and interact with real people from around the world. I don’t want to learn Spanish just so I can talk to people on the internet all day.
It’s also hard to have a friendship over a text or video chat. You don’t get a feel for the body language and full personality of the other person (and you’re also probably 1,000+ miles away from them). You certainly aren’t going to know for their culture this way. That being said you can get valuable practice via virtual immersion. Talking to a real life human beats any other form of practice (at least in my opinion), even if it’s over the internet.
In-person immersion can be intimidating at first. The first time I ever spoke a language other than English to another person I was terrified. But it’s a great experience. As you learn a foreign language, foreign people seem less and less foreign. You really begin to see that you have more in common than what you thought, and You can appreciate the differences. You can make actual real life friends (that’s the dream isn’t it?). The internet will never be able to replace that.
Which is Better?
If I was forced to choose between the two I would choose real world interaction. For me that’s why I chose to start learning a language in the first place. That being said, I don’t think anyone will ever have to choose between the two. I think both offer benefits to your language learning.
In the end, it comes down to your language learning needs.
- Are you working to become fluent or just functional?
- Are you a world traveling polyglot, or working a 9-5 job?
Everyone has different goals and constraints on their language learning. So incorporate the real world and the internet in a way that makes sense for you.
I used both when I started learning Spanish and when I learn another language I’ll probably use both again. I found that you can bring a method and consistency to online learning that is best for reviewing and cementing the parts of the language that you’ve already learned. Real world immersion is better suited for being exposed to new aspects and uses of a language. I tend to split them into these two functions and use both accordingly.
##What have your experiences been with immersion?
Do you have a preference for the virtual or real word approach? I'd love to hear more from you in the comments below!
Guest writer Anthony blogs at Spanish Hackers and describes himself as "young at heart with a penchant for travel". He says: "I originally started learning Spanish because I wanted to visit Spain. A couple years and several adventures later, even though I'm pretty much fluent, I still find myself falling in love with the language and the people who speak it." You can connect with Anthony on Twitter.
I've got a guest post that took me down memory lane today, back to my old job which had me travelling to Kazakhstan on a regular basis. The country became one of my favourite travel destinations. Kazakhstan is exciting, lively, full of nomadic promise, and delightfully different from my own country.
Guest writer Marta is Polish, and recently spent a few nomadic weeks in the country. I was so excited when she agreed to tell us her story!
Off to Kazakstan!
Crossing a busy four-lane road in an unmarked place with bags of groceries for a mere £10, my mind woke up — I’m in Kazakhstan. One of these “weird” countries that I could always find on the map (being the 9th largest country in the world it’s pretty hard to miss…), but whose mention did not conjure any images in my head. Well, at least not up until one famous comedy film. Borat certainly raised awareness about the existence of this vast land, but at the same time permanently stained the popular opinion about it.
A pack of 20 cigarettes costs the same as a taxi ride here: 60p. Yes, less than a pound. (*Ed.: 60p is roughly $1 US)
Last time I was in a bar I paid around £3.50 for five beers. If those are the prices of typical “luxury” goods, imagine how cheap food here is.
Here's how I got on on the language front:
Russian is one of the languages that annoys me. As a native Polish speaker I always expected myself to just “pick up” Russian with a mild amount of effort, but, to tell you the truth, I never had motivation to put even this mild amount of effort into learning Russian.
Due to the history of the last 70 years the language is still demonised among my family members who lived during the USSR, and even among my peers. I saw no reason to study Russian. I also managed to convince myself that I was incapable of memorising the Cyrillic alphabet. Buying into my own fairytale has made it much harder for me to learn it: like a self-fulfilling prophecy, or a bad teacher who stifles students’ interest in a subject due to a lack of talent.
Why am I talking about Russian though if I’m in Kazakhstan, is there not a language called Kazakh? Well… Kazakh has a status of a “state” language here and even though it’s spoken by the majority of the population (over 60%), the de-facto official language of wider communication here is Russian. This means that most Kazakhs are bilingual, especially in cities, and the 30% large Russian minority has no reason to learn Kazakh.
All road signs are bilingual and most shops or cafes have notices and menus in both Russian and Kazakh (sometimes also in English). Government employees are required to speak Kazakh and you do hear it a lot on the streets.
However, Russian remains a lingua franca and hearing a shelyeldyk (foreigner) speaking Kazakh provokes a very surprised and enthusiastic reaction, probably similar to the feeling I experience when a foreigner knows even two words of Polish.
If I had to choose whether to learn Russian or Kazakh, I would have definitely tried to learn some Kazakh during my stay. However, because my mother tongue belongs to the same language family as Russian, for survival purposes that was my chosen language of communication. Although you’ll decide for yourself to what extent you can call my speaking attempts communication.
Embracing the "Imbecile"
Originally the Kazakhs are descendants of nomadic Mongol tribes. This fitted quite nicely with the purpose of my visit to Kazakhstan which was to practice a modern nomadic lifestyle — not so much sleeping in yurts, but combining remote work with travelling.
I was planning to do what I mostly do at home, with occasional sightseeing ventures and excursions. I say all this only to provide myself with an excuse for not having learned more Kazakh or Russian while there, otherwise who would be writing for the LinguaLift blog and helping the students? I realise it’s a bit of a lousy excuse.
The point here is that even without learning anything formally I still had to communicate with people and, get things done.
In the process you will abandon timidity and that sense of shame a lot of us have when we speak a foreign language imperfectly and come across as simpletons, imbeciles or simply ignorant foreigners.
The Magic Word in Russian
A word that became my favourite and one that my Russian speaking friend teased me about was the word можно, mozhna. It means “one can”, “it is possible” which is exactly the same as Polish word można pronounced almost identically. It became my keyword and a magic spell to accomplish the impossible, like buying salads on the market or anything requiring communication really.
How To Use можно
- Say Можно and point at things.
Very handy if you purchased a membership to a gym in Almaty (like I did) and want to ask whether you can use a piece of equipment which someone turned into a shelf for their phone.
- Say Можно with gestures.
A door is closed and you want to get into a building? Give the guard a questioning look and make a forward motion towards the doors. You’ll be sure to find out when the answer is no.
- Use Можно + noun.
If you were clever enough to look up a required noun before jumping straight into talking attempts (not like me then!). In comparison with option 1, this gives you endless opportunities, such as buying 300 grams of салат из моркови с чесноком for 60p.
If you realise you know nothing in the local language try to find an equivalent key word. Combined with gestures and pointing it will work wonders.
The Polish connection
Because of the degree of similarity between Polish and Russian, sometimes I forgot I didn’t actually speak the language. I don’t think I have to remind you that passive understanding and creative verbal production are two different things.
When we travelled to Kyrgyzstan for two nights (for the necessary re-entry to Kazakhstan to prolong the tourist visa) we booked a room in a guesthouse. We arrived late and the only people on the site were two elderly builders who clearly had no idea that anyone was meant to appear so late in the evening.
I opened my mouth and... no words came out.
I realised I didn’t know the word for room, book, reserved, email, message or anything that would explain the connection between the guesthouse and us two standing in their unfinished front yard!
Thankfully it wasn’t too hard for the men to figure that two foreigners with backpacks at a late hour out of the tourist season could only be looking for a room. And sure enough when they said the word комната I exclaimed да! with relief.
Polish and Russian are quite similar, but really not to the point of mutual intelligibility. Yet, I have a feeling that identifying yourself as a fellow Slav can produce a warmer attitude and potentially lower prices.
Knowing I was Polish, the instructor in my gym tried to convince me to be more chatty, a very optimistic reaction to me saying that I understood him only немного (“a little bit”).
The taxi driver in Cholpon-Ata in Kyrgyzstan having heard I was from Польша (Poland) simply started to refer to me as Польша.
*Польша, все нормально? (Everything ok, Poland?) were his last words to me when we were leaving the cab.
Mixing Languages: A Fluency Trick
Preserving endangered languages, buying locally grown vegetables — I am all for supporting anything and everything local. However, there were moments in Kazakhstan where linguistic globalisation provided me with some much-needed vocabulary.
On the way back from Kyrgyzstan we had to catch a marshrutka (mini bus) in Bishkek. We didn’t have enough som (Kyrgyz currency) left, but we figured since the bus goes to Kazakhstan the driver would also accept Kazakh tenge.
The key was to ask.
Fearlessly I approached the driver with two sets of notes in my hands and while vawing them in front of him I asked “mozhna mix?”. After a 3 second thoughtful calculation of the amounts he said slowly: mozhna. Success!
The lesson here is to figure out the words that can be present in the other person's reality. Regardless of where in the world you are, you will find some piece of shared reality with the locals.
все нормально - That's all good
Travelling opens our eyes to our own ignorance. Tweet this now!
I confirmed that Russian and Polish are similar, I’m less shy than I thought, and that it’s possible to communicate even with a very limited amount of vocabulary if you keep your ears and mind open. It has also evoked a desire to actually master Russian (since I work at LinguaLift, I'll be trying our own course.
Maybe next time I will be less of a walking circus of pointing and gesturing. все возможно!
Do you have any stories from a Russian speaking country?
How far did you get with немного, "spaseeba" and можно yourself?
Marta Krzemińska is a language coach and blogger at LinguaLift - she's an aspiring nomad and a speaker of Toki Pona.