Real Life or Online Language Immersion? There's Only One Way To Find Out...

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

spanish meetup

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

One of the definite advantages of real world immersion: Delicious local food.

One of the definite advantages of real world immersion: Delicious local food.

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.

Social Risk

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.

Rewards

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.

Language Show Live: What's New In Language Learning?

Last weekend I made my way down to Southern England to hang out with Lindsay and visit the Language Show Live in big London. Lindsay and I visited the big exhibition and ran into a whole bunch of other language bloggers, friends and people from the language learning world. If you couldn't make it, here are my impressions of the show.

language showlive

What is it?

The Language Show Live is Britain's biggest language-focused event, a sort of trade show about all things language with talks and taster sessions mixed in. It's held at the Olympia in London (such a stunning venue!).

Who was there?

language show live recap

The first stand I headed to was one entitled Welsh for Adults (exciting!), where I met a few wonderful people from Aberystwyth and Bangor who introduced me to the Learn Cymraeg app. At this stand, we learnt that the word “penguin” in English actually comes from Welsh (pen means “head” and “gwyn” means white).

Stand-out stands (hah!) for adult learners were our friends at Flashsticks and HelloTalk, along with Bien-Dire whose magazine I’ve reviewed here on the blog.

We got to take a close-up look at Linguisticator’s absolutely beautiful language maps, printed on light fabric and displaying an entire language’s grammar, essential vocab and rules. They’re a great thing to behold, so good-looking in fact that Lindsay was excited and wanted to put one up over her sofa. You can buy these from their online shop - the German map is here.

And my highlight of the exhibition was the discovery of Babel and Lingo Magazines. These magazines are not about language learning and other languages, they’re about linguistics. It’s my favourite academic topic, and I have never seen such a fantastic approach to writing about linguistics for a non-academic audience. In other words: This is a flipping interesting magazine!

Careers in Languages

The walk around the recruitment section is motivating and surprising each year. I met representatives of BAE Systems, SC Johnson, the British Army and the European Union. They all have standing vacancies for language graduates and represented the careers that are open to you very well. There was even a CV clinic so you could have your CV polished to perfection to get all those multilingual vacancies.

The Language Show Website has more information and a full list of all exhibitors for you.

Meet-Up!

Only one place to go after all that: THE PUB! Lindsay and I got ready for our little language learners’ meet-up. We were joined by Sionaid from Perfect English Grammar, Angelika from Angelika's German (get to know all about Angelika on Podcast Ep 15), Gareth from How to Get Fluent and Emma the Incidental Langauge Learner. It’s a great pleasure to be able to meet the people I see through Twitter all year long and I really hope that you can make it too next year.

At one point during our meet-up, one of England’s happiest families bounded through the door, greeting us all with lots of joy. They were Lingotastic, a UK-based company working on teaching languages to parents who have very young children. What a joyful bunch, check them out!

More For Adult Learners

Sadly, the neglected bunch were the group of adult language learners in the UK. There are a few courses that look really interesting, but most of them require a lot of travel, either to London or to in-country classes. It was very obvious that Welsh really stands out here as a government-backed initiative with affordable courses and universities offering free apps. Good on them!

If adult courses aren’t so popular anymore, then online study is proving the solution to our problems - are language classes dying for adult learners? What do you think?

In Conclusion

The Language Show Live was a great event as ever. I always love seeing the many products and new ideas out there. Creativity is definitely not dead in language learning and I saw some amazing products to put on my Christmas list. And as an online tutor, it's so awesome to see all the products out there for the classroom and for groups of kids.

The language diversity wasn't as big as last year, when compulsory languages had just been introduced in primary schools. This event was mostly aimed at the everyday language teaching world in schools, and the language diversity reflected that. Lots of Spanish and French, some Chinese, surprisingly little German, and a tiny but visible presence for Russian, Welsh, BSL, and Arabic.

Were you there?

Did you come to London this time? Have you been to the Language Show before? I'd love to hear what you enjoyed the most and which talks you attended.

Next year, the exhibition is coming up to Scotland for the first time.

Four Big Lessons from the Language Show in London

"Beautiful Russian woman"

"Beautiful Russian woman"

The Language Show is the UK's biggest and only language-focused trade show, held in London and attracting thousands of language lovers. So far I've been resisting the call of Europe's great Polyglot Conferences so far (more about those later) but for this one I made my way down to big London to see the latest trends, technologies and products out there in language learning.

The Language Show is free to attend, runs over three days and features a huge amount of workshops, cultural performances and taster language lessons to try out. It's held at the London Olympia, an absolutely huge trade centre and beautiful Art Deco building too. I visited the trade show floor on Saturday 18 October, and here's what struck me the most:

Lifelong Learners Still Overlooked

Here in the UK, the most common setting for language learning is definitely school. And since this year has seen new UK legislation passed that introduces languages to kids in primary schools, the biggest focus of the exhibition was definitely on teachers and primary school teachers. The vast majority of stalls were aimed at teachers in the school system, and it was REALLY SAD to see so little representation of us lifelong learners. We are forced to think outside the box all of the time, but the offer of books and materials available is still so focused on school that language learning feels like a classroom skill, not a life skill.

Society is also becoming more innovative when it comes to showing what kind of job opportunities are open to language lovers. Translating, interpreting and teaching were represented everywhere, but other companies weren't all that present. The biggest I saw were the army with their handsome spy recruiters and SC Johnson, as well as several London-based agencies.

Politices are Powerful

Some goodies from the EU, Deutsche Bahn and the Goethe Institut

Some goodies from the EU, Deutsche Bahn and the Goethe Institut

One big thing that I learnt from this exhibition is how extremely powerful the government legislation really is when it comes to this cause. When government decides to put money behind language teaching for children, and not for adults in Further Education or just in no formal education environment, then the industry follows. Lifelong learners stay invisible, and stay scared of trying out a language as a cool hobby. We have so much further to go.

Without the European Union, there would be so much less diversity and investment in languages here in the UK. The EU exhibition stands were not only huge and absolutely covered in amazing information about every country and its official languages, but they also provide a huge opportunity for employment to anyone who can speak another language.

Languages are a Space of Innovation!

I innovated my badge because everyone kept asking me which "Key stage" I'm at. Key stage life!

I innovated my badge because everyone kept asking me which "Key stage" I'm at. Key stage life!

I met so many small, independent publishing houses and companies developing not just new technologies, but fun products and ideas. Big shout out to Flashsticks, a company that I am always supporting for their cute and simple little pre-printed vocab post-its. They filmed a short interview with me, so look out for that on the Flashsticks blog very soon.

Some great products included big maps of languages for your personal grammar paradise, new Flashsticks box sets and super cute publications in over 20 languages from the EU.

Language and Travel are Forever Linked

I loved seeing amazing displays from embassies and tourist offices around Europe, and from Germany in particular there were promotions of Deutsche Bahn and the youth hostels. I really enjoyed a German workbook published by the cologne youth hostels with maps, role play ideas and other exercises. Watch out for that, German students!

(The companies mentioned did not pay me to write any of this. I'll accept donations though.)

Polyglot Conferences and Language Shows

This year, I missed attending two great "polyglot" conferences because I couldn't get over my personal dislike of the word polyglot (see here) and the arrogance that too many YouTube polyglots display at times. I felt that the environment was masculine and dominated by one-upmanship, and it didn't make me want to be in a place where people discuss how many languages they can possibly add by next Tuesday. The Language Show seemed a lot less intimidating to me, as a space where I can walk around at my own pace and just check out what's on offer for me as a language teacher, blogger and student.

I was excited to meet up with three great bloggers from the UK: Compassionate Language Learner J, my podcasting buddy Lindsay and German blogger Angelika. Lindsay was just back from the "Polyglot Gathering" in Novi Sad and had lots of good things to say about it, which was fab, and actually reassured me that these types of events do end up a lot friendlier than you think. I LOVED meeting the three other bloggers and talking about our mission of being non-male language writers and promoters on the internet.

Here is a tiny tiny video of Lindsay and Angelika, which I filmed with Hyperlapse and then saved at a mega speed. You can see their amazing smiles :D

Here's my conclusion:

Ultimately, the most important thing you can do no matter where you are based is to get out of your little life box and meet some people. Being in a room full of people who all share your "thing" is a great feeling -- very energising and motivating.

We all have one thing in common: A shared belief that language learning is a major DO in this world, and we have to get out and share that!

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