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What Is Total Immersion In Learning A Second Language?

by expat2003 (writer), central Mexico, April 09, 2008

Learn What Total Immersion really is when learning a foreign language.


In the 1990's when I was contemplating learning Spanish, I was told repeatedly by well-meaning friends that if I really wanted to learn Spanish I would have to live in a country in which Spanish was the dominate spoken tongue. If you Google "Spanish Immersion," you will get 1,790,000 hits. After exhausting myself by reading about 250 websites, all of which tried very hard to get me to enroll in their costly Spanish Immersion Courses located in various Spanish-speaking countries, which would have required me to re-mortgage my home a billion times plus hope some rich philanthropist would bequeath me the entirety of his off-shore accounts, I decided to include this quote representing the consensus of what "Spanish Immersion" means:

"It is learning a foreign language the same way we learned English (or whatever our native language is): by living it. In a typical language immersion school, the student doesn't study only in the formal sense — he or she lives the language. Classes are taught entirely in Spanish, speaking in another language at any time is discouraged, and the student lives in Spanish-speaking environment." (Spanish Immersion School FAQ, Schools Help You Combine Study and Travel, By Gerald Erichsen,

With an idea similar to this quote as the definition of "Spanish Immersion," my wife and I, who also wanted to learn Spanish, sold all our earthly belongings and moved to Guanajuato, Mexico in the year 2003 to "live in the language." After four months of Spanish classes (five days a week and three hours per day) and four years of living here, we could not speak or understand Spanish any better than we could before we came to Mexico. Though we could tell you the differences between the verbs estar and ser and when to use the subjunctive, we were not anywhere close to fluency though we lived in the language as full-time expatriates.

We suddenly and very disturbingly had an "Oh my God, what have we done" moment!

Being the person I am, I went into research mode (research which led to many books and about 600 articles, by the way) to take apart and dissect the points of the uniformly-accepted definition of what "Spanish Immersion" or "Language Immersion" meant…the true meaning!

Many tourists we've met in Mexico, when they learn just how long we've lived in Mexico, invariably make the statement, "I bet you are now 100% fluent in Spanish", to which we were forced to reply, "Then you would lose that bet." I would ask these folks what they thought fluency meant. They would give all manner of replies with the basic idea conveyed that because we "lived in the language" and that somehow, perhaps as if by magic, we had managed to absorb the language like a sponge.

Myth # 1

Living in a country in which your targeted language is predominately spoken guarantees nothing!

There truly is this universal belief by every language student or tourist we've interviewed that they think there is some magic osmosis that occurs when you live in Mexico. You will wake up one day and be native fluent. You will be able to rattle off Spanish at the "Speed of light and a hearty Hi-Ho Silver" with the best of them. And, really with the false and misleading definition of what "language immersion" means posted all over the Internet, how can you blame the uninformed?

Coming to the country where your targeted language is spoken will not necessarily work to give you fluency. Coming for a week, or forever, will not mysteriously empower you with fluency. One reason is one we've observed now for more than five years of living in this country.
The vast majority of Gringo students come with good intentions but one of the very first things they do is form friendships with their fellow Gringo students. They hang out together for their entire time in the country. Though they go through classes, afterwards, in their free time, they associate mostly among themselves. They hang out with those who are from their home country practically the entire time they are here. If "Immersion" was, and it is not, "living in the targeted language," then the typical language student who has spent a fortune to come here defeats the purpose, don't you think?

The only way coming to Mexico to study Spanish will work for anyone is to have the highest degree of spoken fluency in Spanish before coming to study Spanish.

Confused? Read on…

Myth # 2

Immersion in a foreign language means "living in the country in which the targeted language is spoken."

Not so!

Nor does immersion, when applied to second language acquisition, mean "grammar-translation courses taught in concentrated periods of time." (Winitz)

What it means to be "Immersed" in any language other than your own, for the purpose of second language acquisition, "refers to massive amounts of input with meaning, similar to the way we are exposed to and learn our first (native) language." (Winitz)

To further expand on this correct definition, "True Immersion refers to massive amounts of Comprehensible Input, which is the exact manner in which we all learned our native language."

Many times I've had people tell me that there are hundreds of methods of language learning in which you can enroll or purchase for home study. I reply to that by saying "There are hundreds of language-learning courses that will teach you something about the language but there is only one way to achieve spoken fluency and that is by Comprehensible Input."

"Comprehensible input means that students should be able to understand the essence of what is being said or presented to them." (What Is Comprehensible Input? Excerpted from Teaching English-Language Learners with Learning Difficulties)

We met this lovely woman in a bookstore here in Guanajuato. After telling us she and her husband were in Guanajuato to study Spanish for six months, I asked her how her classes were going. What she said perfectly describes the Comprehensible Input problem. She told me that she and her husband were enjoying the experience of being in the city and seeing the sights. However, she went on to say, she wished that she could actually understand what her teachers were saying and she wished she had the linguistic skill to ask questions.

In the attempt to achieve the highest degree of spoken fluency in the targeted language, you must be exposed to meaningful, understandable, and highly comprehensible input. Progress is made when input is introduced that is at a slightly higher level…a little more difficult than the input you've mastered…and so on and so on.

Comprehensible Input, by the way, does not have to occur in a foreign country where the targeted or desired language is spoken. You can do this wherever you live. Having to "Live in the language" or in the country in which the language is the dominate tongue is a myth.

"The best methods are therefore those that supply 'comprehensible input' in low anxiety situations, containing messages that students really want to hear. These methods do not force early production in the second language, but allow students to produce when they are 'ready', recognizing that improvement comes from supplying communicative and comprehensible input, and not from forcing and correcting production." (Krashen)

And this quote leads nicely into the next myth.

Myth # 3

Language Acquisition is different than Language Learning

Language learning looks something like this:

You enroll in a class. The only difference between a Spanish class in Mexico and one in the States will be the Mexican class will be conducted entirely in Spanish. You will be given a book, maybe a workbook too, and begin to learn the Spanish parts of speech—all taught in Spanish!

"American systems concentrate so heavily on memorizing “surface” grammatical rules that they provide only a set of limited vocabulary items." (Winitz)

Whether you are in you home country or in the country where the language you want to learn is spoken, you will be sitting in a classroom in which grammar is disseminated.

That is a situation in which something might be learned about the language but it will not come close to language acquisition, which is what we all want, do we not?

"Acquisition requires meaningful interaction in the target language - natural communication - in which speakers are concerned not with the form of their utterances but with the messages they are conveying and understanding." (Krashen)

What comes first in the language acquisition process is listening, not speaking. Many do not or cannot make the distinction between acquiring a language and learning a language. There is a difference. One engages the development of speech in the speech centers in your brain while the other engages the cognitive portions of your brain. If what you want is the acquisition of speech, then you need to engage in the process that gives it to you. You will not find speech or language acquisition in a classroom using a textbook. You just won't! Long before you begin to form words and sentences, you need to listen—a silent period!

The Silent Period

"Observations and studies of children's second-language acquisition (see Krashen 1985) have revealed that in the initial phase of the language acquisition process, there is typically a 'silent period' during which children acquiring a new language in natural settings are silent and concentrate on comprehension. And they may respond, if necessary, only in a non-verbal way or by making use of a set of memorized phrases. This phenomenon is also observed when we see how children acquire their mother tongue." (

This same phenomenon must be engaged in the adult learner in order to acquire speech in the targeted language.

"In a study by Petoskey, 1974; Winitz, 1981; J. Gary and N. Gary, 1981, they postulated that the most effective methodology for the adult learner of a second language is one in which listening (that “period of silence”) is the focus before any speaking is done." (Learn How to Learn Spanish: Bower)

Listening first, and I mean lots and lots of intensive listening to comprehensible input, and speaking second is how you, Mr. Adult Bilingual Wannebee American, learned English. You must use this same method to learn Spanish or any other language you choose to learn.

"A number of experiments were conducted to test a 'silent period' hypothesis and results reported seem to constitute arguments in favor of a 'silent period' in initial stages of L2 learning even in the formal environment. There are also several researchers who have developed teaching strategies based on a 'silent period' hypothesis. The purpose of this paper is to search through the literature concerning such experiments and researches and to consider the possibility of introducing such strategies in ESL/EFL classrooms." (

One such researcher is the founder of The Learnables Languages, Harris Winitz, Ph.D. Language Development, K.C., Mo. (


Doug Bower is a freelance writer and book author who has lived in Guanajuato, Mexico, for five years with his wife, Cindi. Comments can be sent via his website:

About the Writer

expat2003 is a writer for BrooWaha. For more information, visit the writer's website.
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1 comments on What Is Total Immersion In Learning A Second Language?

Log In To Vote   Score: 1
By Steven Lane on April 09, 2008 at 11:37 pm

My method of waving my hands around, combined with smiles and a mixture of grimaces seems to work well for me.

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