Sins of Immersion

Confession and rationalization

So immersion is really, really good for language learning.  I recommend it.  Your language acquisition instinct kicks in, and when it comes to a real choice of sink or swim, the answer is always swim.

I did 100% immersion in Hangzhou learning Chinese; I went for weeks without speaking a lick of English to anybody.  We signed contracts saying we wouldn’t speak English, which was fun, making a ceremony of it.  When it was over, and we could speak English again, a lot of us found ourselves speaking out-of-control fast, and filling with a lot of swear words.  Taking that language pledge was the single most important factor in my Chinese language learning.

Aussie L tells the story of Benny The Irish Polyglot not wanting to talk much to him when he ran into him at the TABF cafe (in Benny’s defense, Aussie L prolly slapped him on the back, threw another shrimp on the barbie, and showed him his knife).

My sister just came back from a nice vacation in Mexico; she was pretty adamant about leaving English behind as well.  Apparently she met an aussie traveler who was a listener of one of my former podcasts… and she wouldn’t speak to him in English!  Yah, that’s my girl!  She spent all that money to go all that way to speak Spanish, right?  You can speak English back home in Seattle…

I myself don’t take the hard line like that, although I probably should have when I was a dumb American college kid studying in Europe; so many American students seem to have no interest in improving their language skills, all they want is to be away from home and to cling to people they can speak English to.

The reason that I don’t take the hard line when it comes to immersion dogma is that I’ve found it’s not so much the abandonment of English that helps me; it’s really more the investment in target language relationships.  Hard-line immersion approaches work because they force you to invest in those target language relationships, rather than retreat to your L1 comfort.

However, if you’re disciplined enough to invest in and maintain your target language relationships for a good part of your day, there’s no reason you can’t have a beer with a traveling Aussie later.

In fact… here’s where I get heretical… your L1 friends can be helpful with target language progress as well.

Davidico was my go-to native speaker when I needed to know expressions.  Kiwi J was someone had to listen hard to in both English (because of his accent) and Chinese, so I ended up picking up some of his Chinese expressions.

Hanging out with Amber was great for my Chinese because she made it her business to intuit the gaps in my Chinese and then give me the right word in context.  I remember her telling the cab driver that she was going to get off first, and then the driver could take me to where I was going… 然後我朋友要去另外的一個地方。  另外, she told me, was ANOTHER place (gesturing with her hand), where as 別的 is like some different place (waving her hand away).  And that was all the explanation I ever needed to learn the word 另外 and how it’s different from 別的。

I have English-speaking relationships with Davidico, Kiwi J, and Amber, but they are pretty crucial to my Chinese learning.  If I had gone hard-core immersion, I’m sure I would have learned all those things as well, but the point is that L1 relationships are not totally useless.

Anyway, that was in Shanghai, now I’m in Taipei.  I spend all morning speaking Chinese; that’s where I get my good immersion, but in addition lately I’ve been seeing English-speaking friends in the afternoon.  Skritter Jake and Aussie L are pretty Chinese-oriented, so we often talk about vocab and learning.  Those guys will be both be gone in a couple of weeks, and then we’ll see how “native” my life gets.

Also, last night I went to Kiwi Jks’ place, to say hello and to check out his new studio.  Didn’t stay out late, but there was beer, and noodles at a great shop in Daan.  The thing about that crew is that they are Taiwanese and non-Taiwanese together.  They aren’t Chinese learners; they are code-switchers; they’re in and out of both languages at any given moment.  So last night at the noodle shop I learned the word 瞀, which is kind of hilarious.

Not in “real time”

One last thing about immersion:  it’s been my experience that immersion is, indeed, the bullet train to proficiency, no question about it.  But one thing that people don’t often talk about is that it doesn’t always happen “in real time.”  What I mean is that you can do a 2 month immersion experience, and then go back home and feel kind of crummy, like “meh, I didn’t learn that much.”  And then a year later after NOT studying/speaking for months you’ll be talking to someone and some grammar or expression will come out of your mouth that you didn’t know you knew.

For example, my time at SpanishPod was not an immersion experience; we talked English all the time.  I have very little memory of paying any attention to Mexican slang; I didn’t ask, I wasn’t told, in many cases I didn’t even notice.  I didn’t need to.  However, after a few months of daily exposure, I realized:  a)  that’s slang, b) I know what it means.  It was at that point that I started thinking about it consciously, and figuring out English translations (which is unnecessary, but that’s beside the point).

Another example is when I studied for a quarter in Avignon, France.  Our homestay experiences were immersion, but during the day there was a lot of American clingy-ness.

When I came back to Seattle after that, I had some habits of saying “excusez-moi” and “pardon” to people; those habits lasted a few weeks.  I was annoyed, however, that I wasn’t as fluent as I had hoped I would be.  And while I didn’t have a horrible American accent, I did have one.

A year later.. 12 months!… my fluency wasn’t that much better, but I started realize I could totally isolate and reproduce all the French vowels at will.  The interesting part was that I was looking at vowel charts at the time and I could actually match my vowels against the technical specs!  I’d read that “soeur” was supposed to be mid/lax/rounded (haha it was +/- features back then), and then I’d say the word and say, yup, that’s what my mouth just did.  Once I found all those vowels, I started consciously working on sounding French. Nowadays quebeckers say that I sound European.  When French people hear my French, they are surprised that I’m a second language speaker.

So what was that one year lag in my brain all about?  I feel like at 3 months or six months, I was not able to say the word “soeur” correctly, and that something had kicked in around nine months after returning from France.  I’m sure someone will have something to say about the way the brain forms pathways; how ever it happens, it’s on a timetable entirely different from my travel itinerary.

The point is that acquisition can and does happen even if you’re not doing the hard-core language pledge immersion.  The trick is to keep your focus on the target language, and to not let your L1 become your crutch/security blanket.

The more I think about it, the more powerful the language instinct seems to be.  When people “pick up” a slang term, or a different accent or dialect, when they force themselves into an unfamiliar register to make themselves understood, that’s the language instinct. We study second language acquisition because in our society, it’s not the norm.. but it’s becoming more and more interesting to me how people manage to stay monolingual, with all this language instinct busting out all time time.

Still, everyday I fantasize about giving up. I could give up on Chinese and resign myself to just being a mediocre high school Spanish teacher for the rest of my career.  I could quit studying every day and just drink beers with Australians for the rest of the summer.  I could spend future summer breaks on real vacations, with beaches and fruity drinks.  Gah, the more I think about it, the better it sounds…

4 thoughts on “Sins of Immersion

  1. Pingback: Taipei 2014 Day 21 | you don't have to read v2.0

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