Why Language Immersions Fail: Unwillingness To Assimilate

  • Donovan Nagel
    Written byDonovan Nagel
    Donovan NagelTeacher, translator, polyglot
    🎓 B.A., Theology, Australian College of Theology, NSW
    🎓 M.A., Applied Linguistics, University of New England, NSW

    Applied Linguistics graduate, teacher and translator. Founder of The Mezzofanti Guild and Talk In Arabic.
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Why Language Immersions Fail: Unwillingness To Assimilate

G’day all!

Well… my time in South Korea has come to an end (for now).

An entire year of solid dedication has brought me very far with Korean but it’s time to whack it on my maintenance list and start a new project!

So where will I be heading to now and what language will I be learning? 🙂

Without giving too much away yet I’ve just put in a visa application for a country that’s been on my to-do list for a long time. There I plan to take on a unique and adventurous challenge for the next few months.

Since it’s definitely one of the most difficult countries in the world to visit I won’t jump the gun and announce it with certainty until next week when I hear back from the embassy just in case they refuse my visa (unlikely but it could happen!).

Thankfully I have a back-up destination and challenge just in case 😉

Make sure to connect with me on Facebook as I post more regular updates about what I’m doing there.

UPDATE: I was meant to head off to Saudi Arabia but instead ended up in Russian where I became fluent in Russian. Read more here.

Want to get the most out of foreign language immersion? Assimilate!

One thing that I believe really sets what I do and say apart is my constant emphasis on the relational and cultural aspects of language learning.

For me culture and relationships are everything.

I want to convince people to see them not as the end result of language learning but rather as essential from the very beginning – think of it as something as important as learning vocab or grammar. Your success depends on it.

I’m unashamedly a cultural assimilationist (if that’s the right word for it!).

“To the Arabs I want to become an Arab. To the Koreans I want to become a Korean…”

In both Egypt and Korea the best compliments I ever received were not “you speak good Arabic” or “you speak good Korean”.

The best compliments I’ve ever received are “you’re like an Egyptian” and “you act like a Korean man”.

It’s not because of language skill that this happens either – it’s because I’ve made an effort to assimilate to such an extent that I become an important part of their families and communities (despite imperfect language skills). This for me is the difference between learning how to use a language and actually learning a language.

Languages are not just a means to an end – they’re not just a tool used for getting a point across (unless all you want is to be able to communicate as a tourist). If you think like this then you’ll always be disconnected from the people you’re trying to communicate with no matter how much you study. Your language will be lifeless and dull.

Picking up a new language should begin with a willingness to cast aside one’s own cultural identity temporarily and wear a new one.

Enter a new society as an infantobserve and absorb every facet of the new culture and language as if you’re starting life all over again.

Don’t think ‘I want to speak French’.

Think ‘I want to be French’.

I put together a short video compilation recently of some of my time in Egypt and Korea.

What I wanted to do here was to try and give an idea of the relational benefits of foreign language immersion and home stays as someone who takes an assimilationist approach to foreign language learning.

Photos and videos never do it justice but you’ll hopefully get an idea of how much of a close bond I formed with these communities.

I started the video with a short clip of my favourite quote from one of my favourite films, Lawrence of Arabia (a bloke well known for his assimilation into Arab society).

Make sure to subscribe to my YouTube channel as well:

This was written by Donovan Nagel.

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Donovan Nagel
Donovan Nagel - B. Th, MA AppLing
I'm an Applied Linguistics graduate, teacher and translator with a passion for language learning (especially Arabic).
Currently learning: Greek


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Ure best try ever would be Serbia !

wr surya

wr surya

i’m from the northern mountains of the Philippines and i only knew English until grade 4... it’s common to hear Ilocano, Kankana-ey, and Ibaloi being spoken around these parts rather than Tagalog... i got a chance to work in Bandar Lampung, Indonesia from 2011-2014, and although i haven’t got any idea of their Bahasa Indonesia on arrival, i am now able to converse with almost anyone on the streets or offices; and probably like you, i’ve been invited to many of their villages and houses - they made me feel as if i was indeed one of them despite my frequent lapses in the language... i feel it’s much easier for me to speak it than Tagalog (Filipino)...



I live in Japan. One thing I struggle with here is the working culture. Low salaries, long long long hours, low holiday allowance of which people don’t take all of it, prioritising work over family time to the point of moving away from family, etc. etc. This in the country with one of the highest suicide rates in the world. I’m happy to assimilate, but this is a society that puts people into groups, and as a foreigner you’ll always be a foreigner. When it comes to some of the more fundamental stuff like making a living, taking breaks from work, maintaining a healthy mind, body, and relationships, embracing this category and being a bit out-of-the-ordinary is a probably for the best.



Do you think complete assimilation is possible?

I was born and raised in the States to an American father and an English mother, but I don’t really think of myself as belonging to any particular culture. I would miss my family, yes, but if I moved away and never came back, I wouldn’t care.



What if you don’t think of yourself in terms of any one culture? I don’t particularly associate myself with being an ‘Englishman’; I’m just a person. Moved anywhere else, I wouldn’t miss England--at all.



I very much agree with Alexander on the subject of China.

The only time my Chinese improved at all during my stay was when I took solo trips that forced me to speak to people who only spoke Chinese. I was working as a teacher at a University, a community where virtually everyone spoke English, and it was absolutely maddening to get any help with my Chinese. There is no force on earth that can deter a cheerful and polite Chinese person who wants to practice their English.

Needless to say if I go back I need to try living in a more remote area.



I agree wholeheartedly. While in University, I spent a year in Japan with a group of other American students. I’m too tall and too Caucasian to ever be mistaken for Japanese. But I WAS! On the phone. Was this because my accent was so good or my grammar was perfect? No. It was because I was saying things using the mindset of a Japanese person, not an American. I consistently tried to do things in the Japanese way. It’s funny. To this day -- 25 years later -- I can look at photos from back then and tell if I’m speaking English or Japanese just by my posture or the way my face looks. It’s very different physically.

My biggest compliment came from the mother of the family I lived with. She said, “You will always be an American. But your heart is Japanese”. <3

Now I’m working on my heart being Irish. Going to Oideas Gael next summer. Good luck with your next travels too!

Alexander Krasnov

Alexander Krasnov

We actually have a similar program at our school in China. We send students to Chengde (a city north of Beijing - no foreigners whatsoever), they live in Homestays only and can only interact with locals. So far this has been a really good program for immersion.

I agree with Scott in the comments though, many locals in Asia try very hard to assimilate to foreign/Western culture, so for example, if you befriend a very international Chinese person here, he/she might try always to talk to you in English. This gets even to a ridiculous point, where he/she talks with their friends in Chinese, but then changes to English when talking to you, even when knowing that your Chinese is quite alright to understand his/her meaning.

On the other side of the spectrum, there are many foreigners here in Beijing, who lived here for 5-10 years and barely speak Chinese, if any at all. Due to the international nature of the city, it’s very easy for foreigners to live in foreign ghetto-like environment, go to foreign restaurants and have English speaking people all around them, which results in this fairly common case of Beijing veterans who speak no word of the local language.



안녕하세요.구글링 하다가 우연히 이 싸이트를 방문합니다. Donovan씨께서 말씀하신대로, 그 나라의 문화를 이해하고 느끼고 그나라 사람들과 친하게 지내는 것이 언어를 배우는데 있어서 매우 중요하다고 생각합니다.어느 나라로 가시는지 모르지만,거기서도 좋은 추억과 관계를 갖으시길 빌께요.

PE Roy

PE Roy

Very interesting article and blog - keep up the good work!

Donovan Nagel

Donovan Nagel


Ruth Elisabeth

Ruth Elisabeth

Your favourite compliment resonated with me - I clearly remember the day a Vietnamese friend told me a similar thing. I do like being told my Vietnamese sounds natural too though!

Donovan Nagel

Donovan Nagel

Great, Ruth! :)

I’ve been looking at the possibility of moving to Vietnam for a while actually. I’ve heard it’s a great place to go.



I owe whatever language ability I have to trying my best to integrate and generally being interested in the language and culture. However it’s not as easy as it seems. While I absolutely agree that assimilation is crucial to development of native like language skills, I feel that it’s a two way street. Assimilation is not just willingness to integrate on the part of the outsider, but also willingness of the community to accept an outsider.

In my experience sometimes even though you observe local customs and manners, and make efforts to be interested in local food, history and pop culture some people will still just see you as ‘another foreigner’ and be either uninterested or be at unease when interacting with you.

Although I have a number of local friends in the country I live in, I find that I became friends with most of them because they were already interested in English and by an extension foreign culture.

I’m trying to integrate into their society but their interest in me stems from trying to integrate into mine. How can we overcome this?

Donovan Nagel

Donovan Nagel

I found that’s more of a problem in East Asia then it is in other places I’ve been to but the thing is we’re always going to be foreigners - nothing will change that.

Over time as you demonstrate your own willingness to integrate into their community you become more and more a part of it. The barriers start to go as people learn to trust and respect you.



I guess it’s a compliment that Russians (and some Ukrainians) have told me that I seem very Russian. :) In my experience, the people who have the poorest language skills are those who didn’t try/want to assimilate. By ‘poorest’, I mean those who could be considered relatively fluent, but who had bad accents, didn’t know much slang or cultural references, etc.

As for the country you’re going to next: I’m hoping it is a Russian-speaking country (because if it is, we absolutely must Skype in Russian!). However, I can’t think of a Russian-speaking country that is very difficult to travel to, so I’m probably wrong. :)

Donovan Nagel

Donovan Nagel

Very true. That’s a great compliment to be told you’re very Russian :)

I can’t say anything until I hear back from this embassy. ;)

"The limits of my language mean the limits of my world."
- Ludwig Wittgenstein
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