The Mezzofanti Guild Language Learning Made Simple

Results Of My Arduous At-Home Language Immersion Experiment



A while back, I shared an idea I had for an experiment to try and replicate (as much as possible) in-country language immersion at home over Skype.

My goal was to truly maximize the potential of online immersion and measure its results.

‘Online’ or ‘Skype’ immersion is thrown around a lot but I think it needs to be quantified.

It had dawned on me that the reason why I picked up languages like Russian so quickly while I was living abroad was (at least primarily) because of the amount of time during each day that I was forced to use the language.

Time.

It had nothing to do with simply being in the target language country.

I hardly ever had time to sit around in Russia doing any of the typical comprehension-building activities most people do (e.g. watching shows, memorizing flashcards, reading, etc.).

Rather, for me the crucial factor was obligatory usage over extended periods of time.

In Russia, I worked long hours with Russians – none of whom spoke a word of English and I had to communicate with them. I then lived with my Russian girlfriend at the time who only spoke Russian and every day was a constant, exhausting slog to communicate with her on a meaningful level.

Within 5 months the whole thing began to feel very natural to me.

 

The observation that prompted me to want to do the experiment

So last year I sat and did the math.

I calculated that on an average day, I communicated on average 5 – 6 hours in the target language while living abroad doing immersion.

Not just 5 – 6 hours of passive exposure to the language but rather 5 – 6 hours of actual back-and-forth communication and ‘negotiation’ with other people. That’s between 35-42 hours per week of grueling language practice.

Now compare this to the average learner at home with an online tutor.

A lot of people (depending on their motivation level, availability and finances) are probably fortunate if they get 1-2 hours per week of actual language exchange via Skype.

Totally inadequate for serious, short term fluency progress in my opinion.

In fact, most people are probably lucky if they get 1-2 hours per month.

The rest of their learning time is taken up by autodidactic or academic activities (books, courses and programs), passive listening activities and so on. Not to mention the distractions of work, family and so on.

This is even true for a lot of people who live in the target language country.

Ask all the expats in Korea who can barely get a sentence out in Korean!

Just because they’re surrounded by opportunities to use the language doesn’t mean they take it.

 

Recap of the experiment

If I had tremendous success by being forced to speak for an average of 5 – 6 hours per day in the target language country, then I need to find a way to put the same or similar expectation on myself while at home if I want comparable results.

How can I force myself to have 5+ hours a day of continuous interaction?

So what I did was set up a daily schedule for online Skype sessions for 5 total hours (mainly through italki) that looked like this:

Lesson: 8am – 9am

Break: 9am – 9:30am

Lesson: 9:30am – 10:30am

Break: 10:30am – 11am

Lesson: 11am – 12pm

Break: 12pm – 12:30pm

Lesson: 12:30pm – 1:30pm

Break: 1:30pm – 2pm

Lesson: 2pm – 3pm

These were the rules I set for myself:

  • Intentionally limit myself to one topic per day to talk about (every online language session had to involve practice talking about the same topic and had to be challenging to my current level). This was so I could clearly see and measure my progress.
  • No explicit grammar teaching. Just talk and negotiate meaning through mistakes.
  • A different teacher/conversation partner where possible for each session throughout the day.
  • One target language per day.
  • No English during lessons or breaks (I was home alone most of the time so this wasn’t a problem).
  • Apply what I learned from one session to the following sessions as a way of practicing and cementing what I’d previously learned.

I planned to this with any of my four strongest languages – Arabic, Korean, Irish and Russian.

 

Challenges and unavoidable distractions

First of all, it didn’t work out entirely as planned.

The past 12 months have been the most eventful and hectic of my life.

Migrating to the US, setting up a home, getting married and having our first child meant that I’ve been more distracted (good distractions!) than any other time in the past 7 years of running this site.

It has been a welcome change from living out of a suitcase though – that I can tell you.

But it’s brought with it a series of new challenges for finding time to do things that I’ve always taken for granted. Things have definitely stabilized now though that everything’s over and my son is getting on schedule.

I had initially hoped to do this experiment over a period of 3 – 6 months.

But with everything happening all at once, I was limited to 3 weeks.

This was still enough for me to see very clear results but I believe it would have been exponentially better if I had of stuck to it for the initially planned time.

I encountered two other challenges to do with the experiment itself:

1) It would have been far better to focus on one language rather than four. Even for 3 weeks of 5 hours per day on one language alone would have been highly effective.

I was spreading myself too thin and proved to me yet again that learning multiple languages simultaneously is a poor strategy.

2) There were minor logistical challenges, most notably dealing with unreliable teachers (you schedule 5 sessions a day and one or two get cancelled at the last minute).

Or there are connection issues.

Or there are unavoidable interruptions at home like people visiting and so on.

If I were to do this experiment again, I’d increase the amount of sessions in my schedule to accommodate unforeseen issues.

I’d ensure that no matter what happens – whether it’s cancellations or distractions – I get my 5+ hours a day.

Here’s how it went otherwise.

 

My mind adjusted to thinking more spontaneously in the language with less effort as the day went on

By the time you get to the 5th session of the day, you’re totally in the zone.

First thing in the morning, my mind was still in English mode – especially if I’d been speaking English all morning to my wife.

So the first session in particular feels like a warm-up.

But after hours of speaking throughout the day to multiple people and refraining from English mental interference, you’re really thinking in the target language and everything flows.

Natural, spontaneous responses come much more easily.

 

The opportunity to learn something new from one teacher and then reinforce it with a second person helped lock it in my memory

I wish I could explain properly why this is.

I guess it’s similar to the way in which we learn written vocabulary and then encounter the same words in other reading material later on. It really reinforces what we’ve learned by seeing a learned word in unfamiliar contexts over a period of time.

Same thing with conversation.

Hearing something new from one teacher or tutor and then encountering it again in a sentence by a totally different person several hours later helps make it concrete.

It’s spaced repetition.

But instead of repeatedly hearing or seeing something in the same place over and over (e.g. the same flash card or audio source), you’re hearing it from a different voice in a totally different context.

 

Mental fatigue was a daily struggle

I’m always totally exhausted when I do overseas language immersion.

Part of this is my introversion (I get drained being around people constantly without my ‘me’ time to recharge) but most of it is that spending 5+ hours a day struggling with a language is a serious mental workout.

It’s bloody hard work.

Similarly in doing this experiment, I found that by the 4th and 5th session, I felt wrecked.

I didn’t feel like doing anything social in the evening because I had been ‘switched on’ all day. It also meant that my ability to focus and problem solve got sloppy toward the end.

This is something that I could adjust to over a period of time (as I’ve had to during overseas immersion in the past).

You need to give it all your energy and focus.

Language immersion needs to be treated like any full-time job.

 

Overall the experiment confirmed what I believed to be true about language immersion

Rapid progress in the languages I’ve learned was made possible through extended periods of usage.

Not just exposure.

Continuous usage (BTW – sitting and listening to a native speaker isn’t counted as usage!).

And simply being in the country means nothing.

Expats all over the world live in their target language country and yet they rarely if ever truly experience immersion in the language.

Why?

Because continuous usage over extended periods of time is very uncomfortable.

It leaves you with nowhere to hide.

There’s a person staring at you waiting for a question, statement or response – English isn’t an option and there’s nobody there to jump in the conversation to draw attention away from you.

Yesterday, I sat down to do some calendar planning (I like to plan my day’s activities to keep myself consistent with work) and from now on, I’ll be dedicating entire days each month for language use.

Immersion days.

Rather than just doing an online session here and there for an hour, I’ll be planning my sessions as full day marathons.

 

Have you tried something similar? 

Comments

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  1. Great experiment Donovan. My best language learning “immersion” experience occurred while at University in the United States. I spent 5 weeks, eight hours a day learning Portuguese, with a group of 6 teachers. We were with each teacher for 30 minutes to 2 hours a day. We also had homework for probably 1-2 hours a day.

    After those 5 weeks, I repeated it with Spanish, although it was a bit more challenging since after 8 hours of classes every day we had 2-4 more hours of homework.

    Both of these were done in Columbia, South Carolina so were “artificially” created immersion environments. Both were amazing experiences. I’d love to have a chance to do something like that again in more languages.

    It’s not quite what you were able to do, which sounds not only lots of fun, but an amazing challenge.

    Congrats!

    PS. What were the 4 languages you studied?

    1. Hey Jared,

      Arabic, Irish, Korean and Russian.

      So when you say you were doing 8 hours a day learning Portuguese, was it target language only? Or did they instruct in English?

      The homework sounds intense. That’s the last thing you feel like doing after that many hours of speaking.

    2. You know Donovan, I don’t even remember well if it was all in target language. I doubt it because for many of the group it was their first exposure to the language. That was true for me in Portuguese although I had already studied Spanish quite a bit elsewhere.

      Having said that though, I’m sure the majority of the teaching was in target language.

      We did have almost all native speakers as teachers which is always my preference. From memory, there was one non-native speaker from probably 14-16 teachers and assistants.

      Also, they did a great job of varying what we did each day, and taught us all four components (reading, writing, listening, speaking) of the languages. I came out of those 10 weeks with much stronger writing skills, and specifically had a great grasp of where the accents went on words. Before that, I knew almost nothing about written Spanish and absolutely nothing about written Portuguese.

      You’re right the homework sucked, but having your brain think for 10-12 hours a day in the target language, of course, pushes you to progress fast.

  2. I love this. This is so true. I’m a French language major in Montréal and although I’ve been here for my third month now, because I only use French in the classroom and not outside of it, my French isn’t as well developed as I’d like it to be.

    When I was studying French in Vichy, France (although only for 6 weeks), because I was forced to speak French with my “adoptive family” there and because my friends there couldn’t speak English, my French progressed so much more quickly than in Montréal.

  3. Several times I have been placed in, or placed myself in, situations similar to what you have described. It started when my parents placed me into a Flemish speaking Catholic kindergarden in Antwerp, with me neither Flemish speaking nor Catholic. After similar school experiences in Chile and Mexico, much later as an army officer I spent weekends as the only American at a German glider club. Exhausting is exactly the right word! You are so right on about everything! Language learning reminds you what it was like to be two years old again. No wonder they throw tantrums. This road is less traveled because it is a bun buster, but the results are dynamic. And now you can do it from your own home. Thank you so much for your work.

  4. Great idea, here! I am just beginning Portuguese (already speak Spanish fluently and a Mexican indigineous language called Rarámuri) and I’ve been trying to think of ways to immerse myself more even though I live in Mexico where nobody speaks Portuguese. My only problem is my internet connection is too limited to use Skype on a regular basis.

    I’m excited about learning a language outside of a country where it’s spoken. I learned Spanish and Rarámuri by living in country and immersing myself so this will be a whole new challenge.

    Congrats to you in your marriage and the little man! Focus on them first, but it’ll be great to be seeing some new content like this on the blog!

  5. It would be nice to have several contacts via Skype for language students. Not necessarily in immersion. We could talk about various stories with several people.

  6. Thanks for the update Donovan, you have much discipline!

  7. Very interesting post, Donovan. It made it clearer to me why my French is still not as fluent as my German, even though I have devoted a good deal of time to it over many years. I lived in Germany for three and a half years, studying and working, and I was fortunate enough to make several close German friends. Back in college I also had a summer job here in Ireland that involved speaking German for a good chunk of the day. German was a real part of my life back then, and I gained a lot from that.

    French, on the other hand, has only ever been a private hobby for me. I’ve travelled in France but never lived there; I’ve done language exchanges with French people but I’ve never had any really long-term friendships with any of them. The closest I have ever come to immersion in French was when I briefly went out with two French girls in Dublin (not at the same time;)) who both preferred to speak to me mostly in French. But great though that was, it was not enough in the grand scheme of things. And I realise now that no matter how many French books I read or French videos I watch, that “hands on” experience that I had with German is missing. Now I just need to figure out how to get it! So thanks again for a thought-provoking article.

  8. All the points were great about the language immersion experiment. Especially, the point challenges and unavoidable distractions. Your post was very resourceful and helpful for language learners.
    Thanks for sharing!

  9. Your comment that “…sitting and listening to a native speaker isn’t counted as usage!” is spot on. I spent four month working in Colombia (working in English) and spent my free time trying to learn Spanish. I frequently went to my girlfriend’s family gatherings, where they spoke only Spanish, and I didn’t get anything out of those events (though once in a while I’d hear a new word or phrase I learned and it would be reinforced from a new speaker in a new context). But being passive got me nowhere.

  10. This is an awesome experiment, and you can’t argue with results. How do you think this could be brought down to a more proletarian level? I think most people can’t set aside anywhere near that amount of time, but would be interested in getting the the distilled applicable wisdom, he 80/20, out of your efforts.

  11. Can you tell us a little more about how you focused each session and whether you let the Italki tutor know ahead of time what you wanted to focus on. Did you do any prep work ahead of day focused on a given topic.

  12. You mentioned that listening practice does not count as usage. Do you think that writing practice might count? I live in an area where internet is very spotty, so I don’t Skype. But I want to improve my language skills – so far most of what I have done is listening to news and reading children’s level fiction (with dictionary in hand!). Do you think that keeping a daily journal in my target language is a good idea?

  13. Hi Donovan,
    I’ve just discovered your blog and find it really exciting. I love your story about setting up an authentic learning laboratory . It sounds hard, but infinitely better than the two conversation tables that I attend– Americans speaking T-language with other Americans. Keep up the great work!

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