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.
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.
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.
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.
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?