The Mezzofanti Guild Language Learning Made Simple

How To Go On The Perfect Language Immersion Trip And Save Tonnes Of Money

How To Do Language Immersion

What would the perfect language immersion trip be in your opinion?

What does be immersed even mean to most people I wonder?

It’s never quite as simple as just getting off a plane somewhere and speaking to everyone around you. It can be a daunting and slow process when you arrive in a foreign place knowing nobody, and without proper planning it can easily end up being a waste of time and money.

You can spend months or even years in a place without ever being ‘immersed’.

Or perhaps you prefer a more structured trip with courses and teachers.

While there are many excellent immersion courses out there for many languages (e.g. Oideas Gael in Ireland), there are two problems with an immersion ‘course’ trip:

1) They almost always aren’t cheap.
2) It’s foolish to fork out all that money on an overseas trip and spend most of the time staring at classroom walls when the language is alive outside.

As I write this I’ve just begun another language immersion stay (this time in Italy).

This is neither a course trip nor a ‘just step off the plane and hope it all works out’ trip.

It’s an immersion trip that I’ve structured and planned myself – several months in a place where every day has a plan and purpose of which I have complete control over.

And it’s a lot cheaper than most people would expect!

Today I’m going to share with you what I do to get the most out of a language immersion trip and save myself a tonne of money in the process.

 

First and foremost – Remember that it’s not a holiday!

This is a difficult resolution to make but it’s very important in my opinion.

If you want to get the absolute most out of an immersion stay then you need to make a distinction between holiday time vs. learning time.

Avoid the mentality of “I’m here on holiday in France and I’ll practise my French whenever I can” and instead say to yourself “I’m here to learn French and any tourism or socialising is primarily for the purpose of learning French”.

By approaching it with this mindset, you make your learning your number one priority and all the other things you do are ‘learning activities’.

Just as you would in school or at work, give yourself a day or two off each week to forget about language learning and just relax. This is your tourism time.

Language Immersion In Italy

I’m sitting here now writing this at my dining room table, staring at alps and wineries outside my window.

I’d love to be up there hiking around, wine tasting and trying delicious food in all the crotti but now isn’t leisure time.

It’s tough but you have to make that call if you want to succeed.

Enjoy yourself but have a mission mindset from the day you start.

 

The flights

This is usually the most expensive part of the trip (especially if you’re an Aussie like me being so far from the rest of the world).

The best and simplest piece of advice I can give you is to book your immersion trip during low season. It sounds like a really obvious thing I’m telling you but you’d be surprised how many people don’t do this and spend a lot more than they need to.

Since you’re not going for tourism it doesn’t matter if the weather’s shitty or the attractions are closed. You’re travelling to visit the people and the good news is the people are always there.

Book at the least competitive time of the year.

I use Skyscanner and Hipmunk for everything and I personally try to strike a balance between cost and exhaustion. What I mean by exhaustion are the painful transit times and connections (Hipmunk actually has a feature that allows you to sort by ‘agony’ which I think is brilliant :)).

I’ll never forget one nightmare trip I had through Western China (5 domestic connections), spending between 6 to 12 hours sleeping in each airport, followed by over a week trying to locate my lost luggage.

All because it was a bit cheaper!

Since you want to arrive as mentally sharp and energetic as possible to start learning immediately, it’s often better to pay just a little more and treat yourself to one night’s stay in a comfortable hotel or B&B when you arrive.

You don’t want to wear yourself out before you begin.

Forget agencies and online ‘personal assistants’ (e.g. services like Flightfox or freelancers found through sites like Elance). With the ease and availability of flight booking these days their jobs are utterly redundant in my opinion.

Employing someone else to find cheap flights for you will only increase your costs for something you could easily do yourself in less than an hour with a bit of patience.

Also (again stating the obvious) pay close attention to baggage limits and which airport you’re flying into. Sometimes a more expensive flight actually works out lots cheaper when you factor in weight allowances and the distance you have to travel from the airport by train, bus or taxi (I’m especially cautious of this now after all my wasted time and money getting from airports like Moscow Domodedovo and Milan Malpensa).

 

Choose regions/towns/villages that are unpopular tourist destinations

Looking back at many of the places I’ve lived in over the years for language immersion, nearly all of them have been in towns or villages off the beaten track.

El Fashn in Egypt, Gumi in Korea, Rustavi in Georgia, Kazan in Russia, Malatya in Turkey to name some – mostly places that few people have heard of or have any interest in visiting.

Now I’m sure that if I had stayed in big, popular cities I would have had great experiences too but I would have also missed out on so many of the rich benefits you get from staying in these smaller places:

1) Fewer people speak English (in some cases absolutely nobody does).

2) There’s always interesting dialect variation.

3) People are friendlier and more hospitable.

4) There’s less crime and dishonesty (very important when renting a place).

5) Just about everything’s cheaper.

In a village like El Fashn in Egypt for example, I could spend 3 whole months doing language immersion with only $500 in my pocket and still have money left over at the end of it.

The only downside of course are the lack of first world luxuries like American restaurants (not a problem for me since I don’t eat that garbage), free and fast wifi, good transport, toilets you can sit on and so on. You’ll also stand out like a sore thumb so everyone will know you’re there.

But these are things you can adapt to if you’re up for the rewarding challenge.

On the point of transport you’ll save a fortune in most places anyway if you stay put. Just get settled in one place, get to know the locals and save your money.

 

Rent an apartment or house

It’s much cheaper than getting a hotel or B&B if you’re planning to stay a month or more.

Above all else I prefer homestays for language immersion but if you’re going it alone then the best thing you can do is find your own place.

Like I said above, right at this moment I’m sitting in my own apartment dividing my attention between writing this post and staring at the wineries and alps across the road from my building.

I’m in one of the most stunning, picturesque regions of Europe in an alpine valley near the Swiss border and surprisingly it’s costing me hardly anything to be here.

 

In fact it’s cheaper to rent this entire apartment than it is to rent one room back home in share accommodation in a poor area of my city. An entire month’s rent here is probably the equivalent of 4 nights in an average hotel.

Putting cost aside, there are lots of obvious advantages from having your own place while doing language immersion:

1) Privacy.

2) Proper rest.

3) Being able to cook at home and save a fortune on food.

4) Becoming a familiar face in your building and neighbourhood (the more people know and get used to seeing you the more relationships you’ll build).

5) Being able to invite people over.

This is a hugely important point especially in parts of the world where communities are more closely knit and everyone knows each other.

You’ll find yourself becoming one of the locals before long and it will open up lots of opportunities for practise (for example I was having trouble getting an appliance working in my house yesterday and one of my neighbours came over and helped me with it. Me and Franco chatted for almost an hour in very broken Italian). 🙂

I also find grocery shopping to be one of my favourite language immersion activities since you have to learn to ask for (and read) so many different things and on such a regular basis. It’s one of the best necessity-driven activities you can do as a language learner.

So how do you organise your own place (affordably)?

Well you have two options – have a local friend arrange it for you prior to arriving or wait till you arrive and approach real estates yourself. Look in local papers, on public notice boards and even windows for for rent signs.

I literally walked around this small town looking for Affittasi signs, walked into a local real estate, and told the woman I want a furnished apartment for a few months. She then put me in touch with the landlord and I moved in a few days later.

In some countries it’s difficult to find a short term rental that’s cheap (my country for example) but in many places you can find something within a day or two (I’ve had friends in other countries find places for me within hours).

Again I’d suggest avoiding agencies or online ‘assistants’ as you’ll be spending money unnecessarily and putting your trust, money and safety in the hands of a complete stranger you’ve never met. Ultimately it’s better if you know a local friend who can help you arrange it but if not then book a day or two in a hostel or B&B and walk around to see what you can find.

In small towns and villages tell everyone that you’re looking for accommodation and you can almost be certain that ‘someone knows someone who knows a guy’ with an apartment for rent.

When you’re going in low season too like I suggested above you may find lots more rentals available.

At the end of the day you need to be open to travelling to a place with a bit of uncertainty over where you’re going to stay initially. It can be scary for some people to not have every detail worked out before departure but far more rewarding in the end.

 

Minimise study!

Or better yet leave the books at home entirely.

You can study on your own anytime so why on earth would you waste time with your head in a book when the language is alive around you?

Take advantage of every minute you have being in the host country – practise what you know as much as possible. Save the study for when you get home.

Before you head out each day, spend no more than 15-30 minutes going over some new vocab and phrases (I prefer the Berlitz phrasebooks which are excellent quality and only cost a couple of bucks) or listen to an audio program while you’re eating breakfast (I personally use and love Earworms MBT which is why I endorse it a lot on this blog).

An audio series like Pimsleur is excellent too but it’s much longer and potentially time-wasting so don’t waste half the day sitting around listening to it. The same goes for sites like Duolingo and Memrise – use them briefly to cover a few new, necessary topics and then close them.

Arm yourself with the few new vocab and expressions you need for the day and head out (always strive to acquire something new and be constantly practising things you did in previous days).

Always be prepared to write down things you see and hear too (or use a note-taking/voice memo app on your phone/tablet like Evernote). I still have a pile of little notebooks I carried with me in Egypt full of words and expressions I scrawled while I was out.

Think of the world around you as one big, interactive classroom and it’s up to you, the student, to take notes and get as much out of it as you can.

 

Take every opportunity to open your mouth no matter how broken and basic you speak

The only person who thinks you look stupid is you.

People respect you for trying. Even if it’s grammatically bad, your pronunciation is awful, you stutter and are hesitant and forget words – nobody’s judging you (and if they are then they’re a complete arsehole and not worth 5 minutes of your time anyway).

Don’t fall back onto English to avoid looking silly.

The very first day I got here to Italy I went into a little pizzeria to get a slice of my favourite anchovie pizza. All I could manage in Italian was something along the lines of:

“Hi. This pizza. I want.”

*pointing*

“Yes. This.”

*the guy asks how big I want the slice*

“This. No. Again big. Again big. Yes. How much? Thanks. Bye.”

Would you feel ridiculous talking like this?

Don’t.

It’s the only way you’re going to improve.

The guy or girl who talks like this but doesn’t know all the complex stuff is at a higher level of proficiency than a person who knows all the rules but never uses it.

 

Slow down

Learn to slow down and pay attention to what’s happening around you.

We’re always in a hurry to get somewhere or do something as quickly as possible. Sadly you end up missing out on a lot this way.

Learn to listen closely to the way people interact. Pay attention to all the fine details of the world around you. The way people use and live their languages is truly fascinating.

Take note of the way native speakers interact with each other in shops for example, how friends greet each other in the street, how kids speak to one another and to their elders, how people talk when they’re emotional, the way everyone uses body language, the differences between how the rich and poor speak, etc.

If you don’t slow down and open your eyes and ears, you’ll miss so much of this.

Language immersion is a chance for you to learn what the books can’t teach you.

 

Been on a language immersion trip yourself? Share your thoughts or experience below!

 

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  1. It’s true that you can search for cheap flights online but using a travel agent who REALLY knows the destination can save you hours upon hours of time. They can guide you in choosing the best activities & better places to stay and steer you away from the mediocre to terrible places & experiences. Besides, if you run into trouble, you can ask their help in changing bookings for you. Yes, you are paying for their expertise so it might be worth it rather than just reading about it and digesting and evaluating everything all the time.

    Reply
    1. Hi Matt,

      I guess the point of this article to point out that activities and places to stay are better left up to you to organise, rather than a travel agent's package. You can use TripAdvisor or Lonely Planet for example to find all the good recommendations, reviews and so on for other activities too if you want. There's simply no need to pay travel agent commission.

      You can also cancel and change flight bookings easily through the airline websites or by calling them (just read fine print beforehand to make sure you don't have to pay fees).

      Reply
  2. I completely agree with you about choosing to live in areas that are less touristy, as well as to minimize study while on an immersion trip. These two reasons are the main reasons why I've repeatedly chosen to refuse the various Beijing study programs that are out there for Chinese learners, instead choosing to bootstrap an immersion trip to Qingdao (a smaller, but still very bustling coastal city with great weather).

    Two things you said, though, really peaked my interest: traveling during the off-season and renting after arriving. How do you know when the off-season is for travel to a particular country? And I'm actually really surprised to see a suggestion for renting an apartment after arrival; almost everyone else says to do it beforehand. How do you avoid getting ripped off, particularly if you don't have friends or contacts in the area?

    Reply
    1. Hey Nik,

      When I say off-season I mean to pay attention to times of the year where tourism is high to the area. It's going to vary everywhere (for example here in northern Italy it could be both summer holiday period and winter for ski slopes). The good thing is you can use online flight comparison sites to compare dates throughout the year (e.g. I can see that flying to my home in Australia right now is about $800 one way but in August it shoots up to around $1200 which could be because of the end of Europe summer holiday period).

      You just have to be patient and wise about it.

      As for renting after arrival, yea I definitely do prefer it. There are sites like AirBnB where you can find nice places but most are outrageously expensive aimed at tourists. If you approach a real estate or landlord in person then you find way cheaper short term rentals at local prices. I have had people try to overcharge me in the past but even then it was cheaper than arranging something online.

      Reply
      1. Oh ok, I thought maybe you had a different way of determining peak seasons. That's already what I've been doing (using flight comparison sites).

        As for renting after arrival, I gotta say I'm pretty surprised about that. Great to know, though, that even if people tried to overcharge you it was still cheaper than arranging it beforehand. Just wondering, how do you do all that negotiation if your proficiency in that language isn't too high, considering you often head over to the country before studying for very long?

        Reply
  3. yes, i would consider Ireland. I cant imagine doing Asia or those difficult languages.

    Reply
  4. I'm enjoying reading your posts..UNFORTUNATEY I'm already in Florence, at a school..where thefirst 3 weeks was VERBI!!! haha..i found it difficult because i could not put sentences togetherjust had a lot of new knowledge about verbs and tenses..the last 2 weeks we have done so much mre conversational activities in the class which is great but is hard to keep up with the teacher speaking and me trying to translate in my head! lol (im a fellow 'downunder' dweller, livin in OZ but from NZ) I still have 5-6 weeks to go on my course and kind of wish I'd thought to do it your way but now i'm committed so will see. I am thrilled to say that my weekend bus trips out of the city have enabled me to have small and somewhat stilted spontaneous conversations though with shopkeepers, and people I meet on the train/bus etc..and you're right..the only one who thinks you sound stupid is YOU! I have had many people tell me I speak great..my pronunciation gets me there before I make sense I think because I LOVE the sound and i cannot bear to sound like other native english speakers who do not attempt to adopt the beautiful correct soft pronunciation…i cringe when i hear some of them speaking in class even, sorry to say..it sounds harsh and awkward..I think they must think they're putting on a fake accent, whereas I desperately want to SOUND authentic as well as BE it eventually!!
    Thanks again for your site..i'll continue poking around now and reading. You are inspirational in your approach..Irish! sheesh!! I LOVE the irish accent but can't imagine learning the lingo! Looks and sounds very complicated. For now..Italian is hard enough! 😉
    Ciao e grazie!
    Jessie

    Reply
    1. Well Jessie the easiest way to learn how to speak a language is to start speaking it no matter how bad you are. I was had really really bad German and I went studying in Austria but after you overcome the fear of speaking you get corrected and that is how you learn.
      P.S. Great post Donovan! Thanks for the tips 🙂

      Reply
  5. Yay for all your writing assignments Leigh!

    Reply
  6. OK. I'm English. We live in Holland, we just moved here last October. In December I put my English 4 and a half-year-old into a Dutch school – just an ordinary, decent school full of Dutch kids and Dutch teachers. THAT is words immersion and it works just great – 6 months later he is attractive good at the Dutch and I expect him to be fully flowing (that is, bi-lingual – evenly good at both the Dutch and english talking for his age) within about a year, given his present sponge-like ability!

    Reply
  7. Hey Donovan, you mention that you plan out your days of language immersion while in the foreign country. How do you plan them out?

    For example, trips to stores, libraries, museums, with goals in mind of talking to people and asking questions and using vocabularies? Do you have advice on how to make friends in new places? Like joining clubs or having a favorite bar that you frequent?

    Reply
  8. I am putting together a language immersion trip for myself in Korea. Having travelled a good bit, I appreciate a lot of your comments and suggestions, some of which I will try on the next trip.

    One thing I do not appreciate is your comment on American restaurants and about not eating that garbage. If you don’t like American food, that’s fine. There is no need to insult. Unless, of course, you would prefer that Americans like me not use your site.

    Reply
  9. I spent 5 years trying to learn French in the classroom and can’t speak a damn word of it. But a couple years ago I moved to the Philippines for a job, and was adamant that I was finally going to learn a new language. After work every day I just walked around with a pad and paper, would ask people how to say various words and phrases (English is well spoken in the Philippines) and then I’d head off to the market or village to butcher the language until I started making some sense. It only took a couple of months before I was conversing with the locals (aided with hand signals, of course), but I couldn’t believe how far advanced my ability to speak was just by going out and doing it. That made me so bitter towards the school system for wasting all those years of my life doing something so fruitless that I’m creating a language learning computer program that recreates my immersive experience. I get saddened now whenever I hear of someone taking classes for a language, as I know they have a barren road ahead. Follow the advice in this blog post!

    Reply
  10. Lovely article and comments. I’d add that you can find conversation partners…trade 50-50 for conversation in native and target language … To increase exposure, almost anywhere. You learn what you use. I was a star at Duolingo, but a flub at speaking italian when I got there. So in France (B2, after many conversation exchanges)I’m a star at ordering kir framboise (haven’t made a mistake yet!) and can talk to people on the terrace. I’ll tackle Italy again next year, with a lot of conversation and listening under my belt. Thankfully, it’s fun.

    Reply
  11. So I’ve dived into the deep end of the pool of language immersion with the wall against my back now. After learning Hebrew for only a year and a half, I find myself studying Comparative Literature all in Hebrew here in Israeli. Still very odd of me, having come from a small country in Southeast Asia to study Greek Literature, Chinese Literature entirely in Hebrew when both would have been just as available and difficult in both English and Chinese (which are both my first and language respectively). I guess the good thing about being in such situation is that I’d definitely improve in my Hebrew language as long as I don’t give up, as long as I try, with speed the only factor in the game now. Not given language classes at all in the university, I’ve returned to my iTalki teacher who’s been more than kind and encouraging and has been more than happy to partner me on this journey to sharpen my language skills to an academic level. At the moment, we’re even taking a class on Hebrew Poetry together on Coursera! This allows me to only improve my pronunciation through using the lectures for shadowing practice, it helps create discussions with my tutor to create vocabulary and phrase lists, and most importantly, to gear me towards class participation. And of course, the bit on immersion on the streets. While I’m on the deep end academic-wise, the close to 20 months of Hebrew learning both on my own and with tutors have prepared me adequately for the streets and always a matter of choice. For the streets, I take occasional walks to cities where it’s less-than-cosmopolitan where English ain’t the language of choice. Being of Chinese descent makes it really intriguing for the locals to start a conversation and a good icebreaker. Being of a Christian background, I join a Hebrew-speaking congregation which adds to the immersion and practice in both listening and speaking/singing!

    So from the deep-end of the language immersion pool, I say בצלחה (betzlachah) wishing you success to you on this language-learning journey, fellow pilgrim!

    Reply
  12. I think the best way to learn on an immersion trip is to work somewhere, paid or voluntary. WOOFing is a cheap way to stay and you get constant practice. Or working on crop harvests.

    Reply
  13. I found this very interesting. As an Italian, I feel flattered you were there determined to learn. I have one question: how long do you think it should be an immersion trip? I’m planning to do that in Finland and in Korea. CIAO and keep it up!

    Reply
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