Here's What Language Immersion Is (And What It Isn't)

  • 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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Here's What Language Immersion Is (And What It Isn't)

I’ve talked quite a bit about how the words fluency and advanced are the most misunderstood and misused words by language learners and blogging “experts”.

Well immersion is another one.

Funnily enough, these words remind me of words like fascism in the media; they get thrown around so much these days that nobody has any idea what they mean anymore.

“Just immerse yourself in the language.”

“I’ve been studying for so long and I still can’t speak properly.”

“You just need to immerse yourself.”

“But I don’t know h—–“

“Hush now. Immerse.”

In the wise words of Inigo Montoya:

“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

So then.

Immersion is not

…just being surrounded by the language

Key word: just.

It’s not as simple as just having it all around you like it’s a cologne or an aura.

Being surrounded by the language should in fact be a by-product of language learning – not the goal itself as confusing as that may sound.

Keep reading and I’ll explain why.

…having Michel Thomas croon you to sleep

Damn. I really love the idea of having an old man whisper in my ear while I try to sleep.

Yes, people ask these kinds of questions a lot.

No you can’t learn a language while you’re asleep in the same way you can’t learn to drive while you take a nap. 🙂

Likewise, TV or radio that you don’t understand playing in the background isn’t going to suddenly start making sense to you.

…setting your computer or gadget’s language to the one you’re learning

While you’re busy trying to decide whether or not that message box on your screen says ‘Are you sure you want to format this drive?’, other people are using their computers for productive things like learning languages and meeting people.

Am I against setting gadgets to other languages?


Am I against time wasting, procrastinating exercises that unnecessarily complicate our lives even more than they already are?

You bet.

…just going to another country

If you think travel to a place = immersion then you’re setting yourself up for a painful arse-landing.

Don’t fall into the silly trap of thinking that travel brings automatic results.

The millions of expats living in places for many years who haven’t learned the local languages are proof of this.

Just being there does not make you immersed.

“Oh well if you just travel to the country…”

“Then what?”

“Live there and immerse yourself.”

“But what abou—“

“Shhh…. immerse.”

These are examples of the most common silly suggestions about language immersion.

So what is language immersion?

And here’s where I tell you something profound and earth-shattering that’ll blow your mind.

Immersion is…


Yes, living. Existing. Being.

It’s you doing all the things you normally do in your own language; living life as you normally do only through another language (not necessarily in another place though of course it’s better to be).

Here in Egypt I rent a dive in the city, I buy food and toilet paper from the shop downstairs, I ride the metro, I workout, I meet friends for coffee…

I do normal, mundane shit every day.

I’m a normal guy doing the same average, routine things I do anywhere else.

Only difference is it’s in Arabic rather than English.

I live a completely ordinary existence except that I sound different when I open my mouth.

By simply living and functioning in the language like this (to the best of your ability), you’re going to be surrounded by it as a result and therefore being surrounded is no longer the goal in and of itself.

Make sense?

What if you don’t live in the country of the language you’re learning?

The same principle applies.

Ask yourself – how can I live and interact with people in my community or online as I normally would in my own language through another language?

I often see people ask the question, “What should I talk to a language exchange partner about?”

Would you ever ask this question if you met somebody in your own language?

“What should I talk to this person about?”

Shit no. (might happen if you’re on a nervous date or standing in a slow elevator with someone you ‘kinda’ know though) 🙂

Just be yourself and let it be a natural exchange between two people getting to know each other rather than making everything awkward and weird.

Immersion is a deceptive analogy

Immersion’s a water analogy – being submerged in and covered by it.

But it’s a deceptive analogy in a sense because being surrounded is generally a passive thing. You can surround yourself with something without ever interacting with it.

With language learning this is never the case however!

It depends completely on interaction and language immersion simply isn’t there if it’s not interacted with.

Immersion = living in and engaging/interacting with the world through another language.

It’s doing all of the things you normally do, except that you sound different. That’s all it is.

That’s immersion de-bullshitized.

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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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NGOMA Armando

NGOMA Armando

Amazing 😮. The explanation is undebatable , as a French speaker, I had the idea that learning English implied necessarily to be in an English speaking country, after your sharing, this stupid idea has vanished. Thanks for the light.



So my question is: there’s a language I want to learn. It’s not common and it’s spoken not written down. (so I obviously have to do a lot of listening)
It’s not easy to find content in that language on youtube but it’s possible.

So as a complete beginner how do i immerse? . How can I in your words more or less interact with the language when I don’t even understand it in the first place or speak it?
How do I start?



Very intesting who you explain emmersion into russian. At the moment I am learning Russian.



Simply put and easily understood. Thank you.

Melissa Dura

Melissa Dura

I loved the last part of this especially. I think it takes a while to accept that the ‘other’ language is just, in fact, a way to communicate with people. Certainly, that was my experience after moving to Spain. And, thanks too. I’m always thinking things like - oh, I must change my computer settings one day - etc. There’s only so much time in the day! As you say, it’s better to get out and live. I do disagree with the section about having the language on in the background, though. Or at least I have read one study which recommends this, amongst many other things, of course. You won’t absorb the language, as you say, but your brain (apparently) will become more accustomed to the sounds.

Stefan Hansen

Stefan Hansen

Thank you for another good read. I just came home after 2½ weeks in Spain. I went there to improve my Spanish, which I started learned 3 weeks earlier. However, in retrospect I realize that I would have learned more Spanish had I stayed at home. While in Spain I was too busy exploring the country, visiting historical sites and so on, so I actually practiced less than I did while at home. Lesson learned. :)

Melissa Dura

Melissa Dura

Next time, Stefan, try doing what one of my friends does, if you have the cash. Try doing an ‘immersion’ programme, preferably that has a short course attached to get you started. Then spend the rest of your visit meeting up with the volunteers on that programme and hanging out with them. And, when you’re not doing that, go to the theatre or on Spanish-speaking tours. You won’t understand everything, of course, but your listening will certainly improve, if nothing else!



You quoted Inigo Montoya, I love it!!

Melissa Dura

Melissa Dura

I loved that too!



Agreed that the term is somewhat overused and often used to mean entirely different things. Even in your comment, Chris, it’s not clear what you mean by immersion. From the context I can see you mean just plopping yourself in a foreign country, but maybe others would read it differently.

I’m really glad that something is being said about this. I’ve always disagreed with the statement that you need to be in a foreign country to master a language. It always seemed clear that individuals making this statement were not language learners. Then again, what if these non-language learners are actually polyglots who happen understand the term ‘immersion’ as “engaging with native speakers” rather than “immersing oneself in virtual learning, podcasts and books.”

What a pickle.

Thanks for providing a new definition, Donavan.
-Shana Thompson



p.s. love the visual about cologne and auros. The idea of floating in a sea of language is pretty cool....if only we were all giant sponges!

Chris Broholm

Chris Broholm

I totally agree with this post Donovan!

Interestingly though, most of the people who believe truly in immersion are outside the language learning community, i.e. not language learners.

When I tell people I want to learn ex. Chinese next year, they say; Oh you are going to China? And I have to explain why learning a language and going to the country are two separate things. Of course it could be beneficial, but it’s not automatic by any stretch of the imagination.



Awesome article. Having been living in Australia for almost 4 years, the most progress I have achieved for learning English happened when I stayed in the homestay. Like what u have said, being able to live my daily life with another language, or immersed in, is the best way to improve it.



Hahaha, “shhhhh, immerse”.

It’s great to see the immersion illusion being shattered in more ways than just going to the country.



Thanks for shedding some light on this often misunderstood topic. I found that when living in a country broadly speaking there are really three different levels of immersion. Firstly, the most common form and most easily obtainable is daily life immersion. This means that going to the shops, buying food at restaurants and other general daily errands can all be conducted through your target language. I have found as a beginner it’s easy to make rapid progress at this stage and it really makes you feel as if the environment is doing your language ability wonders.

After this, the next level of immersion is social immersion. Although many expats live in a country for a long time they actually never reach this stage and it is crucial to becoming fluent. It is quite easy to fall into a foreigner bubble, or often a group of local friends who all want to speak English with you. Depending on the culture you are in it can often be very difficult to integrate socially.

Finally, the last level of immersion is workplace immersion. Most expats never reach this level as they are often employed in jobs where English language of the workplace (e.g. English teacher or working for a multinational company). The problem is that to break into a job which requires you to use your language skills usually means you have a high level already and in fact such jobs don’t always pay as well as jobs that just require you to use English. So very few expats (English speaking) actually ever fully immerse themselves when living overseas.

When I was in Taiwan I found that I could deal with my daily life quite well. Trying to immerse myself socially proved more challenging and although I did my best most of my social life was still conducted through English. After 4 years I never got to the level where I could use my language professionally.

So even as an enthusiastic language learner I was never really fully immersed in the true sense of the word. So in a sense, if you want to be truly immersed even while already in a country you really need to fight for it.

Gary McCone

Gary McCone

I hope that photo is not of you immersed in the Nile.

Donovan Nagel

Donovan Nagel

Red Sea ;)



Good God, yes. You have no idea (wait... you do) how difficult it is to explain that immersion isn’t taking a quick dip into the language pool, out of which you come magically fluent. A week in the target country, crammed up in a classroom from 8 to 2, hardly stands for what it really is.

I think it’s something you really can’t understand until you experience it in the flesh.

Mark T London UK

Mark T London UK

Thank you for a very useful clarification. Perhaps we could invent a new word : “ intermersion” !

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