Neil Kendall Languages

The language learning challenge

How to immerse yourself in a language on your own, without native speakers or moving to another country

It has often been said that a good way to improve your skills in another language is to practice with native speakers or even to visit or move to a country where it is spoken, the idea being that you will get to immerse yourself in the language a lot more. Whilst there certainly is merit in this advice, I'd like to share some of my thoughts on what you can do by yourself. Is immersion in a foreign language really possible without moving abroad? Here are some ways you can integrate another language into your everyday life even if you live in a country where it's not the main language:

1) Start thinking in the language

Everybody has an 'internal voice' that they use when processing thoughts inside their own head. As you go about your day, you will no doubt talk to yourself internally, thinking about things you need to do that day, mulling over the past, the future, about how you feel etc. I have no doubt also that you probably do this in your native language. Well, here's a novel idea - start thinking in whatever language you're trying to learn!

Ok, I haven't gone completely mad by recommending this! It is actually a really good idea, and an excellent way to internalise a new language. You see, you are thinking thoughts all day long - it could be things like 'I have to go to the shops to get some bread and milk''I need to reply to John's email', 'I'm getting hungry, I should make some dinner soon' or maybe 'I need to sleep soon because I'm tired' etc. But you could do this in another language too!

It won't be easy at first. You have to consciously make an effort to think in another language, but once you get used to it, it's not too difficult. If you can't figure out a way in the foreign language to think whatever it is you were thinking in your native language, try to think of another, simpler way of expressing the same thought, and if that still doesn't work then go online and find out how to say the word or phrase that you're stuck on. If you make a conscious effort to think in another language, it will soon become a lot more natural, but not only that - you will be simultaneously practicing and improving your knowledge of the language!

2) Read anything you currently read in your native language in the language you're learning instead

You probably read the news, or articles about your favourite subject or sport etc fairly regularly, perhaps on various websites on the internet. You might like to read music news, blog posts, articles about your favourite sport, business, current affairs, celebrity gossip, the weather, etc. Well, why not start doing this in another language instead? Again, at first it won't be easy, but what will happen is that over time your reading skills will improve, and you will find yourself understanding a lot more of what you read.

I've recently started reading music and Formula 1 news in Spanish and German. I have found it has massively improved my reading skills to do so. Obviously you have to have a certain amount of ability in a language to begin with, but once you've gone through a course such as Linkword or Michel Thomas Method, it's time to move on to reading in the language.

Here is the key to making this work: do not stop to look up words your don't understand in a dictionary (at least not at first). Just keep reading, and your brain will figure out the gist of what you are reading. What I have personally found is that you do not need to know what every word in a sentence means in order to understand the overall meaning of the sentence. I realise this sounds totally contradictory, but as I said, your brain has a way of 'filling in the blanks' if you understand some of the words, but not all of them.

The other key point is simply to relax and enjoy your reading - do not strain and do not try to figure out what you're reading, and do not translate it back to your native language in your head. Just keep reading. After a few weeks, months etc you'll be amazed at your progress.

Now, if you keep seeing a word repeated that you are not sure of, THEN you should look it up in the dictionary and make a mental note of it. The fact that you have seen this word repeatedly means it is used fairly frequently and is therefore worth looking up. But I am confident you find reading in another language very rewarding.

3) Write things you'd normally write in your native language in the foreign language

Of course, this might not always be possible if you are writing to people who only speak your native language, but perhaps you need to write down a list of tasks you need to do on a particular day, or make a shopping list of items you need to buy when you next go shopping. Why not write these things in the language you're learning instead?

4) Watch videos of tv dramas, cartoons, news, films etc in whatever language you're trying to learn.

Watching videos of people speaking the language you're trying to learn is a great way to improve your listening comprehension skills, and all helps you to put everything you're learned into context rather than it just being something you learned in a language course. The easiest way to do this is via Youtube, though you may be able to find sources online to enable you to watch tv from other countries from the comfort of your own computer. Start with simple things like kid's cartoons, then move on the drama series', news programmes, documentaries, films, and even interviews with famous people.

At first you might find it a struggle to comprehend what you're hearing, but after a while your brain will start to figure out what you're hearing and it will get easier. As with reading, you do not need to be able to understand every word you hear spoken to be able to understand the gist of what you're hearing.

It is my recommendation that you do not use subtitles or a transcript when watching videos in another language. Let your brain figure it out. Let your brain, in conjunction with your ears and eyes, 

5) Listen to music with lyrics sung in the language you're learning

One thing that can really enrich your life, as well as enhance your knowledge and appreciation of different cultures, is to search for artists who sing in whatever language you're trying to learn. For example, if you're learning Spanish, look up some famous Spanish rock or pop artists and then check out their songs on Youtube. You should also be able to find translations of their lyrics online too, which will help you a lot too. Feel free to sing along with the songs too!

6) Find radio stations and podcasts in the language you're learning

As with watching videos, if you listen to the radio and/or podcasts in the language you're learning, you will also improve your listening comprehension skills over time too. 

So there you go - I hope I have convinced you that you can 'immerse' yourself in another language all by yourself. Follow the tips in this article and you won't go wrong.

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