Immersion Is Not the Answer
My coaching student, Austin*, failed to become fluent in Spanish.
For a LONG time, anyway.
*NOTE: Austin is not a real person.
He’s a “composite character” of several students I’ve worked with.
Take the facts in this article with a grain of salt.
But try to take the advice seriously.
“Austin” was a software engineer, traveled extensively as a hobby, and was convinced that immersion would be the savior in his language-learning story.
He was wrong.
After a couple of months in the Accelerated Spanish coaching course, Austin wasn’t making the progress he wanted to make.
By all accounts, he had nobody to blame but himself. The reports I was hearing from his native-speaking Spanish coaches weren’t good: Austin simply wasn’t doing all his assigned work.
I Skyped Austin one day to talk about his progress. As soon as the call started, it was clear to me what the problem was.
Timothy: “¡Hola Austin! ¿Qué tal?”
Austin: “Hola Timoteo! Estoy bueno, es una bonita día, um, tener pregunta sobre una cosa.”
Timothy: “…Bueno, dale.”
Austin: “Penso yo aprender si lo estaba en un otra, um…”
His errors were common to English speakers, but I was surprised to hear them. He should have been trained out of these mistakes by now. Pretty soon he got completely lost and couldn’t continue the conversation in Spanish.
Timothy: “Austin, let’s speak in English for a while. Frankly, I’m concerned that you’re making some mistakes that you really shouldn’t be making. We covered most of these in your first few lessons.”
Austin: “Okay, yeah, I’ll have to review some of that. I haven’t had a whole lot of time to study lately because of work.”
Timothy: “That’s all right, we can pause the progress while you catch back up.”
But Austin wasn’t interested in slowing down.
Austin: “I’ve been watching some Spanish movies. I try to turn the subtitles off and try to see how much I can understand.”
Timothy: “Okay, how much is that?”
Austin: “Well, usually not much of anything, but I can pick out words here and there.”
Even though he couldn’t seem to make the time to study, he did have time to watch movies and listen to Spanish radio.
I strongly advised him against this practice.
Timothy: “You really need to master the essentials first. The words you’re picking out aren’t going to help you become fluent. Have you been doing the assigned listening practice?”
Austin: “Some of it. It’s been hard for me to make the time.”
Timothy: “Okay, we can slow things down if needed, but you really need to master these essentials.”
Austin: “Well actually, I’ve made a decision that will make a big difference. I’m taking my work on the road and flying to Spain very soon.”
Timothy: “Oh. Really?”
Austin: “Yeah, I’ve already bought the plane ticket. I think it will force me to immerse myself and help me really learn everything quickly.”
I sighed. Austin was in for some serious disappointment.
The Mythical “Tipping Point”
Austin was a victim of the classic mistake that many beginning language-learners make.
If you’re hoping for that day when suddenly it all “clicks”, when you wake up and you’re finally understanding everything in your target language and speaking it effortlessly, you may as well mark your calendar for the 32nd of Febrember. That mythical magic moment is never going to happen.
And if you think that full immersion can change that, you’re chasing a unicorn.
The legendary “tipping point” to sudden fluency doesn’t exist. I know many language learners and have worked with hundreds of coaching students, and nobody has experienced such a thing.
However, there are pivotal moments. Here are examples:
– “Today, I suddenly realized that I could fully understand this story I’ve been studying. I don’t even have to think about the English anymore! It’s incredible.”
– “Today it occurred to me that I can express almost anything I want to say with my own vocabulary. It’s a very freeing feeling!”
– “I can now understand about 90% of what people say in a conversation with me! My patience (and theirs) has really paid off in the last several months. I’m finally having entire conversations in Spanish on lots of subjects.”
Note that these are three sequential moments, not one sudden “tipping point into fluency”. The goal is to work toward each of the points, one at a time. You want to have measurable goals that you’re trying to meet.
But my student Austin was ignoring the milestones. Instead, he was simply trying to leap toward this nebulous concept of “fluency”. His hope was that some day he would suddenly be effortlessly thinking in Spanish.
This means he was making two devastating mistakes that I’ve seen my students make over and over again.
These two mistakes have to do with (1) speaking and (2) listening/comprehension.
Let’s look at these fatal errors one at a time.
1: Speaking (the Tragedy of Trained Errors)
Austin’s bad errors weren’t just a temporary problem. The habits that he formed haunted him for months of attempts to learn Spanish.
Bad habits don’t die easily. Once you start speaking or writing a certain way, it’s almost impossible to change.
Have you ever tried to imitate someone else’s handwriting?
I grew up with eight brothers and sisters, and we all knew each other’s writing. Still, as an amateur student of espionage, I loved playing games where I would write messages and try to disguise whom it was from.
But I was always caught. Eventually I had to admit that I simply couldn’t imitate someone else’s style. I might try for hours to pass off a paragraph as if it were written by my sister, but nobody was ever convinced. My own handwriting always showed through.
Why is it so hard to change your handwriting?
If you’re like me, you’ve been writing for most of your life, almost as long as you’ve been speaking. Every single time you make a stroke with a pen, you’re reinforcing your own style. You’re building on muscle memory you’ve been practicing your whole life, and that muscle memory is extremely difficult to un-train. In fact, it can take weeks of practice just to change the way you write a capital letter P so that it’s not obvious that your own hand did it.
Language is very similar.
Let’s assume you’re a native English speaker. You’ve been saying certain things in English the same way your whole life, without even thinking about it. Those habits are engrained, as if in your muscle memory, and they’re very difficult to change.
That’s why I don’t let my students speak bad Spanish when they’re starting out. Practicing errors (without immediately correcting them) is a tragic mistake that’s very difficult to reverse.
For example, many beginning students confuse the verbs ser and estar, and they end up frequently using erroneous phrases such as “es aquí” instead of “está aquí”. The problem escalates: If you say “es aquí” enough times, it will become automatic so that you’re not even thinking about that phrase. Your default mode of saying this phrase will be wrong.
Later, when you’re taught that this is wrong (a native speaker might have trouble understanding the phrase), you’ll want to try to correct yourself. But it will be very difficult. Since you’ve been saying this erroneous phrase by default, without thinking about it, you won’t even be able to identify your error when you make it unless you start forcing yourself to slow down and check every single thing you say.
That’s why it’s important to get those things right from day 1. Once you’re saying the core language essentials perfectly, without thinking about them, you can spend your conscious thinking on other nuances of your speech.
Too many students, including Austin, are convinced that that they have to speak Spanish as much as possible from the very beginning, even if it means making mistakes at first. This is a very dangereous route.
Sure, it’s important to speak as soon as possible, but you want to make sure you’re doing it right. How hard is it to make a habit of saying “dónde está” from the very beginning? But if you start off saying “dónde es”, un-learning that mistakes will be harder (and much more frustrating) than simply learning it correctly in the first place.
“Wait,” you might be saying. “Are you saying that we can’t make any mistakes at all? How are we supposed to learn anything if we’re in constant fear of making mistakes?”
Well that’s not quite my point. There are some mistakes that are fine to make. Even native-speaking children make mistakes that are easily corrected later. We don’t always correct a 3-year-old’s grammar when she says “I didn’t found it”; she’ll learn this later on. That’s not a grave error; it’s the type of mistake that native speakers themselves often make, and those are permissible when you’re starting to learn a language.
But there are some errors that native speakers would never make. For example, native English speakers never confuse the verbs “to make” and “to do”, even as young children (we never accidentally say “I did a mistake” or “I’m making my exercise”). However, most Spanish speakers who are learning English end up getting mixed up on those verbs all the time.
It’s similar when you’re learning Spanish. Native speakers never confuse ser and estar. Never ever. Not even three-year-olds.
But Austin was making these mistakes simply because he fell into a common trap: The arbitrary rule of “speaking in Spanish at all costs”. He was more interested in hearing his own voice saying Spanish words than in spending a little time making sure those words were right.
The cost came back to bite him shortly after he moved to Spain.
2: Listening (the Futility of Immersion)
Austin sent me frequent updates while he was in Spain.
He had enrolled in a Spanish “immersion class” that would run for a few weeks. Meanwhile he was staying at the house of a local family.
“The couple that I’m staying with is very patient with me. But they have a daughter that speaks very quickly. She’s not so patient.”
I felt bad for him, but as he himself pointed out, he’d pretty much been asking for it.
His reports over the next several weeks revealed that his class wasn’t helping him as he thought it would.
But there was worse news: Outside of class, he spent most of his time locked in his room, either working and communicating with people in the USA (in English) or watching Spanish films and listening to Spanish radio.
Somehow the exposure to Spanish wasn’t clicking with him. He still couldn’t carry effective conversations, because he still couldn’t understand much spoken Spanish at all.
As I explained to him, he was trying to jump far beyond his level, and for that reason he wasn’t making any progress. It’s like trying to swim across the English channel with no prior swimming practice.
The best growth doesn’t happen outside your comfort zone. The best growth happens when you’re practicing on the edges of your comfort zone, pushing the boundaries of familiarity further and further out.
If you stay within your comfort zone, that zone won’t get any bigger. But it also won’t get any bigger if you jump with both feet outside of it and completely lose track of everything you’re familiar with.
Let’s use the analogy of a weightlifter. If your goal is to bench press 500 pounds, don’t expect to start practicing with 500 pounds of weights from the first day. Your muscles will respond and grow if you start with a weight that’s just barely within your current realm of possibility, maybe 150 pounds, and successfully press that. Grow gradually from there.
Austin had realistically learned about 600 words by the time he went to Spain, and he was not yet using them effectively. Worse yet, he had trouble identifying the meanings of those words when he heard them.
Even though Austin was in Spain, I encouraged him to practice listening to limited-vocabulary dialogues, restricted to the 600 words that he knew. By listening to texts within his vocabulary, he would be practicing listening while actually understanding what he heard, and he could expand from there.
As it was, he was practicing by listening to things he couldn’t understand, such as Madrid radio. This not only did nothing to improve his listening skills, it actually reinforced the habit of not understanding what he heard.
This meant that he was frustrating himself by constantly exposing himself to things he couldn’t comprehend. Whereas he could understand everything he heard in English, 90% of the Spanish that he heard was beyond his comprehension, psychologically creating an association of futility with his intended second language.
My best students stick to the top 600 words of the language, working with them until they know them so well that they can use them flawlessly and understand them in almost any context.
This means that while they listen extensively to dialogues using these 600 words, they avoid listening to Spanish radio or watching Spanish films until they’ve mastered them. They understand what they’re listening to, and they’re able to imitate it so that they can use those same phrases themselves.
Later, when it’s time to practice listening with further media such as real Spanish videos and songs, they study the exact vocabulary that they need for what they’re practicing with in order to understand it 100%. This is much more valuable than listening passively.
Let’s say a student chooses a song that she’s never heard before. Although she currently knows 600 words fluently, she may need about 20 new words to understand this particular song. That’s very doable. Once she’s learned the meanings of these 20 new words, she studies the text of the song and then practices listening to it (and maybe singing along) until she has perfect understanding of it.
This active form of listening practice is radically different from the common approach, which is simply to turn something on and hope that the sounds stick in your brain somehow.
Alternative to Immersion: Master the Essentials
Ultimately, Austin was chasing full fluency without a willingness to master the essentials. He came home from Spain a few months later, disillusioned with the “full immersion” concept. He finally put his faith in solid accelerated learning principles.
Austin went back to the drawing board and began studying the essentials again, starting with the top 15 words of the language and working his way down to the top 600 before going beyond that.
The 600 most frequently used words in Spanish constitute about 80% of the language. This means that if you master these exclusively, you’ve conquered most of the language already, and everything else easily integrates into your knowledge.
But alternatively, if you go out on the streets of Spain or Argentina, you’ll be hearing any of about 25,000 Spanish words. That’s too much information to filter through, unless you already have a core knowledge of the language.
By all means, move to a Spanish-speaking country for a few weeks or months if you can. But don’t expect that it will magically make you fluent.
Set the foundation first.
Don’t practice mistakes, and don’t listen passively. Master the essentials, both with speaking and with listening, and the door to deeper fluency will be opened to you when you’re truly ready.
Timothy Moser is an accelerated learning expert, bestselling author, and Spanish coach.
In 2014, Timothy founded Accelerated Spanish, the only online Spanish coaching program that guarantees Spanish fluency.
The Accelerated Spanish book is an international bestseller, with over 20,000 copies sold.