Immersion is not the answer

Austin, a former Spanish student of mine, was convinced that immersion would be the savior in his language-learning story.

He was wrong.

At first Austin was enrolled in my coaching course to learn the essentials of the language. After studying for a couple of months, Austin wasn’t making the progress he wanted to make. He had nobody to blame but himself; the reports that I was receiving from his native-speaking Spanish coaches weren’t good: Austin simply wasn’t doing all his assigned work.

I decided to begin speaking with Austin once a week, talking about his progress. When I first got on a call with him, it was clear to me what the problem was.

“Hey Austin! How’s it going?”

“Hola Timoteo! Estoy bueno, es una bonita día, um, tener pregunta sobre una cosa.”

“…Bueno, dale.”

“Penso yo aprender si lo estaba en un otra, um…”

His errors were elementary, and they grated on my ears. I tried to endure them for a while by playing along and speaking in Spanish, but pretty soon he got completely lost and couldn’t continue the conversation.

“Austin, let’s speak in English for a while. Frankly, you’re making some mistakes that you really shouldn’t be making. We covered most of these in your first few lessons.”

“Okay, yeah, I’ll have to review some of that. I haven’t had a whole lot of time to study or practice lately because of work.”

“That’s all right, we can pause the progress while you catch back up.”

But Austin wasn’t into slowing down.

“I’ve been watching some Spanish movies. I try to turn the subtitles off and try to see how much I can understand.”

“Okay, how much is that?”

“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.

“You really need to master the essentials first. The words you’re picking out aren’t going to help you become fluent.”

Austin was falling for the bright shiny objects, but he was neglecting the real work he had to do: Understanding the language itself.

Unfortunately, this tendency would continue, despite my check-in calls with him week after week.

“How has it been going this week?”

“I don’t know. I’m still having a lot of trouble understanding my coaches when I practice with them. Even when they speak slowly, there’s something my ear just isn’t tuned to.”

Now, I’ll quickly point out how bad a sign this is. Austin’s coaches were not just speaking normal Spanish. They had been trained to restrict their vocabulary to the essentials, the top 200-300 most common words in the language, for beginners like Austin. But it still wasn’t falling into place for him.

“Have you been doing the assigned listening practice?”

“Some of it. It’s been hard for me to make the time.”

“Okay, we can slow things down if needed, but you really need to master these essentials.”

“Well actually, I’ve made a decision that will make a big difference. I’m going to be taking my trip to Spain sooner than I planned.”

“Oh. Really?”

“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. My student 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 Septober. That magic mythical moment is never going to happen.

And if you think that full immersion can change that, you’re still 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.

Still, there are a few pivotal moments I can recall in my own journey of learning fluent Spanish:

– The moment I found that I could fully understand some Spanish texts I had been studying, in their entirety, just by listening.

– The moment it occurred to me that I could express pretty much anything I wanted to say with my own vocabulary.

– The moment I realized I was understanding about 90% of what people said in a conversation with me.

I reached the first two points, one after the other, while studying in the USA.

The third point was reached after I moved to Argentina and had been there for a few weeks. But I only made that move that after I was speaking and listening at a high level.

It’s important to note that I was specifically working toward each of the points mentioned above. I had measurable goals that I was trying to meet, and “fluency” wasn’t one of them.

Meanwhile, Austin was simply trying to reach this nebulous concept of “fluency”, hoping that some day he would suddenly be effortlessly thinking in Spanish. In this attempt to get there, he was making two devastating mistakes that I’ve seen my students make over and over again.

These two mistakes have to do with speaking and listening. I’ll attack them one at a time.

Speaking: The Tragedy of Practicing Wrong

Have you ever tried to imitate someone else’s handwriting?

I grew up with several brothers and sisters, but we all knew each other’s writing. I used to try to play games where I would write messages and try to disguise whom it was from.

Eventually I learned that I couldn’t effectively 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?

It has to do with ingrained muscle memory. 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 re-train. It can take hours 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. You’ve been saying certain things 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 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 you), 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.

To be fair, all language learners have speaking errors that we need to correct. It isn’t too hard to correct the way we say things that we consciously think about, such as the complex phrase “I will need to have done it before then.”

But the things we say naturally, without thinking about them, such as “it’s here”, are very hard to correct. It takes extra conscious effort, and it’s devastating to your speaking confidence when you suddenly have to go back and question whether everything you say is understandable.

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. 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.

At this point, someone’s going to argue that there’s nothing wrong with silly mistakes, because children commit language errors 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 without a problem.

But that’s a completely different category of mistake. There are some mistakes 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. However, most people learning English confuse those verbs all the time (because most other languages use the same word for both). Going back to Spanish, native speakers never confuse ser and estar. Ever. Not even three-year-olds.

But Austin was making these mistakes simply because of the arbitrary rule: “Just speak Spanish at any cost.” 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.

Listening: The Futility of Immersion

Austin sent me frequent updates while he was in Spain.

“I only tested as A1. I was pretty upset, but I know I should have studied harder before I came.”

He had enrolled in a Spanish “immersion class” that was going to run for a few weeks. He stayed at the house of a local family.

“The couple that I’m staying with is very patient with me, and we can communicate what we need to say. 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. Sometimes he would venture out and try to speak with people in the city, but when they couldn’t understand one another, he would just give up.

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 the English channel with no prior swimming experience.

The best growth happens when you’re practicing on the fringes 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.

Comfort zone progress where the magic happens

The magic happens on the fringes of the comfort zone.

Let’s use the analogy of a weightlifter. If your goal is to bench press 800 pounds, don’t expect to start practicing with 800 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. Don’t expect to get better by climbing under a car and pressing up on it with your palms every day. You won’t get anywhere.

Austin had learned about 500 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 500 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 500 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 500 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 500 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: Mastering 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, but full of renewed faith in solid accelerated learning principles.

He 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 500 before going beyond that.

The 500 most frequently used words in Spanish constitute about 70% 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.

Meanwhile, if you go out on the streets of Spain or Argentina, you’ll be hearing any of about 50,000 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 the founder of Accelerated Spanish, a premier language coaching service that guarantees fluency. Timothy’s book, “Accelerated Spanish: Learn fluent Spanish faster than ever using a tested accelerated system”, will be available via Amazon on June 30.