Is immersion the answer to all language learning problems?

I've been in Taiwan now for just over 2.5 months. So how is it being immersed/living in a country where Mandarin is spoken? Often, when dinner conversation comes up about language learning, especially in informal discussions, immersion is praised as the best way to learn a language. I'm not convinced.

As a disclaimer to this post, I'd like to mention, that this topic will differ from person to person. There is a lot anecdotal evidence here. Mine included!

National Palace Museum Gardens

Just a nice pic of the gardens at the National Palace Museum. Courtesy of my girlfriend.

Immersion works better for beginners

I often feel that when people praise immersion, its people who went to a foreign country with very little knowledge on the language they will learn. Therefore, they have opportunities to quickly acquire a survival form of the language. For example, how to say where you're from, send greetings, order a coffee/beer and ask where the toilet is. The kind of level you need to NOT fall on your face.

Going from there, depending on your circumstances, you can progress to some form of intermediate level. Even if all the language might be overwhelming for beginners, a survival form of the language requires very little effort to pick up and use. The feedback is instant.

Immersion for intermediate learners (like me)

I would say I'm at a strong intermediate level. Quite not advanced and just scraping at an upper-intermediate level. I've learned all the basics of the language before coming to Taiwan. Now, that I'm here, I feel like the lauded "immersion" progress is non-existent or just really slow. Maybe it's like a surprise party that will never happen.

I struggle to feel the progress. Or maybe I'm just disappointed that my Mandarin is not improving as quickly as I hoped for. But here's the thing, it's not the environment's fault. It's mine.

Motivation is still the key

As with most things in life, especially, learning languages, motivation is the most powerful tool out there. Here I am in Taiwan, with all the language around me, but I'm not progressing as fast enough as I thought I would. It's because I'm lazy. Simple as that. During the first month I made a conscious effort to learn more characters, listen to people talk and just absorb as much as I can, but then immersion fatigue set in. It was too much too quickly. 

Immersion, even if the language is all around me, needs the correct mindset and motivation to make it work. Being at an intermediate level makes this even more troublesome, because I don't really "need" to learn more. I can do all survival things already. You need to make the effort, but don't exhaust yourself. Ask yourself this question:

How I can use all this access and exposure to the language in an efficient way, that's already in line with your own study routines and methods?

In there you will find success in immersion. It's one I'm trying to answer myself. What is my goal and how I can use the exposure to the language to my benefit? Don't expect a holy grail. It never works like that.

But there's one thing that immersion does really well.

Listening and more listening!

Of all the things that immersion allows me to do, that I won't do otherwise is spend lots of time on listening. I would never just sit and listen to conversations or something mundane like that, because really, who wants to do that? It takes a lot of time. However, here in Taiwan, I get so much listening practice for free as part of my everyday routine. Sitting on the train, going to shops, hearing my Chinese co-teachers talk. All these add up, which I would not have done otherwise.

If you look at the four strands of language learning, lots of input is one aspect of it. I feel like other areas of language learning, such as writing, speaking and reading still need inherent motivation to do even if you're in an immersive environment. They take conscious effort. But listening is sometimes a tough one to crack, because it takes a lot of time. I feel like if there's one thing that immersion can help you with regardless of motivation is listening to the language a lot more than you would have otherwise. Even if you don't understand everything, it allows to get used to the flow and sound of the language.

My listening is one aspect of immersion, that I feel, has improved as I had hoped for.

Conclusion

Immersion is the not answer. You still need motivation to make it work for you. Listening however, is getting a nice free ride. So use it!

How has your immersion experience been? Share it with me!