Is immersion the answer to all language learning problems?

By Confused Laowai | Date: February 25th, 2013 | Category: Taiwan

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.


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!

Related posts:

The Tipping Point
5 Mistakes I made when I started learning Chinese
You know you're progressing in Mandarin when...
The Four Strands of Language Learning

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  • Robert Roth

    Can’t do anything without motivation! But immersion as a “being forced to learn” can only go so far if you’re lazy like me. Especially in Taipei, it is so easy to get by with English, pointing, and some creative miming that getting necessities doesn’t require learning Chinese…

    And, as an introvert, practicing with other people is difficult, which is why I pick on my 4-year old kid…. can almost keep up with her.
    But before I had her, I got a lot from TV, which also helped to practice my character recognition staring at the subtitles…

  • NielDLR

    Hi Robert,

    yeah, even if you learn the basics of the language, miming and other strategies work wonders (to the detriment of learning the language of course!).

  • Alissa Harrison

    Nice to see someone being critical about immersion. I agree it is oversold. I went China after a one year of college study, and again after three years. Both times I went with overly high expectations and got burned out in my studies. Seemed to spend more time beating myself up over what I didn’t do then recognize how far I had come.

    But now after several years, I can compare my Mandarin learning process with Cantonese. I learned the former in school and books. The latter was mostly through girlfriend and her family. While I might know more “book language” in Mandarin, it’s uncomfortable for me to talk in it. On the other hand, Cantonese expressions come to the tip of my tongue regularly. The big difference I see is the emotional connection to the language. If you can find a way to tie your language learning into something that engages you emotionally, I believe it will make a big difference. It will improve motivation, ensure you’re getting regular exposure (little bit every day is much better than one insufferable day a week!), and stick in your memory better. This is the closest to a “holy grail” that I know of.

  • NielDLR

    Hi Allisa,

    I totally agree. Finding that one thing you really like about the language or its culture, will be far more important than any other method. Good luck and thanks for the comment!

  • Let China Sleep

    Well, my personal experience with immersion at the “absolute beginner” level was a very, very positive one. I got to a really, really solid intermediate Chinese level within about 5-6 months. I learned so d*mn fast because I didn’t have a choice. I was in a place with no English speakers – period. It was tough, but I had to do it.


    Since I’ve returned to China, still at my intermediate level, I find myself in the same position as you, and have told others EXACTLY the same thing — “I feel like I don’t really need to learn anything else.” I’ve been really lazy, and I have barely made any progress in my Chinese in the past 5 or 6 months I’ve been back in China. My listening, especially with dialect, has improved, but that’s about it.

    So, I totally feel you on this — my last time in China, I would have argued and trolled about it, but you’re totally right. After you get past the ‘survival’ point, it’s extraordinarily hard to get motivated. I went out and bought some HSK books and other Chinese textbooks about 3 weeks ago, and I haven’t done much with them……They’re literally sitting about 2 feet away from me now.

  • Sterling Swallow

    I think you hit the nail on the head. Motivation is what will bring you to the next step, but I suppose you are also picking up a certain degree of fluency that is not really detectable from your own self analysis. In addition to the problem of being at an intermediate level and the learning curve slowing down, we also suffer from being in a 21st century Taiwan where you can easily get by with English too. The forced immersion experience of 20 or more years ago is only available today if you make it yourself. One can live in Taiwan (or anywhere for that matter) and through the use of Skype, Facebook, and other online tools essentially create an English (or whatever your native tongue is) environment and have very limited exposure to the language of the country. It’s especially true here where people bend over backwards to be welcoming of foreigners. (I’m in Taiwan myself–in Taoyuan). It would be fun to connect sometime when I’m in Taipei.

  • NielDLR

    Hey Austin,

    yeah I feel you man. Thanks for the comment!

  • NielDLR

    Hi Sterling Swallow,

    I definitely agree. In circumstances, such as Taipei, English is more prevalent. That is true. But most events where I had to adapt to using Chinese (no English), I just quickly looked up a word or two on my phone and handled the situation quite smoothly. What I mean by this is, is that even if you are in a Chinese-only environment (besides actually working/learning in Chinese) you’ll most likely be able to cope on an intermediate level.

    By saying that, I do believe there is some stuff happening in the background that I’m not ware of, as you mention.

  • Sterling Swallow

    Yes I got your original point and I agree. Being somewhere between upper intermediate and advanced (at least in some areas) myself, I find it’s so easy not to push myself to learn more. Since I can get by ordering food without learning everything on the menu, a part of me says, “Why bother?” But like you’ve mentioned in previous posts. I want to recognize all the characters around me.

    I want to have far less moments where I stumble around in a conversation to guess a specific word or idiom. I want to actually remember that magical number of 3,000-4,000 characters (I’ve probably learned more than this, but haven’t retained them) so I can pick up a newspaper and know what the main point is.

  • Andrew Weiler

    Immersion is clearly a great option but for a variety of reasons it is not the whole answer for most people, as some of the other commenters have noted. There are many other issues that have a bearing on this. Rather than rattle on here, I have posted a link to a post that I wrote on this very topic…

  • Jeff Lau

    I think you’re right in the fact that Immersion is over hyped. I think immersion helps you practise your fluency (output). You get some free input, but it’s easy to procastinate and not listen to that conversation on the train or to your teachers talking amongst each other. You will then get up to a level where you’ve practised your knowledge of the language (current vocabulary and grammar) and you are pretty fluent in that aspect. And once you are at that level where your knowledge = fluency, then you need to actively learn some vocabulary and topics or you will begin to stagnate. I talk about this more in this post:

    I think it works the other way around as well, where you learn too much at a Chinese school or something and you don’t actually USE it enough to be fluent in what you know (and I know several Chinese learners who have learnt casually for 4-5 years and sound like they’re still at an elementary level even though their vocabulary is actually pretty decent)

    I think this works well for me so far as it keeps things more interesting switching between actively learning vocabulary and actively practising fluency.

  • NielDLR

    You make very good points (in your comment and blog post). I think I would definitely switch over soon to more output as that is the one I’m doing almost nothing in. One should balance things out.

  • Mariola

    Interesting post. I have a similar opinion about immersion. I think that without motivation it’s not possible to learn a language even in the country where the language is spoken. I’ve never tried ‘real’ immersion but I try to surround myself with Ńowegian as much as possible and it brings profits :)

  • Maria Lopez

    Good Post I am studying here in Yangshuo and for me immersion was important but motivation is number one and thankfully I have great teachers

  • Maria Lopez

    Good points about the casual learners and learning with no practice. I always get my teachers to bring me out a few times a week to buy things at the market or even just go for drinks. The practice makes perfect :D

  • Dan French Poole

    When I got back from 5 months living in France with a French family, I was ‘fluent’, but my accent wasn’t too good and I still had a long way to go. I started working once a week in a French restaurant once I was back for a year, and a year after that I was very fluent. I felt like I made almost as much progress once a week as I did in 5 months in an immersive . environment. The truth is, like you said, immersion can sometimes be too much, too fast.

    This is because learning a language is an acquired skill, and like any other skill it requires time as well as frequency of practice. You need to put in the effort, but your brain needs a bit of extra time to simply catch up – this is because the neural connections in your brain need to be formed. That’s why I got so much better the year after I got back from France, even though I wasn’t speaking that much French.

    Once you’re at the intermediate stage, you really just gotta keep loading your brain with the language. Keep listening and speaking, etc, and eventually you will reach a ‘critical period’ where all of this effort will materialise into a breakthrough in the language. That is the way it’s always worked for me! Let me know your thoughts.

  • Shu-Lin Wu

    Very good point! I am a mandarin teacher teaching grades 9-10 at a public high school in MA. Could I print your this post and share with my Mandarin IV students?

  • NielDLR

    Yeah, you can definitely share it!

  • Istemi Akadi

    Such a peaceful place.