Posted on by Ulrike Rettig

“Immersion-Style” Foreign Language Learning?

In our Gamesforlanguage blog posts, as well as on our social media pages, we sometimes mention "immersion-style" language learning. What do we mean with "immersion-style" language learning? To answer this question, let's first back up a little.

FULL IMMERSION - For and Against

Whether you can learn a language through "full immersion" is a much-debated topic.

On the one hand, many agree that full immersion - living in the country or in a community where the language is spoken - is the best way to become fluent in a foreign language.

On the other hand, much has been written about the numerous immigrant children who have difficulty keeping up in their new school and about adults who've lived for years in a foreign country but haven't really mastered its language.

As a Child

I experienced full immersion in a foreign language twice as a child, once at age 9 (Dutch) and once more at age 11 (English), neither language I had learned during my early school years in Austria.

In both the Netherlands and Canada, I attended school and got special help from teachers to learn how to spell, read, write short compositions, and give brief oral reports. It was all pretty intense because I learned all other subjects (mathematics, geography, history, social studies, etc.) through a language that I was also just learning. And, of course, I continuously improved my language skills by being with friends.

As an Adult

My husband experienced full immersion in a foreign language twice as an adult, once at age 23 (French) and once again at age 28 (English). In both French Switzerland and the U.S., he literally acquired language fluency "on the job."

In both cases, his learning was based on language skills (reading, writing, speaking) that he had learned in school in Germany. Discussions with friends and the tasks of daily life provided him with ample opportunities for further practice.

It seems clear that you need more than just living in the foreign country to become fluent in the language that's spoken there. You need the kind of learning environment that's right for you and often extra, personalized instruction.

Above all, while you are "immersed" in a foreign language, you need to understand what is being said and what's going on around you, otherwise it all goes over your head. Especially for an adult, it's useful to be able to relate a foreign language to one's native language: understand what's similar, what's different - until your new language becomes a natural and intuitive tool for communication.

Under the right circumstances, full immersion will work. But not everyone has the time nor the opportunity to go live in another country just to learn a language. We therefore have to employ other strategies and methods, and create, as Brian Powers calls them Simulated Language Immersion Environments


You can set up your own simulated language immersion by setting aside times during the day when you hear or use only the language you're learning. Among our favorites are these five examples:
1. Watching a foreign movie with (or even without) subtitles in that language.
2, Reading a book in the foreign language without looking up words.
3. Conversing with someone only in the foreign language.
4. Listening to an audio that's completely in the foreign language.
5. Talking to yourself only in the foreign language.

Such bouts of short-time immersion, if done frequently, can yield good results. In my experience, you can get the most out of them if you already have a good basic knowledge of the language.

Still, even if you are a real beginner, there are skills to be gained during these short-term language immersions.
• You'll become familiar with sounds and rhythm of the language just by listening attentively.
• You'll learn about non-verbal communication by looking for visual context clues in a film or video.
• You'll you'll start internalizing the look and spelling patterns of a language by reading simple texts.
• You'll practice basic sentence structure and the mechanics of sounding out words, by memorizing basic conversational phrases and repeating them to yourself.


Aside from full immersion and short-term immersion, there are, of course, other ways to learn a language. Rather than limiting yourself to one only, it's often best to use several different methods and resources. In the long run, these have a way of complementing and boosting each other.

GamesforLanguage's (G4L's) “immersion-style” learning is simply one such approach. I'll outline what we consider immersion-style features of our courses by contrasting them to a couple of other popular programs and approaches.

1. G4L puts you right into the middle of spoken language. For example, you could be using an expression with a subjunctive or conditional in one of the first course lessons. This is different from textbook learning, or Duolingo, where you start with simplified language.

2. With G4L you hear only the language you're learning, and no English (except for a brief introduction giving the context). This is different from Pimsleur (an audio program) where around 50% of what you hear are cues in English to prompt the learner's translation.

3. G4L strengthens listening and speaking with various games and exercises: With “Say It” you repeat what you hear and then only see the written foreign word or phrase for a brief moment; in other games, you have to identify the foreign word after only hearing it. Finally, by recording and playing back the story dialog, learners can improve their pronunciation and also begin to memorize expressions and sentences.

4. G4L's short written exercises have you writing only in the foreign language. This is again different from Duolingo, where between 10-20% of what you write is in English.

5. G4L does not use pictures but works with text only. Yes, sometimes pictures do help one to remember a word. But once you get beyond objects and some simple actions, the technique of using pictures is limited.
That's what happens in Rosetta Stone's programs. Once you get beyond basic objects and actions, it's not always easy to figure out what a picture is supposed to mean.
Besides, as you learn learn new words and expressions, it makes a lot of sense to create your own mental image or scenario. And, there are various mnemonic techniques that provide powerful ways for improving vocabulary memorization.(Try The Universe of Memory for a free course and very helpful information on memory and learning!)

6. In each of the G4L lessons, the learner plays several games that break a segment of the travel story down into its component words and phrases. Then follow a couple of games that have the learner reassemble the story again, with a final exercise of listening to the full dialogue again, this time without translating it in your mind.

7. Finally, G4L uses games and a story as teaching tools. Games make learning more fun and help to put you into a state of flow as you memorize new words and figure out grammatical patterns. The story provides the kind of context that lets you imagine a scenario that you're involved in, and gives you the precise meaning of the words you're learning.
Just learning lists of individual words, as in Memrise, Mindsnacks, and others, is not sufficient for learning a new language, although vocabulary learning is important and clearly necessary for communicating. But vocabulary should best be learned in context.

Neither online or typical classroom courses can ever create complete immersion environments. For such an experience, you have to live in the country or be a full-time participant of immersion language courses that also use the target language for teaching.

However, we've made a step in that direction by adding immersion-style features with the goal to maximize the learner's exposure to and involvement in the target language.