Strategies for Cultural and Linguistic Survival
© copyright 2023 Guy Spielmann
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What is immersion learning?
...and how is it different from going through an ordinary "language program"?

    Learning a language through immersion does not merely amount to taking courses that are more numerous and intensive than in a traditional curriculum; nor does it merely amount to taking courses taught entirely in the target language (L2). It is therefore imperative, in order to derive the full benefits of this experience, that you understand its nature and become aware of certain strategies that will help you make the most of opportunities and withstand the inevitable pressure, even if your linguistic proficiency is already high.

On-site immersion

     "On-site immersion" refers to any experience for which you find yourself in an environment where a language other than yours is used exclusively, in every circumstance of daily life, without the significant possibility of switching to your language when you experience a breakdown in your communicative abilities. This can even take place during a non-educational experience, if you go abroad as a tourist for instance, provided that 1) you mostly stay away from "tourist attractions," where you are most likely to find interlocutors and documents in a language serving as a lingua franca (such as English or French), that 2a) you do not actively seek communication in a language other than the local vernacular, and that 2b) you actively resist communication in a language other than the local vernacular when the locals initiate it. Yes, this requires a lot of work and effort on your part. You must work at creating and maintaining conditions of immersion, even in a foreign setting, and even if you are in an "immersion" program. If you do nothing, your proficiency in the target language will not improve in any significant measure beyond what you can achieve by "taking a class" and/or "studying" in a conventional manner. 

Understanding the conditions of immersion 

    "Full immersion" theoretically plunges you completely in an environment where a language other than yours is used exclusively, in class, in organized activities, as well as in every circumstance of daily life. This basically requires that a language program operate in a country or region where the "target language" (the "L2" for learners) is the local vernacular or official language. In other circumstances, including all so-called "immersion language programs," immersion remains limited since students' exposure to the L2 is not systematic when they are not in class. Be that as it may, even a limited immersion program is unlike a conventional language course, where the first language (L1) is frequently used to supply explanations (especially metalinguistic ones) and serves as a "crutch" in case of excessive difficulty. Immersion demands that you to get by with whatever communicative resources you happen to have at your disposal in the L2, limited though they may be. Metalinguistic discourse in the L2 being severely constrained by the learners' low proficiency level, one has to call upon the full range of existing communicative strategies in order to overcome any and all obstacles that arise. This "sink or swim" situation fosters a much faster pace of progress by forcing you to exploit your capabilities and resourcefulness fully, without ever allowing you to resort to your L1 when your ability to react and adapt are being strained to the extreme.
    Consequently, you cannot expect to function in the same way as in your L1, and it is important, in order to succeed in an immersion situation, to refrain from trying to "be yourself" in the L2, that is, function at the same linguistic level and in the same communicative mode as you normally do in your native tongue. You will need to find or invent a modus operandi (culturally, communicatively, behaviorally, linguistically) adapted to your new environment and skill set, and which will more or less differ from your "native" mode. In other words, you have to learn to become another person or, more exactly, to grow a second persona specific to the L2, which will be added to your L1 persona without replacing it. Linguistic development per se is only part of this transformation, and you will encounter (great) difficulties if you attempt to keep functioning in your normal mode, but in another language: ideally, you are going to learn not just how to speak differently, but to move, laugh, eat, play, joke, get mad, think differently.

  • Download here the research paper by Spielmann and Radnofsky that defined the L2 persona, "”Learning Language Under Tension: New Directions from a Qualitative Study.” The Modern Language Journal, 85, ii, (2001), p. 259-278. [PDF file]
Immersion means functioning in
"closed circuit"
     Immersion plunges you in a cultural, communicative and linguistic system that follows its own rules, generally quite different from the rules of other systems. Therefore your goal is not to "translate" (words, sentences, experiences, facts, etc.) from one system to another—from English to French, Spanish, Arabic, Chinese, etc., and from your culture to another—but to understand a new system in terms of its own internal logic.
     For example, the meaning of a French word can only be grasped in relationship to other words used in this language, not in relationship to its possible equivalents in English, Chinese or Arabic. Similarly, cultural values only make sense in relationship to other values within the same cultural sphere, in contiguity or opposition; they should never be evaluated through a interpretive framework from a different cultural sphere. Thus, an American who deems the French "dirty" because they do not shower every day bases her judgement on a 'clean vs. dirty' axiological structure that really only works within American culture; there also exists a a 'clean vs. dirty' axiological structure in French culture, but the terms 'clean' and 'dirty' (or rather, 'propre' and 'sale') refer to different realities and values than their American equivalents. This is one of many reasons why attempting to translate from one language into another is definitely not a way to (learn to) communicate.
Immersion is communicative, not merely linguistic

     A commonly used term , "linguistic immersion," might lead us to believe that mastering a language in the strictest sense (i.e., vocabulary and "grammar") is the main factor in successful learning. However, the linguistic dimension is subordinated to the larger realm of communication, which includes:

  • in oral production, suprasegmental features, such as rhythm and intonation;
  • proxemics (use of space), kinesics (use of movement), facial expressions (to indicate affective and cognitive states);
  • communicative schemata (for instance, greeting someone, making a purchase in a store) where the linguistic component may be negligible or even absent;
  • Types of communicative situations expressing social conventions that may be highly formalized or ritualized (for instance in France, "prendre l'apéro"; in the U.S.A., "to go on a date").

Learning to communicate mostly implies mastering these features, which may apparently come very close to what one already knows, but which are actually very different. In fact, the most vexing problems usually come from communicative features from different cultures that share a number of common points: American and French people both smile and kiss one another in the course of normal social interaction, but neither smiling nor kissing (under their various forms...) have the exact same value and function in both cultures.

Immersion is collective and interactive

     Being in immersion means being surrounded by other people with whom you are in interaction (an even wider notion than communication). Although language learning may appear individual, it is only fully realized in a collective setting, and the most common mistake that beginners make involves separating individual linguistic learning from interaction. The presence of other people is an important factor in individual learning, as evidenced for example when one is confronted with an unknown word: alone, one quickly runs out of resources and is stumped (unless perhaps a dictionary is handy... which raises other issues, however); on the other hand, a group of people is much more likely to succeed, not only by joining forces and knowledge, but also through brainstorming and other types of interaction that allow a collective to solve a puzzle beyond the ken of an isolated individual.

Some key strategies...

Allow yourself to be submerged so as to "float"

     Most people who drown would have survived if they had just allowed themselves to float rather than struggle. Do not "resist" immersion by making too many efforts at using correct language and full sentences; by looking for ways to use your L1 as a crutch; by focusing on language and ignoring contextual clues. Let yourself go with the flow. Do not forget that human beings are naturally predisposed to communicative, linguistic and cultural learning. You are much better off not struggling, and in particular...

  • Focus primarily on communicating, not on "producing language." It is often quite possible—and sometimes even much preferable!—to communicate efficiently with a modicum of words, using truncated phrases, onomatopeia and gestures.
  • Envision communication in terms of "tasks" to be accomplished. Concentrate first on function, then on form, not the other way around. When you manage to accomplish a task, then you can worry about perfecting your form… One of the main issues of conventional language courses is that they discount efficacy in accomplishing a task, and only focus on the linguistic means of accomplishing it. A notable exception: Task-Based Language Acquisition, which unfortunately remains rare.
  • Approach communication globally. Try to understand oral and written messages in their full context, and holistically, rather than attempting to grasp isolated elements such as individual words: some messages can be interpreted (at least loosely) without knowing what most of the individual words mean. Once you have gained a general sense of what the message means, you can always, if you care to—and if you have the leisure!—linger on each of its components... but don't put the cart before the horse.
  • Make mistakes, take risks... then correct yourself. Taking calculated risks is one of the most decisive factors in developing first- and second-language proficiency; pay attention when someone corrects you, or when a native speaker echoes what you have said (or written) in correct form. However, if you hesitate to express yourself (orally or in writing) out of fear of making grammatical or lexical errors, you miss a number of opportunities to practice, to be corrected, and thus to improve—and above all to feel progressively more at ease in your second language.
Learn to function in the target language exclusively

     By continuing to rely on your native tongue, you hinder your progress while believing that you are progressing faster. Therefore, you need to start functioning entirely in the target language as soon as possible. In other words...

  • Do not attempt to do in one language exactly what you do in another. Those people who are perfectly bilingual and bi-cultural have two distinct functional modes in their communicative repertoire. The tone of their voice, their communicative habits, even their personality may change according to the specificity of each language they use, as well as to cultural schemata that vary from one society to another.
  • Resist translating at all cost, and express yourself with the linguistic material at your disposal. When your L2 competence is still very limited, it is tempting to resort to translation in hopes of getting across complex thoughts or performing complex communicative tasks that require mastery of linguistic structures beyond your reach. In most cases, however, translation is the worst option. On the contrary, you must limit yourself to going «from L2 to L2» by means of
    — synonyms or quasi-synonyms
    — antonyms
    — definition or circumlocution
    — examples
    — simple, non-idiomatic structures
  • Recycle elements (words, phrases, idioms) that you have seen or heard in context. Unlike the product of translation, they do not require that you verify their authenticity.
  • Use interaction in oral exchanges. If you use a vague term, or fail to complete a sentence, your interlocutor might just respond with the precise term you need, or finish your sentence. Listening very attentively to the replies or feedback you get when you speak or write will enable you to enrich you repertoire considerably.
  • Take advantage of the tools at your disposal. Monolingual dictionaries and authentic documents are information treasuries that you should exploit to the fullest.
  • Find models that you can imitate. Switching over to another language and culture means—initially—playing a part. Pay attention to the models you can observe, orally and in writing. Reuse expressions that you have read and/or heard, imitate native intonational melodies, gestures, as if you were to take on the role of a native speake

     Only regular communicative practice will make you feel at ease in your new language. Force yourself to communicate orally and in writing much more than you would normally do. Seize all opportunities to apply what you have learned, to try out new phrases, to listen to and read in the L2, even in unfamiliar circumstances. In the beginning, and until you have reached an advanced competency level, the intensity of your contact with the target language is absolutely decisive.