Do We Learn a Language Through Immersion?

(12/2/2015) Yes, and no (like most answers to most linguistic questions).
I’ve been in Ankara for the past two weeks, skipping Turkish classes in Bishkek but speaking Turkish [without the intermediary of E]. So have I learned more Turkish? Which provides a faster learning opportunity – courses or immersion?
I’d say neither, on their own.
From my month in Ruijin (Jianxi, SE China), where only the young spoke [something akin to] standard Chinese and I was surrounded daily by people speaking Hakka, I can say that immersion alone barely results in language learning, at least among adult would-be-learners.  I learned about three words over thirty days – words whose meanings could be picked up from specific contexts and repeated situational use.  In Heqing, Yunnan I picked up about 20 words of Bai (a Tibetan-Burmese language that was the unwritten mother tongue of the majority of my students) – mostly greetings, swear words, and farm animals – over a year. When you’re an adult, people don’t speak to you like a baby, and you aren’t going to pick up a language from scratch.
Immersion can enhance many aspects of language learning – listening, speaking practice, understanding the living language.  From being around so many people who speak Turkish, whether in Bishkek or in Ankara, I’ve learned to listen, and can understand far more than I can say, from doctor visits to concrete quality to regular family affairs. I’ll probably never sound like a textbook, simply because the textbooks I’ve read have supplied only a fraction of my total Turkish input.
I would also say that having to speak – spending hours a day when no one around me speaks more than a few words of English, and heading into situations on my own, from making dentist appointments to trying to get a new Turkish airlines card to shopping for a winter suit vest for E – has ensured that I really practice what I’ve studied up to this point.  For in class we learn – grammar, vocabulary, sentence structures – but it’s not until we really use them, and become competent in using them without the stumble, that they become *ours*, that we begin to own the language we have studied. We need practice to actually know the language.  Without practice we can recognize the language and even score amazingly high on comprehension tests, but be completely unable to produce it.  Last year I tested a C1 on a Turkish comprehensive test – because I *understood* so much of the grammar and vocabulary – but I could barely produce a basic introduction without stumbling, especially in real-time. Two weeks unaided (for when I’m with E in Turkey he takes over most of the language exchanges, and I always know I can rely on him for explanation) is, of course, not enough to truly practice *all* that I’ve learned.  I would need a few months for that.
Still…practice alone can only take a language learner so far.  For comprehensive understanding and an ability to use the language correctly and in depth, we also need instruction and some textbook study (online or off). We need to (gasp!) study the grammar and write a hundred or a dozen practice sentences before we can spit it out in conversation. We need correction, and to learn to recognize and correct our mistakes.
I’ve met people who “learned” Chinese simply through making and hanging out with local friends.  Most of them could understand quite a bit and speak with decent fluency (fast, and without too much stumbling), but not a single one had a good grasp of grammar, or a great storehouse of vocabulary. They cemented their mistakes though repeated, uncorrected repetition – and for most of them it was impossible to learn to use a difficult grammar piece correctly, or evolve beyond basic functional language abilities. And that’s the danger of pure practice unaccompanied by instruction – our mistakes become irreversible habits, we limit ourselves to a base of language.
So the best course is obviously a complement of courses and practice – either practice sessions (as with a partner on italki) where you practice different scenarios and your partner corrects your usage, or immersion practice where no one slows down or simplifies their language and you have to respond in real time. With that, a few notes for making the most of your immersion and study time:
– Ask people to correct you. Obviously this isn’t going to go over very well in a store or at the dentist, but if family members or friends can correct your usage you will learn not just to speak, but to speak correctly.
– Record what people say. Keep a pocket notebook (or an open note in your phone) and write down those certain expressions or new words to look up and practice when you’re on your own.
– Anticipate dialogues. Going to the store? Write a dialogue you might have with the clerk. Look up, write down, and practice all the vocabulary you might need. If you can, practice the dialogue with a friend or with a language partner (again, italki can be a great resource for that – you can also write your dialogue in a notebook entry and ask native speakers to correct it).
– We’re there any areas where you stumbled? Something you couldn’t express in a conversation? Write down what you tried to say and use a native speaker friend, italki or HiNative to get the correct translation. Practice, and try again.
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