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Monday, June 18, 2012

The truth about immersion - Do you really need to live abroad to master English?

I would like to ask you something: Have you ever heard this advice?

”Do you really, REALLY want to learn English? You want to master it just like you master your native language? Then go and study/work in an English speaking country for at least a year, so that you can be completely immersed in the language!”

That sounds like pretty good advice, perfectly valid and reasonable. You want to fully immerse yourself in English? Then move and live in an English speaking country... right?

Some years ago I had the same way of thinking, but eventually I realized that I was very wrong. If I tell you that living abroad is the only option you have to fully immerse yourself in English, then I wouldn't be helping you; I would be limiting your options.

Here's the thing: Living abroad as an exchange student or even moving the U.S., Canada, Australia, etc. is a very gratifying and enriching experience that I would recommend to everyone. If you have the chance of doing it, then go for it; you will not regret it!

However, it's a fact that very few people have the money and/or the opportunity of doing something like that.

So what happens when YOU want to learn English extremely well, but going abroad is impossible for you right now? Would that mean that the sweet elixir of English immersion would be absolutely out of your reach just because you are condemned to living in your homeland?

Would that mean that you would have to look down and settle with taking classes and courses in English (that you don't even like) for years and years with the dim hope that maybe... someday... you'll be able to kind-of-understand the CNN channel, the New York Times newspaper and the lyrics of The Beatles' songs?

Blegh... not even close. Just because you are living in a country where the only English you ever listen to comes from touristic guides DOESN'T mean that you can't experience an immersion similar to living in the middle of Seattle. The key is to understand how to do it.

Total immersion is the most powerful (AND fun) tool you can use to learn and eventually master a language. After all, being immersed 24/7 in our native languages for decades are what allowed you and me to master them so freaking well. I mean, we master out native tongues so well that we even think in it!

You can experience this same power WITHOUT having to travel or living in an English speaking country. All you need to do is, first, realize something that... well, is actually plain common sense, but it's frequently crossed out and ignored in the academic world of language learning:

Languages DON'T happen on a patch of land on the other side of the world.

Languages happen in a meter and a half radius from you, more or less.

English doesn't happen in the U.S., New Zealand, Singapore or Guyana.

English happens in YOUR eyes and in YOUR ears.

English DOESN'T happen in national space. English happens in your personal space.

How to create your own “universe in English”

Being fully immersed in English implies that you have to live in such a way that the immense majority of the content that enters through your eyes and ears is in English.

I'm not talking about content about learning English, in English. I'm talking about real content IN English. Material created for and by natives. And not just any kind of content in English for and by natives, but content that you enjoy and that you would devour if it was in your native language.

Nowadays, thanks to technological wonders like the all-mighty Internet, media players like the iPod and SmartPhones like the Samsung Galaxy allows you to emulate a complete immersion environment in English wherever you are.

For this reason, wherever you happen to be living in right now is irrelevant. As long as you have access to audio and video in English (most of it is free thanks to the Internet) and the technology to play it (computer, MP3 players, etc.), then you have all you need to receive the power of immersion.

Have you ever wondered why is it that a lot of Latinos, Spaniards and other people from other parts of the world that move to the U.S. Or Canada CANNOT understand or express themselves fluently in English even after years of living in the country? Even if they've taken and keep taking “intensive” English classes? (4 hours a day of studying grammar rules is “intensive”, sure... but it's not effective).

Their English is bad because they create a bubble in their native language; a fortress full of content and activities in their native language, where English is FAR from welcomed and is forced out at all costs. These expats:

- Only watch television and movies in their native language; NEVER in English.

- All their music is in their native language or is “lyric-less”.

- All their reading, both for learning and for leisure, is in their native language. Just the thought of trying to read something in English makes them cringe.

- They only communicate and hang out with their circle of mother tongue speaking friends, but only use the spare English they know when they have to go to the bank, to the post office, with their doctor, etc.

As a result they manage to maintain a high level of understanding and expression in their native language ... but because they have almost no contact with the English language, their skills in it don't improve. Even worse, they deteriorate more and more each day.

But this sad situation brings good news! You can apply this same “bubble principle” for immersing yourself in English. All you have to do is to invert the order; create your own personal bubble in English in the middle of the native language world you have to live in.

Image Bubble

Image from h.koppdelaney

Creating your own personal universe in English requires that you make a bigger change in your life: You need to change the language of your existence from your “native language” to “English”. This means that everything you do every day, as far as your own personal circumstances allow you, will be in English.

You like listening to music? Then delete all your native language music from your iPod and switch it with music in English.

Crazy videos on YouTube and documentaries on the Discovery Channel are entertaining to you? Then watch videos in English only and use the SAP function of your TV to change the language of your documentaries to English.

Do you spend hours and hours playing computer games? Then stop using patches for your games and play them using interfaces entirely in English. If the game has audio in English even better.

Change the language of the interfaces of the programs you use on your PC and of your cell phone to English.

Change your email accounts, Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and others to English.

If you enjoy reading novels, comics, or technical material, then read all those resources in English only, unless strictly necessary (like if you have to complete an assignment for university, for instance).

If you are going to do something out to have some fun, do it in English. No excuses.

You check the news every day? See if there are English versions of the pages where you check the news.

… I think you get the idea.

Is it easy to make this change? No; we all have pieces of entertainment in our native language that we simply love and are very attached to. Changing them for entertainment in English that we can't understand really well (or at all!) is not that fun... but it really is worth the effort if you want to master English to the same level that you master your native language, and fast.

This is why it's indispensable that you focus on consuming and decoding content in English about topics you love. Because seriously, who can stand studying a generic and aseptic textbook about topics you don't even care just because using it to learn English is supposed to be a MUST? And also for months and months? Pfftt, screw that.

It's true that not every activity we do every day is in English, or the people we share them with daily. In these situations you can almost always find a way to inject English, even in the form of having music in English or a movie in English playing in the background while you do whatever you need to do.

4 free online resources to start forging your own universe in English

1. YouTube - The number one video portal of the Internet grows wildly every day. Did you know that one whole hour of content is uploaded to YouTube every second?! And I bet you can guess the language of the majority of videos that are uploaded there... eeyup, good old English.

YouTube is huge. Whatever you like: Comedy, video games, documentaries, technology, music videos, cartoons, Vlogs, tutorials... finding tons of videos in English about the topics you are passionate about is almost certain.

You might NOT have access to complete TV series in English (through paid services like Netflix) and have NO movies with English audio in your collection, but if you have the Internet, you have YouTube. If you have YouTube you have enough videos in English to keep you busy for like, 17 lifetimes :D

2. Simple English Wikipedia - Did you know that Wikipedia has a version written in simple English? If you don't have a high enough level of English yet you can use this resource to search for information about topics that you might be curious about, all written in a simpler and easier to understand English. But of course, eventually you want to graduate into using the normal English wikipedia!

3. IN ENGLISH - I know what you are thinking (DUHRR? GOOGLE??!! ORLY?!!), but it's still worth mentioning here because:

Saying “but I don't know where to find content in English boo hoo” is no excuse not to build your very own immersion environment. Just think about a word or phrase in English that describes content you'd like to find, like "nintendo", "iPhone apps", "personal development", "weird colorful birds in Argentina" or whatever crosses your mind.

The great majority of content you'll find thanks to Google, like podcasts, videos and articles are free.

4. Podcasts on iTunes - If you have iTunes installed on your PC you can use it to find a whole lot of free podcasts in English about several topics.

All you have to do to start downloading like crazy is to go to the lower-right corner of the iTunes Store screen. You will find a sphere with the flag of your country; click it, search for the sphere with the U.S. or Canada flags on it and select it. By doing that the iTunes store will change region and you will be able to see what podcasts in English are available!

And now that you are in iTunes go ahead and change the language of the interface to English, will you? ;D

This is just the tip of the iceberg; the current amount of existing content in English on the Internet and other mediums is... in practical terms, infinite. All you need to do is to have some initiative, search for resources in English about stuff that you really like, and devour them like there's no tomorrow.

Of course, mastering English has other aspects to it too, like searching words you don't know in the dictionary and eventually making friends with natives so that you can practice your “speaking” with them. But if there's one aspect that's essential in the process of mastering a language is immersion; living and breathing the language you want to master.

So... that's it.

Go on. Start living in English!

Guest post written by Santiago Madrigal, native Spanish speaker, English and Japanese self-learner, and author of

Tell me, has this article been useful to you? Do you have any Spanish speaking friends struggling to learn English that might benefit from information like this? If so, then it’d be awesome if you could refer them to

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Javi said...

Great post.

Anonymous said...

LIke-like-like!!! So true.
Thank you so much.


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