Lindsay Lewis

English/ ESL consultant: Word worker, writer, teacher, mentor and poet. Author of This Won’t Hurt a Bit! on writing clear content.

Learning languages: Immersion works

Posted by on Oct 20, 2021

Do you think that you can’t learn a language, or that some people are naturally gifted at languages? Really it’s just hard work. I can pretty well guarantee that if you put in the time as I did, more than 1200 hours, you can attain some level of fluency.

1200 hours you ask. How can I do that. I got up at 6 a.m and watched old Italian movies and videos for two hours prior to starting my day. Or, on the weekend, I watched Italian movies non stop.

I went to Italy for a month and just got back a week ago. The goal of my trip was cultural fluency. What do I mean by cultural fluency? I mean fitting in, functioning, ordering food, not missing trains, and feeling part of the fabric of society instead of an outsider looking in.

There were disadvantages to having so much immersion; as a result of all the input, I had extraordinarily high comprehension but had never spoken. This is the first time that my speaking was very low but my understanding was almost a hundred per cent.

How does immersion work? First, listening to Italian is like listening to a machine gun firing off words and sentences. I couldn’t understand a thing for the first three months. Then I started hearing short phrases and sentences. I also heard the word “Jew” all the time, and thought Italians were obsessed with Jewish people. Then, one day as I was watching a movie, an actor gestured up, su, and down, giu. Then I realized that the word giu means down. or sometimes already….Eventually, I could separate the rapid fire sounds into individual words. I word hear phrases such as “Io vado!” I am going, or ” Que fai?” , What are you doing.

As children, we learn by imitation, and in fact, this is the technique I also employed. Unfortunately, I struggled to speak due to having no practise whatsoever. Normally, I would know how to conjugate verbs, and have writing and speaking practice too, but this was all input with no output. It made it very difficult for me to start speaking, and I felt particularly self conscious.

However, I was able to understand train announcements stating that the train to Lucca was changing from binario four to five. I and all the Italians dashed to the new platform just as the train arrived. I was also able to ask questions and find restaurants in which the waiters didn’t speak English. In one trattoria, the son came out with a piece of cardboard and the menu written in it. Being immersed in Italian separated me from the hoards and provided a portal to another universe.

No, it’s not easy to learn another language, not even for a linguist. However, perseverance and putting in time are the only ways to succeed. I can’t wait to improve my speaking… ci vediamos!

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