There is no single language learning technique, method, class or dynamic that beats total immersion.
The word “immersion” gives us the image of being thrown into a large body of water. I imagine a raging river. We don’t just go visit the edge. We don’t just take sips of the water or dangle our toes into it. We don’t just splash around and get a little wet. No, we are thrown into all the fury of its current and the river takes us where it is going—not where we want to go. We are not so much in control—the river is. But by being in the flow we learn the currents, the eddies and the falls.
That is what learning language by immersion is like—a bit crazy and uncontrolled. But please notice two things: One, it is for this very reason many people choose not to learn by immersion but select a more comfortable and controlled approach by taking in the language in “small doses.” Two, immersion is exactly what our first language learning process was—when we were born into a crazy world full of people speaking a language we didn’t know. But we still picked it up.
Now, learning a second language as an adult is different than learning a language as a child. But adults can learn faster. An adult can become rather fluent in two years’ time when the baby who was born into the culture is still just saying a few words. Now, give the baby another 7-8 years and he’ll blow the adult away. But with immersion adults will be hearing things “outside the lesson” that will help them to pick up the language must faster than simply taking classes. This is the same dynamic for the child who grows up hearing the language.
Here is the key: Immersion gives you no crutches. Crutches can be rather crippling. That is because we have little confidence in ourselves and we depend on the crutches more than we need to. But when we put ourselves into situations where we need to speak the language for real life communication—that is when we really learn it.
So, if you want to learn a second language my biggest advice to you is this: Find a way to live with native speakers of that language who DO NOT speak English. Yes, it will be crazy at times. Yes, you will use a lot of sign language. Yes, it will seem like you are getting nowhere. But I promise you—you will be making much more progress than if you are only taking the language in small doses.
Now, does the dynamic of immersion apply to other things in ministry besides learning a language?