Sunday, April 26, 2009

Learning The Lingo #2: Immersion

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?


  1. But what if you are a native? What then? Should I watch Spanish soap operas? If yes, should I turn on the subtitle function on my tv - or would you consider that a crutch? I dunno Koffijah...

    I don't think I can do it. Are there any languages like pig latin, where you just change some letters around? I could totally learn something like that.

  2. Just to answer your question from last post. My parents learned to speak English very well to communicate at work, in business, with neighbors and read. They could never shake their strong accent and had many grammar issues, but communicate they could. They never did pray in English though and much preferred attending German Worship Services, even when living in the nursing home.

    Total immersion, or sink or swim, has happened to me even in my career. Over the years I agreed to take greater management roles, totally immersing myself in developing the new positions, even though I had no formal training in that area, simply an aptitude and a willingness to learn.

    Totally immersing ourselves in prayer and Bible study through the power of His Holy Spirit is one way He prepares us for service and ministry.

  3. Katdish--please understand that I am writing this blog from the persective of a missionary who has gone to live in the country of the people he is trying to reach. I am writing for those who might do the same and serve as missionaries in a cross-cultural context.

    When I talk about those who choose not to do immersion--it is those who have the option to do it. I understand that many people do not have the option because they are living in a place that does not have an entire society of native speakers around them. A second language can still be learned--but I will still contend that it will be more difficult than if you could find a way to do immersion.

    Part of loving people is being willing to live among them. Many missionaries have the option of living among the people, but they would have to give up their lifestyles to do so. That is something many people are just not willing to do.

  4. Oh, I know Koffijah. Sorry. I was just being silly. I still wish my mom had taught me Japanese.

  5. @Karin--Cool. Thanks for answering my question. And I am super happy you mentioned immersion in your professional life--I have found the same to be true, too! This very dynamic is what pushes us to do things we never thought we could do. Way to go!

    @Katdish--Silly? Maybe I should vote for you at SCL? Well, sorry about that. One thing I'll never be accused of is being funny. I once had a girlfriend who liked to retell my jokes. If people laughed she just smiled. If they didn't laugh she gave the disclaimer: "Well, Koffijah told me that joke." Everyone would then nod their heads in a knowingly way.

    In any case--I would never recommend soap operas--in any language.

    I still think that is way cool that your mom is Japanese. Did you see my comment in response to your comment about this? Did you understand the Japanese that I tried to write there?

  6. Oh, I dunno. I think you're pretty funny. I saw your attempts at Japanese and meant to tell you, "Gesundheit." So there you go.

    Domo arigato, Mr. Roboto...

  7. I'm gonna jump into the katdish-koffijah maelstrom and answer the last question of this post.

    I think this immersion principle applies to a lot of things in ministry. Just our overall concept of church should be immersion-oriented--and not immersed in a load of programs and ministries, but in church as a lifestyle in the midst of community.

    Church planting and disciple making go along as well. Too many guys (this happened to me in my first church plant) start the church in their head instead of raising it up out of the culture. In order to raise a church up out of the culture, you need to immerse yourself in the culture--and not as a "consultant" trying to exegete it but staying out of it.

  8. "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.”

    Right on - people(self included) will opt out of any difficult thing in favor of an easier, albeit less effective thing, usually out of fear.

  9. @aaronsaufley--Great comment! Too often we want to do ministry like Navy SEALs--We are highly trained and we want to go in, get the job done, and get out. But that approach doesn't take time to listen and learn. That approach might be good for destroying something, but it is rarely good for building something that is going to last.

    @Matt--Yes, the "path of least resistance" is a very regular contributor to ineffectiveness.