The value of immersion

We have all heard it before—the secret to learning any language is immersion! Is that really true? I will share my own experiences with immersion below.

My one-month experience with immersion

Around the time I was HSK-4 level, I decided that I wanted to take my Chinese studies more seriously. I took a sabbatical from work, moved to Taipei, and enrolled in a one-month immersive language program. The program was supposed to be four students per class, but I ended up being the only student. This meant that I was effectively enrolled in five 4-hour 1:1 lessons per week, for a total of about 80 hours of study over the four-week duration of the program.

Perhaps more interestingly, I found out on the first day that my teacher did not speak English (she was fluent in Japanese and Mandarin, but she could not speak or understand any English). This meant that our only common language was Chinese.

Most of our lessons were free-form conversation, essentially four hours of Chinese discussion on various topics. Sometimes we would do book exercises or listening practice, but that was fairly casual and often involved lengthy explanations and clarifications in Chinese.

The benefits of immersion

What were the benefits of this experience?

  • Prior to my time in Taiwan, I was very hesitant to speak in Chinese for fear of making a mistake. I would compose a sentence in my head in English, translate it to Chinese, and then express it verbally. During our first few lessons, I stuck to this pattern, and after about an hour, I thought my brain would explode from over-exertion.

    Everything I said had to go from English to Chinese, then my teacher’s responses had to go from Chinese back to English. If I didn’t understand a word she had used, then I had to translate “What did you mean by X?” from English to Chinese in a seemingly never-ending back-and-forth exchange between the two languages. I simply did not have the energy to do this for four hours straight.

    Eventually, though, something shifted and I found myself thinking in Chinese. There was no longer any English, it was just Chinese. It wasn’t very good Chinese, but my brain seemed to decide that it wasn’t worth the effort to translate directly in an attempt to be accurate.

    Instead, my brain took a shortcut. That shortcut meant that I would embarrass myself by saying stupid and incorrect things more often, but I just didn’t have the energy to worry about it. This made speaking a much less stressful and more natural experience. Being forced to think in Chinese was the single greatest benefit I took away from this experience.
  • My teacher’s and my inability to speak a common language aside from Chinese greatly improved my communication skills. Ironically, I don’t think it improved my Chinese, per se. For example, we both became extremely proficient at conveying complex ideas with simple language and indirect or non-verbal communication. If I didn’t know the term for comfortable temperature, I would say something like “不热不冷” (not hot, not cold). However, some precision is lost in this process, so I probably would have better understood how to use more complex structures like the particle 把 if it was explained to me in English vs HSK-4 level Chinese. Learning to communicate complex thoughts with simple language and indirect or non-verbal communication was another important takeaway.

The disadvantages of immersion

What were the downsides?

  • Even once I learned to think in Chinese and my processing of the language became more efficient, I still reached a point nearly every day where my brain would just shut down. At that point, I would run out of energy and I could not understand Chinese anymore. This took longer and longer to happen as the classes went on and I built stamina, but it made the lessons effectively useless after I reached that point each day. I also had no energy left to do self-study after my classes, which significantly slowed down the speed with which I could absorb new material. Immersion is an extremely taxing learning method, and once you hit your limit, it’s hard to see any benefits from it. Therefore, it should be used in moderation until you have built up stamina.
  • At the HSK-4 level, I knew only about 1,200 words, but over the course of my immersion program, I studied for 80 hours with my tutor. That meant that there was an incredible amount of repetition in our discussions and topics, and at a certain point, there was simply nothing else new I could say with my limited vocabulary. I think I would have gotten twice the value out of the experience if I had come in with an HSK-5 level instead of HSK-4 level vocabulary. The value you get out of an immersive experience depends on the knowledge you have coming into it. If you don’t have enough raw material to fuel meaningful conversations, it can limit your learning.
  • I could have learned more actual material in four hours of studying on my own than I did in the classroom, but that wasn’t really the point. For example, I could have learned more words and grammar points if I was left alone in a room with a book for four hours. As an introvert, this is probably because self-study is more of my personal learning style, but it’s still true. While I received some incredible benefits from my immersion, maximizing the speed at which I learned new material was not one of them.

Is immersion really the secret to learning Chinese?

In my experience, the value of immersion is not in helping you acquire the building blocks of the language, but in synthesizing those building blocks into practical communication skills. Without immersion, it is very difficult to become fluent, but immersion is just one of the many types of practice that fluency requires.

For me, 80% self-study and 20% immersion (Chinese-only conversation practice) is probably the optimal ratio. For you it may be different. Just remember that immersion is not a silver bullet—it is one tool of many that are necessary to be successful in learning Chinese.

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