What is Immersion?

Languages - 26 Jan 2024 - Andrew

When I first discovered my own passion for foreign languages, everyone told me that the only way to reach fluency in a language was to focus on immersion. But what exactly is “immersion”?

At the time, my assumption was that immersion referred to strictly the act of constantly interacting with speakers of the foreign language. This lead to the limiting belief that I either had to enroll in a language immersion school, or go live in a foreign country. At the time, I didn’t have the money or the time to do either of those things. That changed though once I discovered a study abroad program for Norway. I decided that this would be my chance to actually reach a high level in a foreign language. I was motivated, interested in the language and culture, and Norwegian is considered one of the easier languages for an English speaker to learn. But ultimately, my approach to learning it would turn out to be destined for failure.

My approach to learning the basics was sound, and I had a fundamental understanding of the grammar and vocabulary before even setting off to Norway. Immediately after arriving though, I realized that things weren’t going to be as simple as just “immersing”. First of all, I had never even spoken Norwegian with anyone before, and suddenly I felt immense pressure to try to speak it with anyone I could. Any time I managed to say something successfully, it felt like a big success. But any time someone switched to English, it felt like a gigantic failure, and I would beat myself up over not being good enough. Over time, this mentality lead to the feeling that I’m just not cut out for learning a language, because it involves so much pressure. I felt like I was performing every time I spoke to someone, and if my performance wasn’t good enough, I’d get the “English treatment” which felt like a punishment. At the end of my semester in Norway, I was not very happy with my results.

This, in combination with my experience learning languages in a classroom setting (which I’ve written about before) eventually resulted in a complete loss of my interest in learning a foreign language. It wasn’t until many years later that this fire was reignited inside of me, and I began looking into what methods are actually effective.

What I came to realize is that immersion is so much more than just conversing with people. Immersion can be reading, listening, watching, writing, all kinds of different activities that can be done anywhere. This concept changed my entire view on language learning, and made me realize how important it is to have access to raw content in the language you want to learn. The availability of this content and how enjoyable it is to consume is now a major factor for me when I decide to learn a language. This has resulted in me completely changing my priorities on which languages I want to learn! For example, Norwegian is no longer a priority for me, simply because the availability of content is much less enticing than German, for example, which has an ocean of content available.

However, learning a language with less content is still doable. If I could re-do my experience with Norwegian, I would have tried first to immerse in the language using books, podcasts, and whatever TV series I could find. Conversing with people would still play it’s part, but I would have put less pressure on myself, and probably would’ve felt much more confident after witnessing so many examples of how the language is used.


Immersion doesn’t mean just being surrounded by speakers of another language, there are many different ways to immerse such as reading books, listening to podcasts, watching movies, etc. Using these methods is a much more effective way to bridge the gap towards conversing with people without the pressure of trying to “perform” before feeling ready. And of course, there is the added benefit of being possible to do from anywhere, without having to rely on someone else.