Saturday, March 29, 2014

Domestic Language Immersion

'Immersion' is a word like 'fluent'. It gets used a lot talking about language-learning, but like 'fluent' it can end up meaning next to nothing if you're not careful to explain what you mean by it. So what is it, and what do I mean by domestic immersion?

I mean operating entirely in the language you're learning, if only temporarily, or at least at certain scheduled times, without leaving your own country. With such a loose definition, it clearly is possible: in fact it's not that hard at all. In fact once again, it may even be better than going to the target language country if you're a beginner, or even at intermediate level.

At home you can sit in your favourite chair with a nice cup of tea. Talking to a native speaker is by definition immersing yourself in the language, right? So, merely by talking to my wife in Greek, winding down after work with a glass of wine in my hand as is my wont, I am achieving 'immersion'. Alright, kind of. She can speak Greek 'fluently', without being a bona fide Greek native-speaker. But that's ok, she's effectively bilingual. And to be honest, at my level, what's the difference? You don't need to get stuck on the small things when you're an A2 (elementary level), which I'd say I am at Greek, one level up from complete beginner.

中文课
Flickr 中文课. Chinese class in a Sunnybank tea shop. Judy, Karl, Mike, and me.

(By the way, you might wonder why I begrudgingly used the word 'fluently' in the last paragraph like that, in quotes. It's because I want to draw attention to the fact that people say fluently regularly in terms of someone's ability with a language, but its meaning is so ill-defined as to render it useless. In the case of my wife, she always seemed fluent in Greek to me: she can chat to her Mum, or to just about anyone else, in Greek. But give her a proper Greek novel (not one of those effing translations of Harry Potter into Greek you get in bookshops here) and she struggles with it. Same with her Greek writing. She claims to really only know 'village Greek', the level she learnt from her parents, hard-working people who have not enjoyed the benefits of literacy throughout their life the way you and I have. She would also purportedly (note to self: use this word more) struggle to hold up her end of a more serious conversation in Greek. So is she fluent in Greek? She certainly seems so to me, but she mightn't seem that way to someone else. I know foreign-born people who are more-or-less 'fluent' in English, but I've found that naturally they struggle to understand me and another Irish guy having the crack. That's the problem with 'fluent': it's depends on the location, on the context. I'm kind of fluent in Spanish and French, as long as you speak clearly and not too fast, avoiding slang, regionalisms, words I don't understand, expressions I don't know, talking while laughing, and jargon. Am I fluent? It's a continuum, it always is.)

The redoutable Benny Lewis got me into another useful type of immersion you can do at home: using Skype. There's a site called italki (I have no idea how to pronounce that. I guessed eye-talk-ee, but someone from Beijing I spoke to via Skype assumed it was eye-talk-eye, so I don't know) where you arrange to chat with professional teachers, amateur teachers, or just good ol' down-home people like you, via Skype. Such an easy way to immerse yourself in Chinese, for example, without taking to the skies and going over to the middle kingdom to face the smog. After all, "there's nothing in the air" in China, as the Cavan man says, that will turn you into Confucius just by walking down the street. I know plenty of immigrants here in Brisbane who despite being here years, will probably never learn the language by osmosis. Chinese who hang out with Chinese, Greeks who hang out with other Hellenics. Passive osmosis is a terrible way to learn.

What isn't immersive?

Just out of interest, since a lot of things seem to be "immersive", let's just remind ourselves of some language-learning options which are NOT immersive. Doing a bit of French on Duolingo isn't immersive. It's an artificial learning environment with plenty of English to help you. Same with Memrise. Excellent as they are, on their own these websites don't offer immersion in a language because that's not their job. Doing a night class which is conducted largely in English is far from immersive, which I found to my frustration last year learning Greek. Some might see this as necessary for beginners, but I don't. It should be possible to playfully instruct educated people using the target language without having to drop back to English. I don't really see too many problems there, as long as the students learn some bootstrapping vocabulary early on. More on this later in the article.

Fully immersive classes - aqui no se habla inglés

But to get back to immersion, let me give you a couple of concrete examples of another type, the best type of domestic immersion as far as I can see. A couple of months ago I joined a local Chinese language group on Meetup.com hoping to meet Chinese people, and people interested in Chinese culture, which I did. This then led to a Taiwanese woman, Judy, offering to help me out after I posted on their facebook page about not being able to attend the weekly spin-off classes because of other commitments. Judy kindly offered to start a class with me and a couple of others, which we've been doing for about two months now. As part of the culture, as opposed to the language, side of the class, we meet at a predominantly Asian suburban hub of Brisbane, Sunnybank, where from week to week for our Monday night session we explore different cafés and shops, etc. One week we had the class in a local taro tea shop, another took place in a cool, out-of-the-way Taiwanese café where I had to order a round of teas in Chinese. We nearly got what we wanted - I was so proud. This past week (see the picture above), Judy arranged for us to have a tea-pouring ceremony as the backdrop for our class. That's a class you remember. Another thing: despite being total beginners, we do virtually the whole class in Chinese. This means Judy often ends up drawing things she's trying to get us to understand. But it's always fun; those parts are like playing pictionary, everyone is usually laughing, and the words are coming thick and fast. Obviously, far superior to baldly stating something like "Oh, 孩子 means child".

Now compare that to a typical language night class, where you all pack into a sterile (kids' usually) classroom, people arrive late, haven't gone over last week's material, and speak English as much as or more than the target language to defer the inevitable jolt as the class proper begins with its nasty verbs and prepositions. Oh, and people generally miss plenty of classes. That never fails to amaze me: people pay for classes, voluntarily, then don't turn up. I remember one woman who was particularly weak in the night class I was doing, wistfully exclaiming that she was really looking forward to the moment when the language would just 'click'. I've never heard a language go 'click' yet: they're usually a long slog, but the slog can be fun if you set it up right.

Chinese Garden of Friendship, Darling Harbour
Flickr Chinese Garden of Friendship, Darling Harbour, Sydney

So if you are learning a language my advice is to ask your teacher to only speak the target language. Think of the phrase "How do you say [something or other]?" Those words - "how", "say", "you" - are extremely common in any language, so if you use the target language to ask that question, you're reinforcing those vital words. Obvious, right? Yet in class after class I've been to, people ask that sort of question in English. It should be the first thing you learn, so you can bootstrap. Bootstrapping, learning the language by asking questions about the language using the language, is a vital component of domestic immersion. You describe and define the language in terms of simpler versions of itself. You have just heard a term unknown to you, so you need to bring it in to the fold. The words you already have are more than sufficient to do that: there's usually no need to switch to mother English. It's tired, it wants a rest.

So here are these most useful of phrases in the languages I'm actively learning at the moment, in case they're useful to you too: (French, Spanish, Chinese)

EnglishFrenchSpanishChinese
I don't understandJe ne comprends pasNo entiendo我不明白
Again/slower pleaseEncore une fois, s'il te plaitDe nuevo, por favor再说一次,好吗?
How do you say [x]?Comment on dit [x]?Como se dice [x]?怎么说 [x]?
What does [x] mean?Qu'est-ce que [x] veut dire?Que es el sentido de [x]?[x] 是什么意思?
So, can I say [x]?Alors, je peux dire [x]?Asi, se puede decir [x]?所以,我能说 [x] 吗?

Much like the algorithm to generate the recursive Fibonacci sequence of numbers, once you have the seed values, the relevant phrases in this case, the rest of the sequence can grow infinitely simply by combining subsequent values to get new ones - you never need to change the algorithm again. Bootstrap magic.

P.s: It's funny: in Ireland, mention 'immersion', and they'll think you're talking about the hot water system in the house. Domestic immersion? Sure what other sort of immersion would you be talking about at all? And if you are going upstairs, you'd never switch it on, would ya?