Learning Spanish – Creating An Immersion Learning Environment Part 1

The confusing thing when faced with so many options of how to learn Spanish, is what medium to choose and where to start.  Inside, the perfectionist in me wants to go and find the absolutely perfect approach to learning a language.  I really want to understand the absolute best way to become at least functional, if not conversational in Spanish.

The reality though is there is no single, off the shelf “right way” for me despite what the marketing blurb will have you think.

I think society is happy to be deceived into investing into “speed fluency” type products because it wants the quick fix. But it takes more than a quick fix to become fluent in another language. It requires work and effort which means investing time to do it.

And, I am sure this won’t come as a complete surprise, but the more work, effort and time you do invest, the more fluent you will become. Ironically the less time it will take because of the momentum you will create.

Our brain is naturally hard wired to learn and adapt and understand. The trouble is our psychology often gets in the way.

So at the moment I am faced with plenty of choices to make about getting my learning Spanish project underway. There are lots of options.

I have been poking it with a stick for the last few weeks by dabbling in a few things. Without doubt I have been dancing around the issue without really diving in.

With Too Much To Choose From, No Choice Is Made

Partly this is because I am not truly clear on what it is that I want to achieve. But also because there is so much to choose from.

There is Rosetta Stone, The Pimsleur Method, Michel Thomas, Linguaphone and Rocket Spanish to name a few.

As human beings we are not good a dealing with multiple options.

There is a famous study where researchers placed a stall with 6 different jams in a supermarket.  They tracked the number of people who purchased from those that came to the table to have a look.  When they had their data they then repeated the test but this time added an additional 24 jam choices.

What they found is that more people purchased a jar of jam when there were just 6 choices to make.  In fact as many as 30% of those who visited the table purchased a jar of jam.  But when there were 24 more options to make as few as 6% made a purchase.

Which of These Barriers Are Getting In The Way?

So part of my problem is there is too much jam!

I suspect there are other things going on as well.

Perhaps the fear of failure? What if I choose the wrong approach and waste my time.

Maybe the perfectionist streak in me has taken over- which it often does.  It wants to ensure that I get the right one so I get the best result.

Perhaps my fixed mindset is putting a brake on all the activity because it is trying to protect me from the potential embarrassment.  I mean this isn’t the first time I have tried to learn a language.

Or am I just putting it off because it is going to be hard work?

Well whatever it is – STOP IT!

I have got things that I need to do and to learn.  This time, I am determined to make MUCH more progress than I have ever done before.

So I am going to take an evolutionary experimental approach to becoming functional in the language.

I will start with a hypothesis and see how that works and then slowly grow and evolve and adapt that as I go along.

That way I can’t fail because I will continually evolve my approach UNTIL I get the result I want.

What is my starting point?

Well it might seem pretty obvious but I think I need to start immersing myself in the language on a daily basis. What do I mean by immersion?

The Ideal Spanish Immersion Environment

In the ideal world I would be transported to a beautiful Spanish village by the sea.  It would be populated by Spanish natives who couldn’t speak a word of English.  Their sole purpose in life would be to provide me an environment to experience the language and culture of Spain.

I’d have breakfast by the harbour at my favourite restaurant and would order my omelette and herbal tea in broken Spanish. over breakfast I’d attempt to chat to the local businessman grabbing a quick coffee before heading off to the nearest city.

Then during the day I would meet up with a beautiful seniorita and we would walk around the village chatting in Spanish. After a hearty lunch at one of the other harbour-side cafes I would have a Siesta. In the evening I would stroll around the various bars and cafes and engage in basic conversation with the locals who would be happy to help “El Gringo” learn their language.

Oh how romantic.

And then when the alarm clock went off… I found myself back at home in the West Country!

I strongly believe immersion is an important strategy when learning another language.  There are too many stories of ex-pats having to learn the local lingo out of necessity.  I can’t ignore it as a strategy.

So how do I immerse myself in Spanish whilst living in Gloucestershire?  There is nothing even remotely Spanish in sight, unless you count the 8 year old playing soccer in his garden with his Lionel Messi shirt on!

The Internet Is Our Immersion Environment

Well thankfully because of the internet we now have access to Spanish Radio, TV and written news at the stroke of a keyboard or the swipe of a tablet.

We pick up our native tongue so easily because we are immersed in it as children.  Words spoken around us  are heard and our brain is so receptive to learning in those early years.  We easily pick up the language, accent and all.

The environment we grow up in, imprints on our brain our understanding and ability to use the language we hear. In fact our brains are so malleable and plastic that if a child grows up in a multi-lingual environment, they will pick up all of the languages they are exposed to.

And they will also develop the ability to know when to employ them with who. If Grandpa speaks Polish to them and they are around him often enough, they will learn to engage with Grandpa in Polish.

What if their mother is Dutch… then they will be automatically fluent in all of the European Languages + dialects + Accents purely just because they are Dutch :-).

Seriously, if the mother speaks Dutch and the father speaks French, this is a perfect immersion environment.  If each parent engages with their child in their own tongue, the child will become fluent in both languages.

Not Everyone Thinks Immersion Is Good For Language Learning

I once met up with someone who was in the learning field and was invited back to his house for lunch. He introduced his wife who was Chinese and I met their 3 month old baby daughter.

I commented on how marvellous it was that the child was going to grow up multi-lingual, being able to speak both Mandarin and English. The mother scowled and went off in a huff.   Her husband explained why.

His wife was of the belief that two languages in the house would confuse the child!!! He knew that not to be the case and they had had some blazing rows about this. So I had unwittingly opened a can of worms by my comment.  She thought he had set me up to try and persuade her.

I met up with him by chance some 20 years later and I asked whether his daughter could speak Chinese. She is a very bright girl judging by her academic success, but is only able to speak English.

What a pity and what a missed opportunity to help a child be able to communicate in two languages without even having to teach her.

Our brain is most receptive to learning languages in the first few years of our lives. However that doesn’t mean we can’t learn another one now.

It just means it might take us a bit longer and require more active effort on our part. Whilst the best time to become bi-lingual was when we were up to about 10 years old, the second best time is now.

How To Create An Immersion Environment

The challenge we have is to recreate an environment rich in the language we want to learn. Well when I say challenge, that is probably the wrong word because it isn’t that difficult with a good internet connection.

So the options are:

– Listen to Spanish Radio (Auditory)
– Read Spanish News online (Visual)
– Watch Spanish TV Programmes (Visual, Auditory & Kinesthetic)

Active Vs Passive Immersion

Let me explain the difference between active and passive immersion.

When you are actively immersed, the environment around you responds to the input you give it.  What I mean is there are real people you can talk to and engage with.

When you are passively immersed, you are merely listening or watching with no live interaction.  To start of with, I think passive immersion is the way forward.

I think it is useful to understand the benefits of this form of immersion.

– You become familiar with the “musicality” and pace of the language in a non-threatening environment

– You become familiar with the structure of the language both explicitly (when seeing it in writing on a news site) AND implicitly as you hear the dialogue between two native speakers.

– You start to tune your ear into the environment you are going to have to understand later on

– As time progresses, you will start to hear familiar words and snippets of dialogue you understand. Initially this will be just the odd word or two, but over time as you do more and more of this, you will start to understand more and more.

– Though perhaps more importantly, you will start to see words and phrases you are covering in your “Formal” learning used in a conversational or written context.

– Similarly you will start to read things you have heard, or watch things you have read about. This cross-pollination between the modalities and sources will assist in what is known as “Inter-Leaving”

Meaning Vs Translation

As someone who has a HUGE attention to detail driver, I know this is one of the things I am going to have the biggest struggle with. Because I want it to be exactly right, I will try and see if I can translate what is being said – and if I can’t then I have failed!!!!

However, to start with I have to get used to the discomfort of trying to snatch the MEANING of what is being said from the data (words) presented to me. That is the first step. The ability to translate verbatim is a skill that will come later (I hope!).

Here Is My Initial Language Learning Experiment

So every day I am going to do this:

– Background Ambience – when preparing breakfast or getting ready in the morning, I will play a Spanish Language Podcast in the background.
-10 minutes will be spent reading the News in Spanish
– I will sit and listen to 10 minutes of Spanish Radio
– I will watch 10 minutes of a Spanish soap opera on Spanish TV

Now the first item is going to be purely passive listening.  The radio will be on in the background to let my subconscious become attuned to the language. If my limited knowledge of neuroscience is correct, I will get dopamine hits every time I recognise a word.

The other items will need to become a bit more active. I will spend time actively seeking out words to understand by writing them down and seeking their translation.  I might even hazard a guess at what each word means before getting the actual meaning.

Ever the productivity nerd, I suspect I will need a timer to keep me on track.

Here is An Important Point

The purpose of doing these activities isn’t directly to learn the language.

It is to experience the language.

In having a degree of focus on picking out keywords and phrases, some learning will inevitably take place, but it is not the purpose. The learning is merely a byproduct of the activity.

The reason why this is important is because this is about curiosity, exploration and discovery. If you start to consider this a pass or fail or perhaps a confirmation of what you don’t know then it will stop being fun and you will find it a struggle.

Where this process has its’ biggest benefit is when you get a dopamine hit because all of a sudden there is a degree of recognition from something and a flash of understanding.  It is those moments that will keep you coming back and putting in the hard yards to do the “LEARNING”.

The next question I have then is this:

How am i going to capture and record what it is that I have learnt?

Well here is my hypothesis – I will use Evernote to make my notes on what I cover in each session and then transfer any key phrases I learn into the Brainscape App.

You can find part 2 of this article here.

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