Does immersion really help you learn languages?

Photo of convenience store food. Immersion in a foreign culture is much more interesting if you are a vegetarian.

The benefits of immersion are one of the big argument points in the language learning community.  No one doubts that spending time with native speakers in the culture will help you learn a language faster.  However, the expat question often comes up when talking about immersion.  Expats can spend decades in a foreign country and not speak the language well.  Today’s post is about how to build immersion experiences into travel to help you learn a new language.

How I Taught Myself Japanese

One of my biggest goals in traveling to Japan was to practice my Japanese with native speakers in a variety of situations.  I have taught myself Japanese for several years now.  The first years were unfocused practice without goals or structure. In the past two years, I decided to really focus on learning Japanese.

I used a variety of apps, books, and videos to teach myself Japanese.  The apps that I found worked best for me were Human Japanese, JA Sensei, and Tae Kim’s guide to Japanese grammar.  I also listened to Pimsleur’s Japanese 1 audio course on the way to work.

Reading has been my biggest struggle.  I am NOT a visual learner and it took a lot of experimenting before I found programs to help me overcome the reading hurdle.   I used the Learning Japanese Hiragana and Katakana workbook, JA Sensei‘s kanji practice function and Heisig’s Remembering the Kanji 1 along with the Kanji Koohii app.  The result is that I can read hiragana and katakana, and I can recognize about 200 kanji easily.

How Much of What I Learned Was Useful?

So how much of what have I learned so far helped in Japan? The short answer is that every bit of Japanese that you know will help you in Japan.  If your goal in traveling to Japan is to improve your Japanese, you need to know basic Japanese BEFORE your trip.  Short term immersion is helpful when you have a foundation to build on.  Because Japanese is written with a different alphabet, it makes it harder to pick up basic phrases.


What Specific Tools and Phrases Are Useful?

Of the apps that I used, Human Japanese had the most helpful section on understanding customer service Japanese.  The Japanese language greatly emphasizes politeness.  Most beginner Japanese courses focus teineigo or the standard politeness level.  The problem is that people who are in customer service will address you in sonkeigo which is a higher politeness level.  For different levels of politeness, different verbs and forms of address are used.  In other words, without some understanding of sonkeigo, you will have a very difficult time understanding salespeople, waitstaff, and hotel staff.

The Hotels chapter in Human Japanese Intermediate has a good introduction with basic sonkeigo phrases that you might hear during your travels.   You may also find this article on keigo helpful as well.

A photo of train seats. Make sure to memorize key travel phrases before your trip.

JA Sensei‘s basic travel phrases section was also helpful.  The section includes phrases for how to book seats on trains.  I used a JR Pass which covers the national Japanese train system.  The pass includes the added benefit of FREE seat reservations. Larger trains in Japan will be 10-15 cars.  Of those cars, 2-4 will be non-reserved seating.  The rest of the cars will be reserved seating.  The benefit of reserved seating is that it is less crowded and you are guaranteed to have an aisle or window seat.

Knowing Japanese Characters Makes Travel Easier

Knowing hiragana, katakana, and kanji helped my travel experience.  Most train stations and trains do have romaji (Japanese written in the Roman alphabet).  However, trains flash or scroll their information.  Knowing your destination in kanji helps when you are short on time and your train is getting ready to pull out of the station.

When I injured myself climbing the stairs in Matsumoto castle, my katakana knowledge helped my find pain relievers in the grocery store.  Luckily, the word for ibuprofin is written in katakana on the pain reliever boxes.  Pro tip:  ibuprofin is sold under the brand name EVE in Japan.  Here is a very good post on words for medicine in Japanese.

Does Immersion REALLY help you learn languages?

What Did I Learn From My Immersion Experience?

I learned that my Japanese skill is enough that I can survive on my own in Japan.  My reading speed and oral translation skills were challenged.  I thought I could read hiragana and katakana pretty well.  Reading hiragana and katakana in a crowded restaurant with five people in line behind you is completely different from reading in the quiet of your own home!

For the first few days, I was so overwhelmed that I didn’t use my reading ability nearly as much as I should have.  After taking a few days to settle in, I took part of my train ride to Nagoya to review my trip so far.  I realized that I was falling into a bad habit of looking at the pictures on menus instead of reading them.  I decided to eat at less crowded times so that I had time to read the menu.

When traveling to a new country, be sure to schedule down time for yourself.  It’s easy to fall into bad habits such as pointing at pictures and not reading in your new language.  Part of the reason that many expats don’t learn the language of their new country is because they fall into bad habits and don’t take advantage of opportunities to speak their new language.

Have you traveled somewhere to learn a new language?   Were you successful?  What were your challenges?

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