Language Schools

Should You Learn a Language in the Classroom or Through Immersion?

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Casey O'Brien
Topic Expert

Casey is a journalist for Sierra Magazine as well as a freelance writer in Berkeley, Calif. She loves to travel, read and hike.

Should You Learn a Language in the Classroom or Through Immersion?

Maybe you find a long-lost cousin on Facebook or want to read a book in its original language; maybe you are planning on studying abroad or traveling. Whatever reason you have, deciding to learn a new language is an exciting step toward becoming a more global citizen .

Speaking a second language helps you to be a better communicator, build connections with others, and even be more employable. But when it comes to the nitty-gritty of how to achieve your goal, it can be tricky to know what the best option is. Many experts drop the buzzword of immersion, but what does that mean?

We've got your back. Read on to learn about learning a language in a classroom, through immersion, and the difference between the two. You’ll be speaking beautifully in no time at all.

Why Learn through Classroom Education?

Most of us think language learning in the classroom is what we experienced in compulsory language classes in high school. Reading a textbook, parroting the teacher, memorizing flashcards… you know the drill.

In fact, classroom language learning is a key part of language education. A good language learning class will teach you how to understand (rather than translate) and communicate (rather than copy), as well as vocabulary and a basic crash course in speaking the language. It’ll give you the base foundation for becoming fluent through language immersion.

If you are looking into a new language and hoping to learn through immersion, it is worth doing classroom education alongside or before. Learning the basics in a controlled environment like a language learning class can help with making sure you are confident enough to use what language skills you have once you are immersed.

Why Learn through Language Immersion?

Should You Learn a Language in the Classroom or Through Immersion?: Why Learn Through Language Immersion?

When learning a new language, “immersion” is often encouraged. But what is immersion exactly? For the sake of this piece, immersion means going to live in a place where the language is spoken or, at the least, traveling there and having to use the language every day.

What exactly makes immersion so helpful to language education? It forces students to throw themselves headfirst into using every word they know and learning new ones. More or less, it forces us to get past our own discomfort.

Through immersion you may have to translate menus and pamphlets, order in restaurants, and even translate for fellow travelers. All of this makes you a stronger speaker.

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Choosing Between Language Classes & Immersion

There are pros and cons to both language and immersive learning, which is why they are best paired together. Read on to hear about the strengths and weaknesses of both options.

Pros & Cons of Classroom Language Learning

The classroom setting is a great way to meet others who want to learn a language and grow from one another. Learning from a trained expert is much easier than picking up random vocabulary from wandering the streets of a new city, if less exciting. Complexities like verb tense, conjugation and other details of the construction of language are easier learned in the classroom, a “safe space” where mistakes are welcomed. Students can explore the bones of a language before adding more vocabulary through immersive experience.

Unfortunately, language classes, which often only happen a few times a week, don’t always allow for the constant practice it takes to broaden vocabulary. You also may not be forced to speak the language in the classroom if the instructor speaks your native language.

If you want to have a more immersive style classroom experience, you can look for language classes that do not allow you to speak your native language in the classroom, conversation hours, and other ways of diving into language on your home turf.

Pros & Cons of Language Immersion

Immersion is special in part because you can associate words with place and culture, which helps them to stick more easily. For example, maybe you join a pickup soccer game at a park near where you’re staying one day. You might learn the words for run, soccer, stop, team, goal, etc, and remember them all more than you would if you had learned them from flashcards in a classroom. People can develop a sensory memory for language, and associate words with foods they have eaten, places they have gone and people they have met. Culture becomes an avenue for practicing the language. Immersive education allows learning to happen on the street and through social gatherings, not just textbooks.

Another compelling argument for immersion is that you are likely to use the language before you’re good at it, comfortable with it, or consider yourself any type of “expert” in the language. If you must do something -- buy train tickets, order food, find your apartment -- you’re going to use the language skills you have, and in the process dispel anxieties about using the language.

However, immersion is difficult without the foundation laid in the classroom because a new language can be dizzying without some orientation to its form and structure. It is much easier to learn once you have a foundation to build from.

Combining the Two: Learning a Language in the Classroom & through Immersion

Should You Learn a Language in the Classroom or Through Immersion?: Combining the Two

Once you are comfortable in the classroom, an immersive experience can bring your language skills to the next level. As you prepare for international travel, try to spend time with people for whom the language you are learning is a native tongue. Go to conversation hours, read books in the language you are learning, and even watch TV shows in it. Surround yourself with the language as much as you can.

Classroom learning is a great place to start, and with immersion, you will be speaking smoothly in no time.