Everyday Strategies to Improve Second Language Skills in an Immersion Environment
By Jared Wilhelm
If you are lucky enough to live somewhere where you can immerse in a foreign language, you already know the benefits of being able to practice your new language every day. In my opinion, once you have an intermediate foundation in a second language, interacting with native speakers and facing real-life situations in an immersion environment is far superior to sitting in a classroom and learning a language through academic exercises. Here are some methods I have found helpful to enhance my second-language abilities while living immersed in a foreign culture.
Subscribe to the local newspaper: No, I was not born in 1850. But I love old-fashioned newspapers. By subscribing to a local periodical, a second-language learner receives multiple benefits. The first is obvious: reading practice. Compared to online news sites, having the newsprint in front of you allows you to read, re-read and highlight any misunderstood phrases to bring along to your advanced language classes. It also permits you to build good study habits, avoiding the distractions that sometimes accompany electronic media. I subscribe to the Friday and Sunday editions, which supplies ample reading in Spanish for the entire week. The Sunday edition has a special international section, providing the opportunity to read material I am more familiar with, expanding my vocabulary naturally. It also contains reprints of English-speaking columnists in Spanish; after first reading the Spanish version, the English version can be found online.
Most importantly, the newspaper contains the local news and relevant topics that help you to enhance your immersion interaction with locals. The Culture section, especially on Fridays, contains information on nearby events like festivals, concerts and sports activities. While attending these activities, you can converse with your temporary city-mates about headlines you’ve read about and get your new friends’ opinions. BONUS: Our newspaper subscription came with a discount card, giving us 20% off at many restaurants and stores around town. Nobody thinks you’re just a tourist anymore when you whip out your local discount club card!
Find a book on local slang: No matter how much time you’ve spent in the classroom studying a new language, the second you hit the street you will realize there is a another world of slang beyond what is taught in formal studies. Some language texts are good at including regional or country-specific slang, but let’s be honest- there is only so much they can legally print.
For our move to Argentina, we purchased James Bracken’s Che Boludo! A gringo’s guide to understanding the Argentines, 3rd edition, and Juan Caballero’s Dirty Spanish: Everyday Slang from “What’s Up?” to “F*%# Off!”. Although Argentines clearly know I’m a foreigner when I speak, they get a kick out of it when I attempt to use the local slang in a sentence. BONUS: In many cultures, hand gestures and motions are part of the language as well. Some books describe or diagram local gestures so you know what someone is conveying… and also what you need to avoid doing!
Use the green button: Certain globalized satellite television companies provide dual-tracked audio programming around the world. For less than $35 a month we get hundreds of local channels, English-language shows with Spanish-dubbed audio, and a remote control that allows us to toggle (with a green button) in between the English and Spanish language tracks. I won’t lie and say that watching Alf dubbed in Spanish is fun, but it is still a good way to practice listening and expand your vocabulary. With a DVR feature, you can rewind portions, switch to English, and understand what you might have missed. BONUS: Take advantage of other regions’ channels to practice your listening. For example, here in Argentina we can watch news from other Latin American nations and mainland Spain, allowing well-rounded contact with varying regional accents.
Change your smartphone language: I borrowed this trick from some fellow ex-pats who were visiting from Brazil. By changing your smartphone’s language, you will gain daily exposure to some words that you normally don’t use in conversation, increasing your vocabulary. Just make sure you are well versed enough in your second language to be able to change it back if need be, and also to dial the local emergency number. BONUS: On Apple iPhones, changing your phone’s language also integrates with certain apps. Now when I want to read news about my favorite baseball team through the MLB app, I get extra language practice- now it only shows Spanish articles.
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While the gold standard of immersion is listening to and speaking with native speakers, these simple everyday strategies can help expand your abilities.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US Navy, the Department of Defense, the U.S. Government, or the Olmsted Foundation.