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9 Reasons I Love Total Language Immersion (Which is your favorite?)

Posted in: Language Learning, Our Perspective

When we moved here a year and a half ago, we didn’t know any Spanish, we’ve enjoyed experiencing immersion for the first time, but there have been some difficulties along the way.

One of the best ways we find to deal with these kinds of difficulties is to tap into our sense of humor.

More reading: The Best Book to Learn Spanish

I’ve been told that it takes around four years to become really fluent in everyday conversation; we still have a long way to go.  My husband and daughter have found immersion a little easier than I have, my husband is naturally more vocal than I am, and my daughter has a young fully absorbent mind.  Because of this my sense of humor has had a better workout than theirs, so here are a few of the reasons I’ve “loved” the journey so far.

I love total immersion because…

1. …it brings me in tune with my basic instincts

All my response mechanisms become heightened.   I follow every hand and facial gesture of each speaker, trying desperately to read the mood of my subject.

I instinctively pick up on the fine nuances of happy, or possible angry/annoyed vocal manifestations, so I can quickly contort my facial muscles into what is hopefully the correct response to whatever it is that they’ve been saying.

I sit in an intent, uptight position with every muscle flexed, taking on the characteristics of what might remind some of certain small nervous woodland creatures, squirrels or chipmunks perhaps.

This total mind/body workout is exhausting, and I know I’ve followed the program correctly when I stumble through my front door after a full day of immersion with that telltale headache, and bittersweet craving for my pillow.

2. …I love surprises (and where is a better place to be surprised than in a restaurant?)

I try to decipher the options on the menu, time and again, and then order what I think is a beef dish.  Upon the initial taste test, I quickly realize that it’s not beef, it’s pork, or is it chicken?  Surprise!

3. …being humiliated brings out the best in me

I stand in front of the clerk at the grocery store with a blank expression on my face because she just said something to me, and is now waiting for my response.

My ten year old daughter senses my hesitation and instantaneously responds to the clerk, then turns to me and graces me with a translation of the a fore mentioned undecipherable attempt at communication.

She makes sure to mix in a “this is so easy mom, don’t you get it?” tone, just to make sure the humiliation level has been sufficiently tweaked to her satisfaction.  I smile and nod as the clerk so thoughtfully points in my daughter’s direction, giggling about the fact that my young daughter is more fluent than I am, and henceforth directs all questions/instructions to her.

As we return home and walk through the front door, I pass her the receipt and ask her to go balance the budget, she looks at me with a stunned look on her face “what?” she says.  Too bad that clerk’s not there to see my little victory.

4. …it brings my relationship with my husband to a totally new level. 

It has enabled me to absorb the sympathetic energy running from my husband’s heart through to his hands.  He no longer has to utter a word.

After a full day of immersion-oriented errands, and various other social activities, he simply puts his hands on my shoulders, leans forward gently pressing his forehead to mine.

Then as I see that sympathetic half smile, half frown appear on his face, my tears begin to flow and I know we have achieved that zen-like state that can only be found during the early months of total immersion.

5. …of the “smile”

After about a year and a half into it, I find myself staring at newbie’s with that unavoidable “smile” plastered on my face, remembering how I felt when I was standing in those brand new squeaky shoes.

The smile comes as I relive past awkwardness, and relax into the reality that those days are over (well almost 🙂 ).

6. …of the “shock”

The shock also comes after about a year and a half.   I’ll be going over a recent conversation in my mind, remembering the details and directions with ease, and then the “shock” hits me as I realize that the conversation took place totally in Spanish!

I experience a little sense of exhilaration, and I’m ready to ask where the bathroom is again, the next time I’m at that cafe.

7. …the more the new language takes over the worse my spelling and grammar become in my native tongue.


8. …it’s one of those buddy experiences.

I think it’s called “total immersion, because when you are totally immersed, let’s say in water, you might panic a bit and feel like you’re drowning.

But after awhile you realize (perhaps subconsciously, because you’re drowning) that if you can just reach that guy next to you, grab on tight and relax, letting them do all the work, soon enough you’ll get the general idea and be O.K.

So remember “never go total immersion-ing on your own, always immersion with a buddy.” Everything’s better with a buddy.

9. …it’s like an extreme sport for people that don’t like extreme sports. 

Your mind, lips, tongue and teeth are always set to peak performance, while you are constantly aware that at any minute you could crash and burn right in the middle of a sentence.  (Also the risk of death is much, much lower.)

If you’re thinking about trying total immersion, or if you’re in the midst of it, on the bad days (you will have them) take heart and know that we’ve been there too.  And take a minute to jot down a funny take on your frustration, so you can share it with us on this post.

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Meet the Author

Dena Haines is co-editor of GringosAbroad - Ecuador's largest blog for expats and travelers. She is a travel blogger and content marketer. She is also co-founder of ClickLikeThis (GoPro tutorial blog) and Storyteller Travel.

13 comments… add one
  • Tamara (@Turtlestravel) Nov 12, 2013, 8:35 pm

    Great post! I’ve had several experiences with total immersion, and I can totally relate to your struggles. The first time was as an exchange student (I was 16) to Japan. I went to a public high school, and I was the first student to be hosted there. I knew no Japanese at all, but after my year there, I was well on my way. I had to be. Japanese language and culture became my major at university, and I added reading and writing to my conversation skills, but it wasn’t the same as living and breathing the language every day. My next experience was with Spanish, living in Venezuela on and off for a couple of years. I was ahead of the game there, already having a solid base of the language, but again, I know exactly what you’re going through. The next step for us is throwing the other Turtle (Donny) in headfirst to get his Spanish up to a certain level…enough to keep up! 😉 We haven’t decided where yet, but thanks for the commiseration. Good luck! Sounds like you all are on your way to some very successful language learning!

  • Renee — RambleCrunch Mar 25, 2013, 1:29 pm

    The thing with the kid happened the other day. I was standing in a queue here in Mexico, and some lady came up to me and asked me something in rapid-fire Spanish. Usually I get the gist of what someone’s talking about, but this time I was clueless and my daughter (12) had to translate. Was mortifying for me, but also excellent, since dd is obviously becoming proficient. 🙂

  • CRA Adventure Travel Feb 27, 2013, 11:20 pm

    Love this post! I have been living abroad in Costa Rica for a couple years now and can totally relate to this. I came here knowing hola and adios, and now can hold a real conversation. I attest that to doing exactly what you said, watching every hand movement, facial expression, anything to give me a clue of what was being said. I think total immersion is the way to go 🙂

  • Malcolm Barber Oct 7, 2012, 10:38 am

    Can we borrow your daughter or another little person for a few months to help us when we come over???

  • Amy (again) Mar 5, 2012, 3:28 pm

    Hello Dena…
    I really enjoyed this post very much, although it makes me nervous about what I am in for…
    Mi esposo y I are coming to Cuenca for cinco weeks to scope out the city, country to determine whether a move to Ecuador is for us (althogh we are pretty sure it is!). If/when we do make the move, I am looking forward to being totally immersed in Español, although I know it will be difficult and frustrating, too.
    Thank you (and your husband and guest bloggers) for all of the practical suggestions on moving to a new country. It’s funny, but since people have found out about our plans, the comments have been…well, interesting. They run the gamut from “Wow! I’ve always wanted to do that!” to “you should dye your hair so it’s not so obvious that you are a foreigner” to even (I kid you not!) “whatever you do, don’t go to Peru! They kill people for their fat to make soap! It’s true!” (btw, totally NOT true…the reports of this happening were later learned to be a hoax, playing on the ancient Peruvian legend of the Pishtaco. Yes, Pishtaco…not Fishtaco.)
    Anyway…muchas gracias, again, for all of the great information to help us sort through the MISinformation.

  • Jennifer Reyes Sep 13, 2011, 12:40 pm

    What an awesome post!! I totally can relate. Especially to number 6, the sense of pride you feel when you are able to conduct a mundane normal task that 6 months ago would have been nearly impossible due to language barriers. Thanks for making me feel not so alone today.
    Jennifer Reyes

  • Evangeline Pratt Jul 12, 2011, 9:54 pm

    This article is therapy after today. Thanks.

    • Dena Haines Jul 18, 2011, 8:14 am

      Thanks, I’m so happy to hear that!

      Nice to know that there are some out there that “get” the therapeutic value this post 😉

  • Jennifer & Rob Feb 24, 2011, 2:05 am

    I AM NOT ALONE!! Thanks for this post! We have only been in Cuenca for a few days, but I have noticed my brain HURTS late afternoon after many hours of listening intently/watching gestures (as you say – it is a totally different listening experience than passively listening in English), reading all signs I can in an effort to revive dusty Spanish vocab, listening for mannerisms of how it is spoken here, translating as best I can for my family while being the spokesperson by default of knowing the most Spanish, and stretching every brain cell to find an intelligible path to say what I want without coming to the screeching halt of silence due to a hard drive crash of my brain (while the patient native Spanish-speaker looks with sympathy to understand what I'm trying to express, bless their hearts). Ahhh…. I AM NOT ALONE! – Jennifer

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