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The Realities of Total Spanish Immersion

Posted in: Language Learning, Our Perspective

no-hablo-espanol-habla-se-habla-espanolYou’ve probably heard about total Spanish immersion and how awesome it is for learning a foreign language, right?

Well that’s is true, but what you often don’t hear about is how challenging it is!

When a family is plopped down in the middle of a total Spanish immersion experience it’s not all fun and games. Especially if you don’t speak the language, which was the case for our family.

We learned a lot about how family members react differently to an immersion environment, how kids can tend to act out because of it, and how it pulls a family even closer and makes them stronger.

There are a number of different learning styles, and you can have a good mix of those within your family unit. Some people will learn faster than others, speak more, but have pronunciation problems, others will learn slower, speak less, but pronounce very well. Learning to recognize learning differences and support one another is extremely important.

There will most likely be bouts of discouragement. We learned that the best way to deal with them is by being understanding and giving lots of encouragement.

Something that has helped me is Pimsleur Language Programs (Audible) on my iPod. With work, homeschooling our daughter, along with all the other mom-stuff it hasn’t always been easy to find time to study. So being able to listen while washing dishes has been a great way to keep up with my Spanish. In addition to Pimsleurs, we used many books to learn Spanish.

happy-expat-family-340A program that you might find of interest is Speak From Day 1 (read the full review). It helps establish the language-learning mindset.

For more information about total language immersion, please check out our book, The Happy Expat Family. In the Happy Expat Family we talk about the 8 challenges faced by all expats and how to overcome them.

More reading: Guide to The Best Way to Learn Spanish (Immersion, Books, Classes, Resources, Basics…)

What has your total immersion experience been? Please share with us by commenting 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.

15 comments… add one
  • Rory Aug 16, 2014, 12:13 pm

    Interesting read 🙂

    I’ve been in Ecuador for about 5 months now and my Spanish is still struggling. Great point on being supportive, I think having support is the key to any learning, not only Spanish. Chris Lonsdale made a great case for supportive language learning in a ted talk he did recently.( I would highly recommend it to anyone starting or trying to improve a language.

    Thanks again Dena.

  • Stacey Mar 18, 2014, 7:29 am

    It’s so funny your daughtor is teaching you!

    Thank you for sharing. As someone who has an interest in learning the language, this is really helpful for me!

    • Jakob Mar 18, 2014, 12:14 pm

      Within two years your kids will not only be teaching you, but proofreading your resume, writing or correcting your official correspondence, rolling their eyes at your clumsy attempts at blending into something they have taken in a stride, and otherwise acting as your administrative assistant. That’s what moving abroad into a different language does to families.

  • Martina Aug 18, 2013, 10:39 am

    I grew up in a bilingual household (Spanish speaking) and at the age of 18 I moved to Guatemala for 1 year. I can relate to your frustrations as well because even though I spoke Spanish, Spanish was not my ” mother tongue”, not the language I thought in, not the language I dreamt in. I understood m0st of what I heard ( with the exception of slang terms and technical language), but being immersed was an exhausting and frustrating challenge. It took a constant effort that I was not expecting. I found myself extremely homesick for English speakers and craved English radio stations (there was 1 in Guatemala City) once I was at home and wanting to just relax.

    I take my hat off to ANYONE who attempts the challenge of learning a language by immersion. It is exhausting but well worth it. As a result of my one year of immersion my Spanish vocabulary improved ten fold and was even asked by some Guatemalans what country I was from ( they guessed Colombia as I am clearly not a native Guatemalan. ) I took that as a complement as they were unable to detect my “gringa” accent.

    My family and I (husband and 4 children) are quitting our jobs and moving to Cuenca in January. I do not envy them the frustration and effort that awaits them (its all so exciting right now) as they speak no Spanish whatsoever. I really want this to be a smooth transition and appreciate the frank and honest blog. Any suggestions are appreciated. I’m happy that Cuenca has many expats and will give us a reprieve from our every day battles. Thanks so much for the blog!

    • Jakob Aug 21, 2013, 12:49 pm

      Interesting experience. I have never craved my mother tongue, but I was separated from it long before adulthood. It has rather translated into a hunger for new languages. I tend to avoid radio stations of languages I speak well and go for the ones that need improvement as that is what gives me the kick. I find myself dreaming in the language connected to the people and situations in the dream. Each experience in your life is usually connected with a language.
      An interesting experiment is to give a multilingual person an unspecified amount of money and ask them to count it, then ask them which language they used in their head. Even if they are fully bilingual they will subconsciously use their dominant language for number tasks. If you have kids abroad with you watch them switch at some point and then you’ll know they have arrived in their new cultural environment.

  • Jakob Apr 2, 2013, 8:47 am

    One of the key obstacles to becoming fluent in a language is the fear of appearing ridiculous when speaking. I have found this the main reason why people from some countries learn languages better than the rest. In some cultures people do not mind sounding ridiculous at first, in others they often feel ashamed. You have to embrace “sounding like a fool” and plough through that phase like it’s perfectly normal (because it is).

    • Bryan Haines Apr 3, 2013, 9:07 am

      It’s a good point. I’ve seen some foreigners afraid to speak a word and others can hardly stop talking – despite their limitations. Those who put their discomfort aside always learn faster – and enjoy the experience much more.

    • Martina Aug 18, 2013, 10:43 am

      So true about being willing to look foolish. Practice makes perfect. A good native speaker who is willing to correct your Spanish helps too. Dig your heels in and refuse to give up!

  • Joel Mar 25, 2013, 3:09 pm

    Hi Folks! My story is quite a bit different from most. I came to Ecuador (Guayaquil area) from retirement in Florida to meet my future wife, Lorena. When we met, our mutual expectations were met or exceeded instantly. As our commitment matures, we find that the language difference is the most troublesome stumbling block. She speaks some English; I have learned some Spanish. But if not for the various online translators, e.g., and the iSpeak apps for our iPhones, we would be way behind in our relationship. Total immersion seems to be working OK for me, however. I supplement with Rosetta Stone and a good small dictionary. The Rosetta Stone is not working all that well. It just seems too slow! I have found, however, that most people are glad to help me if I try, and keep a sense of humor about it all. Spoken Spanish here near Guayaquil is mas rapido…I found that I could understand much better the slower speech in Cuenca last weekend.

  • Jim and Natalie Feb 13, 2013, 8:40 pm

    Great article. We just moved to Costa Rica from the States a month ago, and even though we had taken some Spanish classes, nothing compares to being immersed. I’m glad to hear someone talk about how difficult a transition this can be. Perhaps it’s all the marketing that makes you believe it’s as easy as 1-2-3 because the reality is that it’s not. Just because I know how to ask for something off a menu doesn’t mean I’m going to understand a single word of the reply. I’d rather be told up front that it’s going to be difficult, and be ready for a challenge, as opposed to being told it’s easy and feeling frustrated when I struggle. Immersion imparts a desire to learn the language in a way that nothing else can. I learn from every disastrous attempt at communicating, and living in a foreign country forces me to have disaster after disaster. Thanks for making a post to encourage the normal people and letting them know that they’re not alone. Pura Vida!

    • Dena Haines Feb 16, 2013, 2:18 pm

      Hi Jim and Natalie,

      I’s good to hear that sharing stories about difficulties encouraged you rather than discouraged you! That’s what I was hoping for when I wrote the article.

      I agree that it’s better to know upfront about the difficulties involved, because then we can be prepared to work through them.

      All the best as you survive future disasters, believe it or not, they will get farther and farther apart.

      Thanks for commenting.

  • Jim Feb 13, 2013, 9:45 am

    I will refer to our biggest mistake in Ecuador. We did not immerse ourselves in Spanish from the start. We spent our first year thinking that Spanish would come in time and we spent a lot of time around English speaking people. This was sort of a mistake. Sort of, because there were some benefits to taking our time learning Spanish. We got to learn the sounds of Spanish without feeling pressured to learn it which gave us an opportunity to focus on getting over culture shock. So upon arriving in a small town in southern Ecuador, we became immersed in Spanish. We became good friends with a local Ecuadorian family who helped teach our daughters Spanish. During the last 4 months here they have progressed more with speaking Spanish than they did during their entire year in Cuenca. As for my wife and I, our Spanish is coming along much better, though not as fast as our daughters. For us, Spanish immersion and a little tutoring from our bilingual neighbour and new Ecuadorian friends has been a great method of learning to speak Spanish. We have a long way to go, but our optimism for learning Spanish couldn’t be any higher.

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