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I have been told that the best way to learn a new language is through immersion, i.e. placing oneself in an environment in which only the target language is spoken and making constant use of the target language. I do not know what would supplement this exposure for an adult learner.

But my question concerns people who learn languages that have no living native speakers, as well as people who need to learn to speak and read in a language but cannot live in a place where the language is spoken by almost everyone.

Apparently, some people can learn languages through book-study alone; some scholars can fluently speak Sumerian and Ancient Egyptian, for example. And I have heard that living languages can be learned in this way.

But what are the specific disadvantages of book-learning a language over learning the same language through immersion?

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In short: immersion helps a great deal, but it is neither always essential, nor always sufficient.


There are a few definition problems here. What counts as immersion, and which aspects of it do you consider essential?

  1. Exposure: reading and listening and watching people speak in a foreign language.

  2. Active use: producing sentences in the language yourself.

  3. Interaction: getting immediate feedback in the form of a natural conversation.

  4. Speech: all of the above in speech (so not only in written communication).

I think by immersion you mean you get all of the above.


How well does one need to know a language for you to say that one has "learned" it? There is a very wide range between "can buy bread at a supermarket" or "can read a comic book" on one hand, and "can successfully pose as a native speaker" or "can win literary prizes for writing novels in proper style" on the other.


While I think your progress will on average be slower without the above four points of immersion, you can certainly learn a language very well without some of them. If you watch a lot of French films, read a lot of French, chat with people on-line in French, but never visit a Francophone country, you can still learn to read, write, and speak very good French.

Conversely, many people who have lived in France for several years will still make grammatical errors and have a fairly noticeable accent. Moreover, if you never read good literature, your French will most likely never approach that of an educated Frenchman, not even after 30 years of immersion.


Conclusion:

A. It is easier to learn skills associated with producing language by immersion than by other means, but you can still learn them;

B. Immersion is not enough for other skills, such as educated reading and writing.

C. It greatly depends on the person.

Immersion should be considered an important and efficient tool, but it is neither absolutely essential nor always sufficient. The best and quickest way to learn a language and all its facets is by a combination of reading, writing, and immersion (so speaking and listening). Reading includes both novels and grammar books. Chatting on-line has some of the important aspects of immersion, but it is of course confined to writing.

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    Very nice summary. Especially point C, which can't be stressed enough. We appear to be programmed to learn to talk, by one method or other, about the same time as we learn to walk, ditto. Learning second languages, on the other hand, depends on how one learned the first language and what one has learned about using it since. Which is, to put it very mildly, quite variable. The result is that (1) everybody has to find the way that works for them, and (2) you really gotta wanna learn it. – jlawler Mar 29 '13 at 19:18
  • @jlawler: Thanks. I agree that motivation is very important. Some people underestimate the task and stop after a short while. Immersion can partially solve this problem: if you move to e.g. a village in France, you're practically forced to converse in French (in Paris, it will be different, since you can hang out with immigrants, and many Parisiens will speak some English). – Cerberus Mar 29 '13 at 21:33
  • Yes, I used to tell my students that the best way to learn a language was to go where it was spoken with very little money and cope. It's amazing how fast one learns under those circumstances. Of course, getting a native-speaker boy-/girl-friend is usually more pleasant. – jlawler Mar 29 '13 at 23:37
  • @jlawler: I suppose offering one's body in exchange for learning is legitimate! – Cerberus Apr 1 '13 at 1:19
  • That's a reasonable definition of marriage. I suppose that's legimate. – jlawler Apr 1 '13 at 3:13
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Here is a list of things you can never learn from the books (or even by Skype):

  1. Everyday communicative patterns. How to ask for things you want to buy? What are everyday words for groceries, housewares or fastfood (provided they are not English)? What are clichés used by speakers of a corresponding sociolect?

  2. Sociolects. Not a problemme for languages like Swedish or Dutch, with their minimal socioliguistic distinctions, but starting from French, Spanish, Russian or Arabic a learner meets certain difficulties while choosing from you/You, gender markers, etc. Not mentioning languages with honorifics or more exotic sociolinguistic markers.

  3. Immersion is compulsory, books are not. I am not trying to promote a compulsory education, but rather an idea that one can never turn off an inner speech in a studied language while picking up an immersion strategy.

  4. Aggressive (or otherwise unexpected) speech patterns. Yes, life is life, and human beings sometimes face aggressive rhetorics, from sarcasm and bullying to swear words, where the other side of communicative channel is not friendly or neutral. This can be extended to any unusual/unexpected speech situations and strategies as well.

  5. Personal experience building a linguistic sub-personality installed into learner's cognitive framework. Of course, this can also be achieved from the books as well, but in such a case a learner has to continue with one's inner monologue in a language learned inside one's mental reality without adequate response from the outside world.

UPD: oh, there is one more thing: lexical compatibility (e.g. one would hardly say 'the target of this project is'...). I guess that is the main difference between 'planned' and 'natural' languages.

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  • Immersion is certainly preferred but books should be able to cover points 1 and 2 reasonably well. Even a simple phrasebook might include some basic shopping and honorifics. I agree completely on points 3-5. Only experience can prepare you for what you might hear after bumping into someone in the street. – igelkott Mar 29 '13 at 11:31
  • Well, books might not cover these points in languages with strong differences between spoken and written grammars (e.g. imagine someone learning modern Swedish by August Strindberg's novels). In general, I agree with you about books covering basic structures, but they are missing dialects and conversational names for ordinary things (e.g. learning Swedish by standard learnbooks one might be perplexed with words like 'stan' or 'dar', or with right pronunciation of 'de', all these words being of high frequency). Tonic varieties and dialects should also be taken into account. – Manjusri Mar 29 '13 at 11:44
  • Anyone speaking like Stringberg wrote would likely be institutionalized! OK, not really but maybe only a bit better than using Shakespeare's work for learning modern English. If audio resources can be included, the results can be pretty good for common situations (not #4). Immersion will generally be faster and better but books aren't useless. That said, the only languages I really know were learned through immersion (with books). – igelkott Mar 29 '13 at 12:28
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    All true. However, the real argument against immersion is that it's so much harder, because one is constantly being, acting, talking, and presenting oneself to others as stupid. Language learners must give up all hope of personal dignity if they're immersing themselves. This is very disturbing to a lot of people. Most people will give you dumb foreigners' privileges if you're sincere because people are kind; but you really gotta get dumb before you can get smarter in a language. – jlawler Mar 29 '13 at 15:44

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