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Illusion of Immersion

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One of my personal goals for my Teach Abroad in Spain year was to solidify my conversational Spanish. What better way to immerse myself in Spanish than by living among the Spanish and doing as the Spanish do?

It seemed like the perfect plan in theory, but after a month or so of living in Madrid, I realized how surprisingly easy it is to not speak Spanish in Spain. I discovered a dangerous trap, one that I’ve dubbed “the English Bubble.”

What is the English Bubble?

It’s the fact that despite living in a non-English speaking country, I spent the majority of my time speaking in English when I first moved here. My language assistant job is in English, of course, but that was only the beginning. Unless I made a strong effort to start conversation with the Spanish teachers during coffee break, it was all too easy to just chat with my fellow auxiliares in English. Along the same lines, a lot of the friends I’d made were native English speakers, and it felt weird to try to speak Spanish with them. Many store attendants and restaurant servers recognized my American accent and would switch to English for me, making it awkward to continue speaking in Spanish, and many sources of information - menus, brochures, signs, etc - were all available in English.

At times I was grateful to not have to strain to use a non-native language all the time, but as comforting as my English Bubble was, it meant that when I finally found myself in a situation where I had no choice but to speak Spanish, I was all of the sudden too nervous and self-conscious about my abilities. I would wilt into a stuttering, jumbled mess. After several months of living in Spain, I came to the horrifying realization that my dream of becoming fluent in Spanish was still no where close to coming true.

So, I took a hard look in the mirror and decided to make some changes. I signed up for Spanish classes, as well as some salsa classes taught entirely in Spanish. I started making a very deliberate effort to speak with the Spanish teachers during coffee break at work. I chose the Spanish TV shows on Netflix and put on Spanish subtitles or dubbing for English shows, and before I knew it, I was surprising myself with how much I could understand and produce. I started picking up new vocabulary and feeling more confident with verb tenses and grammatical structures, and it felt amazing.

I had to learn the hard way that language immersion is an illusion. Just living in a Spanish environment isn’t enough to magically become fluent - language skills don’t subconsciously soak into our brains (at least not as adults!). It takes deliberate effort and active participation in language practice for immersion to be able to do its job. It’s most certainly not easy, but it’s most definitely worth it.

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