It's a commonly claimed idea that just by being surrounded by people speaking a language you can become familiar with it. Sometimes it's even claimed that this can occur without actively learning the language at the same time. Just by hearing someone talk, the language apparently can seep into your brain the same way your native tongue/s can when you're a toddler.

But is there any validity to this? Does watching media in your learning language help you to become more comfortable with it? Or perhaps it could subconsciously teach things without you even noticing.

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    Immersion does help because of how our brains process language. We begin to differentiate (subconsciously) the sounds and intonation of the language. There are some studies that relate to the unconscious attention of grammar rules and patterns. It is how children learn language, and that ability stays with us throughout our lives (my mom did her PhD dissertation on this). Commented Apr 5, 2016 at 17:38
  • @callyalater If you have an answer, please post it below. I have little doubt what you say is correct, but comments are ill-equipped to vet the information contained what we write. Commented Apr 5, 2016 at 17:44
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    @RobertCartaino I am in the process of writing a more complete answer. The comment was (intended) to provide a context for the question so that it could be answered more completely. Commented Apr 5, 2016 at 17:45
  • @callyalater You might expand on how young children learn language vs. how adults do. Your comment makes it seem like they are similar, though my understanding is that the mechanisms involved are quite different.
    – user3169
    Commented Apr 6, 2016 at 2:10
  • Immersion usually refers to being around a language and interacting in it constantly. Being around a language without interacting in it isn't helpful. If it were, the Rosetta Stone wouldn't have been necessary; there are plenty of hieroglyphics to read on their own. In my own case, we raised our kids as bilingual Hungarian-English, but my wife and I speak Romanian too. Despite many, many conversations with my wife in Romanian in front of the kids, they don't speak or understand a lick of Romanian, because they don't interact in it.
    – Kyralessa
    Commented Aug 26, 2016 at 0:04

1 Answer 1


There are a few reasons why immersion helps you learn a language without you actively trying:

You encounter the language more often. When you are immersed in a language, you don't go to class and do homework for a few hours a week, but rather use the language the entire day. You depend on the language to survive—to buy groceries, to talk to employers and customers, to ask for directions, etc. Being forced to use the language means you learn it even when you're not actively trying to. It becomes a way of life.

You learn the language in more than one way. Classroom learning focuses on specific activities at a time and generally is oriented around learning vocabulary and grammar. Immersion implicitly forces you to learn vocabulary (if you don't know a word, you simply can't communicate) and grammar (people will probably correct you if you say something incorrectly). You will learn these things whether you're trying to or not. In addition you will learn how to carry on a conversation, both by listening and participating in your own. This is something that simple exercises can very rarely accomplish.

You begin to think in the language. If you use the language enough you'll start to get good enough at it that you won't have time to think in your native language and translate. Immersion spurs this on because native speakers talk relatively quickly, signs you read may pass by in a moment, and you may quickly need to say "excuse me" or ask for help. Because you can't afford long delays, you'll begin to skip the translation step. This helps you use the language as a native speaker would.

Culture reinforces language learning. When you are immersed in a language, you often encounter the culture and traditions associated with speakers of that language. Your brain will retain the new knowledge and experiences you acquire better because it is different than what you are used to, and if the language is part of that cultural experience, you will remember it better. For example, you might remember an idiom or a joke that only exists in the language you are learning. This will expand your ability to communicate in that language.

  • There is also an aspect of emulating the sounds of words. Many learners are more acquainted with writen language. As you have conversations, you notice how people pronounce words and learn by observation and by articulating words in the same fashion. E.g. Watch and learn: "Worchestershire". And there is the accent. English is particularly rich in accent variation, by meeting people you also become more capable of understanding other accents and you can cherry-pick some particular details of an accent and adopt it in your way of speaking. E.g. how do you pronounce "either" and "garage"?
    – Apollo
    Commented Apr 25, 2019 at 11:13

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