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Immersion learning can be really really rough and isolating

Hi all,

I’m a native English speaker from London and I learned a bit of Spanish in school and have done small bits of learning on apps and flash cards every now and then but I really wanted to get fluent as soon as possible. I’m training to be a journalist and knowing another language is super useful for that career.

So right now I’m in Ecuador, I thought I’d go for hard immersion so I’ve volunteered in a rural community for a month (I arrived 2 days ago) and I am learning more Spanish, however, I didn’t think it would be this emotionally taxing. Not being able to communicate with anyone is really hard to deal with. I’m around the A2/B1 level of fluency but I’ve found it much harder to interact with people in South America than Spain for example and it’s left me speaking most likely under a hundred words per day despite trying to be quite confident in conversation.

Don’t really have any questions other than any general advice? Just really wanted to warn people that if you want to do immersion learning, either get to a really confident level first and be able to listen through accents easily or do “soft immersion” and stay with someone who knows your language or be able to see people who you can talk to occasionally. I’ve never been homesick and I’ve been on some quite rough and long trips but this is my first time really missing home, not being able to properly express yourself and communicate is extremely isolating and hard to cope with - currently very daunted by the month ahead. George

July 19, 2019



I had an immersion experience for Spanish in Mexico, but I went into it with 4 years of high school Spanish. That's not very much at all, depending on how good the high school class is. I wasn't isolated though, because I lived with an American family who had two Mexicans living with them. I do remember the surprise and frustration at not understanding anything. I was there for 5 months. I really advanced a lot and was even a go-between between Mexican and American youth. Later, I went to Santo Domingo and kind of went through the whole experience again because Caribbean Spanish and Mexican Spanish are so different and I couldn't understand the accent. I remember being frustrated not being able to find the Spanish words for things I wanted to say and no one to ask. I was there two years. My Spanish got really good. Later I moved to Spain where I live today. Even after two years in Santo Domingo, the Madrid accent was hard to understand at first. Now I get hired at times to do simultaneous English-Spanish translation! Don't give up, it will come.


Wow. Simultaneous translation is super hard and really demonstrates that you have a really good handle on English and Spanish. Congratulations!


Thanks, I really enjoy interpreting.


Thanks for sharing your story! You are a living example that perseverance and hard work in learning a language do not go to waste!


Thanks! I have always loved and been interested in Spain and Latin American countries. I didn't discover until about 4-5 years ago that I also really love languages in general. I wish I would have discovered this decades ago. Now I am also passionate about French, German, Italian and Mandarin Chinese. Sometimes I think life is to short to discover all these wonderful countries and cultures.


Ah yes, wouldn't it have been so cool if Duo could have been around when we were younger?


Even when you have people with you to talk to, there is an adjustment period when living in another culture. It varies among individuals but may be from a few weeks to a month.

It is best to make a short trip to the country to see if you will like it than to commit for a long period of time where you could be miserable.

In your case, is there a close town where you could find someone to talk to? If you have Internet, Viber is a great free app that you can talk/video conference anyone in the world for as long as you like for free. WARNING/EDIT ABOUT VIBER: SEE AIDAN REPLY BELOW FOR IMPORTANT INFORMATION.


Songve. Wise words indeed. Two weeks at a language school can seem like a year if you're not enjoying it or can't keep up.


100% true! It isn't an easy thing, learning a language, but when you make it fun and enjoyable, it makes all the difference - especially the outcome.


The advice about settling into a culture is fair enough, but when I was introduced to Viber a while ago (for working in Somalia with an Australian friend) I decided against letting it read my phone and address books. Because I have, for example, contact details for competitors who haven't given me their permission to give their contact details to others, like Viber's anonymous owners. I'd have to get another phone, specifically to use Viber, then never call anyone else on it. I'm sure it's a perfect good application. But it's demand for your entire address book is utterly unacceptable.


Thanks much about that, I put a warning in my comment. Did a little research and the history is like some kind of spy novel starting with the IDF. I'm probably going to delete it. Security not robust at all.


Thanks for sharing your experience. Yes, it can be exhausting. The Ecuadorian accent and expressions are probably a factor, too.

Do you find listening comprehension to be the toughest part? A French relative who speaks perfect English said that initially you just have to relax and let the language "flow over you" instead of worrying about understanding each word.

You are doing a good thing helping people. Try to have fun with the opportunity and hang in there!


yeah there is a lot to that. I went with my (colombiana) partner to colombia over christmas. I had a mare of a time until i just stopped trying to translate and just listened


this is a test


That sounds like excellent advice because I can’t understand what people say here in Brasil yet even after 16 visits. I try to translate every word and I can’t keep up so what your relative said is probably correct. I’ll try it, thanks!


Language is not individual words, it's full of combination of words that make expressions which to the native speaker are just how they talk. In english we don't notice it because we grow up with it. Years ago, when I left New York state and moved to West Virginia I was really taken by how differently they talked and the expressions they used! After awhile I was doing it myself. Learning a foreign language is the same only about 100 times harder. I always go back to my musical education and an old teacher of mine explained that when I tried to sight read that I was looking at the notes instead of the groups of notes. That's like trying to read by looking at individual letters. And the groups of notes were put into phrases (sentences) etc. Opened up my mind. I do get the isolation factor though because who do you turn to if you really need help?


Hugh231007 - What you are talking about is context and in my experience, you are absolutely correct. This is just like when I'm watching a foreign show. Before I know what's going on, it's hard to understand the conversation without reading the subtitles. However, once I get characters and the story, I understand more of what is being said.


That was similar to the advice a trilingual German guy gave me when I was living in Italy. Rather than trying to understand each word, observe the whole conversation and try to detach yourself from being too analytical about it.


I’ve been trying that for a couple of months but I still can’t understand what people say. Translating didn’t work because I could only catch the first word or two at best and if I knew the meanings of them I could translate in my head but the other words were long gone by word number 3. Now I try to listen to everything but I can’t understand much. Maybe 1 out of 25 words if they speak quickly and 1 out of 12 words if they speak more slowly. It’s so frustrating that I ask people for advice that I don’t even know.


I think what helped me the most was the realisation that language acquisition isn't a linear process. When I was in Italy I spent four months studying verb tables, listening to the radio and only being able to pick up the odd word spoken on the street, while feeling like nothing I was doing was working and that I was getting nowhere. Then one morning everything fell into place and I went from where I was before to being able to understand entire sentences and being able to converse (albeit at a basic level) with Italian speakers.

Any hard work will contribute towards reaching that level so even if you feel that you're not getting there, it will help in the long run. Unless you're some kind of language whizz (definitely not me!), I don't think two months is really long enough to develop an ear for the language. Easier said than done, but just hang in there and be kind and patient with yourself <3


It’s 2 months of not trying to translate each word. I’ve been studying Portuguêse for 5 years now which is what has me concerned. I’m in Brasil for the 16th time and still can’t converse or understand anything. I’m not going to quit but I don’t want to keep doing the same things if they aren’t working and find out in another 5 years that I should have been doing something else. I’ll keep trying to read and keep listening and practicing. Thanks a lot!


I empathize. I am currently vacationing solo in Colombia and I am having a much tougher time understanding the language than I anticipated. I, too, have about an A2/B1 level of fluency, but Colombian Spanish is the most difficult for me to understand of the 9 Spanish-speaking countries I have been to (Guatemala was the easiest, with El Salvador a close second). Basically, I can't understand a darn thing they're saying. Ironically, they can understand me, and a few have remarked how good my Spanish is. But communication is a two-way street, and I'm sure I look like a deer in the headlights when they're speaking to me.

Before I came to Colombia I was strongly considering moving here for 3-6 months and taking private Spanish classes 10-15 hours a week while immersing myself in the culture. But in light of this "reconnaissance" trip, I think it would be more beneficial for me to go back to Guatemala or Mexico where it was easier for me to understand the accent. Besides, as a nurse living in Southern California, I meet far more people from Mexico than Colombia.

My advice is to hang in there. It's only for a month, and two days is not enough time to make an informed decision about how long you should stay. You're still dealing with fatigue, jet lag, and the general disorientation one feels the first time in a foreign country. Also, a month is not nearly enough time for you to become fluent, but you will improve. Kudos for stepping outside your comfort zone, and I wish you the best.


"I look like a deer in the headlights" - I had to laugh out loudly, because I exactly understood what you mean.


We have ALL Been there if we have been in a foreign country!


LOL, me too. I've lived in Germany for more than two years now and it still happens sometimes. My goal is to speak to a complete stranger one day and have them think I'm German and not a foreigner. :-)


walkabout123 -- When you said that you couldn't understand what the Colombians were saying, was it because they spoke too fast? or was the grammar too informal? or did they have a vastly different vocabulary? If the speed was the issue, did you try asking them to slow down for you?

Bravo to you for vacationing solo. Lingot for you.


Most of the difficulty stems from how rapidly they speak. I haven't asked anyone to slow down, but I have occasionally asked people to repeat themselves. Sometimes it helps, sometimes it doesn't. However, I've been here for 2 weeks now, and my ability to understand what people are saying is getting better.

I'm a bit introverted, but I decided to put myself out there and started talking as much as I could--to people in my hotel, store clerks, Uber drivers, haggling with vendors, --you name it. People have been very kind and patient with me, gently correcting me when I use the wrong word or supplying me with the right word when my mind goes blank. Gradually, it's starting to click and the rapid Spanish no longer sounds totally unintelligible. Overall it has been a good experience. BTW, thank you for the lingot!


Brave introverts are the best! The world saves the best doors for them.

10 Lingots for you!


Aahh, thank you!



I'd like to know, what part of Colombia were you in?

I'm from Colombia, so sorry for my English, I am learning yet.

Lingot for you!


I started in Medellin, went to Guatape for 3 days, and am currently in Cartagena. (And your English is good!) Unfortunately, I have to return home in a couple days, but I hope to come back soon. I have greatly enjoyed your beautiful country and would like to see more of it. Thank you for the lingot.


Hello George,

Trust you're hanging in there & you're planning to brave the whole month.

I can totally relate with the emotional rollercoaster you're going through right now as I was in your position a year ago.

I left my country for a volunteering experience in Benin Republic (French speaking) after having spent a year in a French school. I thought I was all armed with the necessary paraphernalia to excel wherever I find myself. Oh no, I was in for the greatest shock of my life. First of all, I couldn't string words together & I had problem understanding their accent. It was tough & I wasn't prepared at all for the emotional exhaustion that ensued.

So I'd tell you the tricks/survival tactics I adapted.

1) I'm quite an affable person thus I became good friends with my host. So with time, my ears got attuned to the whole family's accent & I was comfortable around them.

2) You need to support your verbal attempts with hand gestures so as to communicate regardless. This wonderfully helps.

3) having conversation with kids is really another way to help one's speaking & listening skills. I realized that kids were more slower, used easy expressions/words, were more patient/empathetic & they generally boosted my confidence level.

4) Whenever the people had problem with my French accent, I'd write whatever I was saying & they'd correct my pronunciation

5) I never let go of the reason why I was there. You said it'd help your journalistic ambition?. So just take it as a necessary sacrifice that needs to be done.

So these were the things that helped me settle in, obviously it didn't happen in 2 days, it took some time & everyday came with its own typical challenge.

At the end of my 2 Months stay, I wanted to extend but sadly I couldn't. And yes, I made great friends from the experience

So George, please kindly hang in there, you'd be better for it. Take it one day at a time and do relish the little progress you make.


You make amazing points Ramadan!

Mostly 2 and 3 feature prominently in my experiences learning languages or travelling foreign countries. I have never had formal German education, but as a teenager I translated for my younger brothers to their German friends, which was way easier than talking to their parents because they would only use simple words, because they would only know simple words, and often those are pretty close to the Dutch words. Also while in Romania, I got by with Spanish and hand gestures only to kids, while knowing nothing about the language but rarely needing the translator to help me. It also helps that all the things we needed to communicate were simple; 'Stay here', 'hold this to that', 'want a drink?', and 'give that to me'. You'd be amazed how many things you can do just by moving your head and eyes alone! It can feel stupid but as some say: If it's stupid and it works, it ain't stupid!


Recently I suggested to a friend of mine that I believed if I could get to the level of a third grader I'd be able to get along. I try to find learning materials that are in Spanish that are for Spanish speaking children. You have to crawl before you can walk. In the immersion situation if you speak Spanish to others you will find that they answer you in Spanish because you seem to know it. Can be a problem. I've been on the other side with Spanish speakers in the US trying to tell me something in English. I had to be really patient as they were terrible at pronunciation.


@Ramadan890232 Great advice! And you're right about talking with children -- it's always easier because the conversation is so basic. Cheers!


I hear you! I did full immersion at the tender age of 14 I had taken French in school in Canada but it was really a joke and when I got to Paris I could not understand or say anything. I was miserable at first and never worked harder in my life than I did learning French that first three months.

BUT HANG IN THERE! Not only will your Spanish improve by leaps and bounds... You will have a language skill that never leaves... And you will even make some friends!!!!


Have you tried to formulate “mock-conversations” with yourself yet? Anytime I know I am going to be in a place with a lot of Hispanic people I try to take 30 min. before to clear my mind and think of some possible things that might be talked about.

I don’t know if you are able to use social media or not out there, but if you can maybe you could try and find English speakers near you via online.

The fear of making mistakes is what gets most of us, I don’t know if you struggle with it, but it took me 7 months learning Spanish before I had even a 5 minute conversation.



I call it having conversations with my imaginary friends and every day as I start a different language on Duolingo I do it!!!


You know, I made up a game yesterday.

Basically, I made a whole bunch of flashcards, and wrote Italian words and phrases onto them. I got someone to play with, and here's how it went.

I put down a card 'ciao' and the other person finds a card to answer with 'salve', 'come sta', 'buon pomeriggio' and we have mini conversations with the cards, speaking out loud. You could use multiple cards at once:

  • Io ho

  • Un cane

But there were no English translations, so it was pure Italian. Perhaps you could do the same?


Great idea. I think this is great if you have a friend or someone else who is learning a language with you


Jumping right in is great, but remember: you can't learn to swim while you're drowning. How do you self-rescue if you are drowning? By relaxing and letting yourself float. Go easy. Focus on have interactions you know how to do. Even if it's just ordering a cup of coffee. Build from there. As far as listening: just eaves drop, especially parents talking to their children. And try to make a friend, or at least be friendly.


And while going easy, remember there are a lot of things that don't require any talking at all. Play a card game with a few people and note the conversation around you.


It is the best way to learn incredibly quickly. However communicating entirely in an object language is very tiring. Also living in a new culture is tough emotionally too.
Just remember you will survive!


You arrived two days ago, and your brain is adjusting and reorienting itself. Every sound is unfamiliar. It's scanning the surroundings for a familiar sound. Of course it is hard. But not to worry. Your ears will pick up the new sounds, just keep listening.

I like to have a notebook with me, and write down words that I am curious about, and make a small drawing that illustrates the word, to make it more clear and remember it better.

Also, try and get some comic books, "Tintin" is excellent, in spanish.

You've been immersed for 2 days so far, now let yourself soak it up. Be open to people. The language will come alive for you, you'll see. I was immersed for 6 months in french, and started out knowing next to nothing. I left fluent. I took some classes too, once a week, so I also learned the grammar. I was lucky that I was with very talkative people, but most of my days were spent doing farm labor.

I wish you all the best, and well done bravo to you for putting yourself in this situation so you can learn and experience a lot of new things!!!


yes, comic books are great. dialog with pictures



I recently went to a Spanish church service and I was mentally exhausted after just an hour and a half. And some of the people there could speak English (although they try to keep the entire service in Spanish). A soft immersion experience as you described. (I call it immersion with a safety net.)

Some of your exhaustion could just be from the travel and time zone difference.

Good for you for taking this step. I'm guessing that you will learn quite a bit during this month. I'm sorry that you're homesick. A month seems like a long time now, but in a couple of weeks I'm guessing you'll be wondering where the time went.

At least for the next couple of days, you might do better doing more listening than speaking, to get a feel for the way the local language flows. Also, listening is good practice for becoming a journalist. ;) (I was an English teacher with a minor in journalism.)

Best of luck to you!! I would love to hear updates from you on your experiences in South America!


Thanks for such a frank post. In my experience learning languages is always a roller coaster ride but you’ve really thrown yourself in at the deep end. It’s very early days and you’re a long way from home so it is only natural to be homesick. Give it some time. As a future journalist, have you considered writing a blog about your experiences? Good luck


Yeah I guess I didn't anticipate how deep it can be, yeah I’ve got a little site I write on so I’m thinking of writing up my thoughts on hard immersion and throwing yourself in the deep end like this. If you’re still interested in a month and half when I’m back with my laptop my site is www.thedictum.co.uk


What a great site. You’re clearly a talented journalist. I’ll look forward to reading your article when you get back and perhaps seeing you pop up on Politics Live or Newsnight?


I just got back from a 2-3 week trip in Brazil. It was probably what you would call a soft immersion because I went with my husband who speaks fluent Portuguese and was able to help guide me everywhere we went and also give me English breaks from time to time. Even with that "softness" it was still incredibly frustrating and lonely. I so wanted to communicate with all these people we were meeting and my ability to express myself was so low. By the end of the trip, my frustration had hit a peak. I figured, that if immersion was the key to really grasping a language, then I had lost my opportunity and all was lost.

But then I got home. I pulled up the Portuguese speaking Youtuber I had been watching before the trip, and to my surprise, I actually understood a good portion of what he was talking about. I picked up on some of his slang and recognized some hand gestures that were associated with certain words (they always snap when they're talking about a lot of something or something that happened a long time ago). The difference between how much I understood then compared to before the trip was mind-blowing.

So in the end, I definitely wasn't fluent, but I had learned a lot more than I could see while I was on the trip. I hope this is somewhat helpful for you. Know that through all the frustration, your brain is grabbing and analyzing all this information and you really are learning. The Duolingo community is here for you and I hope in someway all these wonderful comments can relieve your loneliness a little bit. <3 Good luck in Ecuador!


I’m in Brasil right now for the 16th time and I still can’t understand what people say even after studying for 4 years 11 months and 16 days. I have to translate everything if I can make out what people say. I only understand 1 word out of about 12 which is frustrating. I practice every day with my girlfriend who only speaks Portuguese and have for 2 years. I’m doing something wrong. I’m translating into English instead of learning Portuguese I think. Any ideas? I’m in Fortaleza now. Thanks


When you translate into English do you translate it into how the English would express it or do you translate keeping the Portuguese syntax? Try preserving the Portuguese syntax when translating to English if you are not already doing that. It will help to think sentences like the Portuguese.


I translate it into how the English would express it. When there is a difference I wonder what the problem is but there isn’t a problem because they are 2 different languages. I need to quit doing that. When there are extra words or fewer words I feel like there is a problem. But it’s normal. I need to do something differently with how I think about it. At the rate I’m learning I will die of old age before I can have my first conversation. Thanks for the help!


Anytime. Sometimes the extra words in one language are understood but omitted in the other language or else they used to be & no longer employed in the other language. The differences are interesting to process and attention-worthy. Ironically, paying lots of attention to these differences will reinforce your English as well as you take a new look at the English syntax/grammar. Your English is great by the way. ;)



I've seen 2 of your comments and I really can't imagine what would be going through your mind.

Learning a new language could be really really tough & challenging as I had a classmate who had the same problem.

I'm no teacher or educator but I'd suggest you revisit the basics. Try & shore up your foundational knowledge of the language. If you need to attend/change a language school, please do. 2ndly, it's normal for your brain to interpret it to English. The interpretation speed gets faster & with time it stops translating. 3rdly, try and have a prolonged stay in Brazil, minimum of 6 months & be sure to interact with locals. 4thly & most importantly; your mindset, attitude & reason why you need to acquire the language needs to be solid. If they're shaky & superficial, you may not get the intended result.

If all these are adhered to, I believe you'd experience a gargantuan change in the coming months. And all the years you've spent learning the language would suddenly be worth it.

Also, I must commend your doggedness, fighting spirit & perseverance. It is no easy feat to keep pushing on even when it feels like one isn't making any progress.

Wishing you all the best Pat.

I'd be here waiting for that thanksgiving post from you.


I can see that, having been in an analogous situation. Yours is a very inspiring story. Have a Lingot.


That can absolutely be exhausting -- your brain is adjusting to a completely new language/accent and culture at the same time, not to mention the climactic differences affecting your body.

Don't be afraid to rest. Focus on phrases and questions like, "I'm sorry, I'm still learning Spanish," and, "Please speak slowly," and, "Can you repeat that again?" It's super frustrating to not be able to get your point across, but it'll start to click.


George, everything you're feeling is normal. You're okay. And everything will be better soon. I once had a similar experience. It's not only emotionally taxing -- it's physically exhausting, too. I had to take a nap every afternoon because simple communication took so much energy. But that stage did not last long.

Take care of yourself -- drink plenty of water, eat well, and get enough sleep. Try to keep smiling. And set small goals, like learning 10 new words a day. Write them down so you can see your progress.

You have the Internet as a back-up any time you feel isolated, but try to stay present in the experience around you. Everything worth doing is difficult in its own way. You're having an experience that most people can only dream of doing, so make the most of it!

When you get back home to London, please post again to let us know you came through it like a champ, and tell us about all you will have learned. Good luck. And smile!


I understand, I stayed in Italy for a week with a family, where no one spoke any English, boy was it hard, I found it easier with the children as they were not so tough on my mistakes.


Just believe in yourself and your long term goals. All your struggles will pay off.


Also just to update, I’m planning on definitely sticking out until the end of the month then making a decision. My trip doesn’t finish in Ecuador as I’m going through Central America, staying in Panama a few days and then hitchhiking from Texas to Chicago to stay with my brother. Because of the extra bit through Central America I feel less guilty if I do leave a bit earlier than planned, still spending time with Spanish speakers and exploring :) also not to self promote but someone asked earlier, I’ll do a little write up on my website www.thedictum.com in a month or so when I’m back with my laptop.


Don't worry. I'm a native Spanish speaker and I also have problems interacting and expressing myself with them at a point they think I'm a foreigner (maybe because I'm Asian and there are not much Asians in South America) lmao. Generally, Latin Americans are too extroverted for me that I can't even keep on it. It a cultural thing I think. / No te preocupes, soy hispanoparlante y aún así tengo problemas al interactuar y expresarme con ellos al punto que creen que soy extranjero —tal vez se deba a que tengo raíces asiáticas y no hay muchos asiáticos en Sudamérica— lmao, Los latinoamericanos en general son demasiado extrovertidos para mí al punto que me cuesta mucho seguirles la corriente. Es un tema cultural creo yo.


As someone who moved to another country when they were young and traveled through about 43 more, don't let a language barrier stop you from making friends. You'd be surprised how little people care. I've gotten piss drunk and played popular card games with a bunch of people from many different countries and walks of life. You get really good at reading body language alone, and most people just think it's cool to spend time with the new guy who laughs at their jokes even when they're not jokes. Verbal language isn't the end all be all of communication

As a starter tip for that. Bring a notebook you can draw symbols and pictures in. Visual vocabulary is universal to the point it was actually everyone's first language before they learned to talk. And learn to play a MEAN game of charades.


Being an introvert. May I just say that I think what you have done is amazing. So just remember that. What you are doing is not an easy task. As a person that moved to Australia from Singapore and English is a first language in both countries, I thought I would be ok. But that was a time I felt very isolated.

I can only say it gets better with time. Although I'm sure you already know that. Maybe now is the time to enjoy the solitude and just do the things that you enjoy? Good luck.


Yeah I must say, having a lot of time where I retreat to my room as quite an introverted person I think I’m enjoying reading more than I do at home, which is an unexpected plus, only issue is I’m 4 days in and almost finished my 1st of my 2 books!


What you are dealing with is the Ecuadorian dialect which differs enough from the Spanish that you studied to make it challenging. If you were to suddenly go to Spain or similar Castilian dialect, it would be as if wax was removed from your ears and your understanding would take a great leap. Enjoy the culture and the music.


You will feel much better at the end of the first week. Meanwhile you have us to chat to :-)


It's weird when you are totally immersed. It's not just the everyday talking that is difficult but all the extraneous talking around us. I found myself in bank queues & supermarket lines, coffee shops & markets sort of cut off. Hat's off to anyone who is deaf! On the good side the buzz you get when you start to understand snippets is amazing. It will get easier.


Long ago, I went to Paris for a year as an exchange student. I had had two years of high school French, but I might as well have had none at all. It was indeed rough and isolating...for about the first couple of months. Then it started coming very fast! It's tough, but the key is not to fall back onto English unless it's absolutely necessary. Upon my return from that year abroad, I tested out of 20 hours of university French. It was hard but life changing, and I'm so glad I did it.


That must have been fun. I went to Paris for a month with a school group after 2 years of high school French many, many years ago. We had a blast. I just barely understood the language as spoken there.


Sounds like during that visit, your school group hung out together, in effect isolated as in a cocoon, and spoke a lot of English to one another. Searching out native French people, or even French-speaking English/Americans who were living there/who not just visiting would have been more productive language learning-wise. Glad you had fun. ;)


You're absolutely right. That was over 40 years ago and I was still basically a kid then. I'd do it completely different now given the same opportunity.


Wishing you new opportunities. When I was in Paris many years ago too, I met interesting American ex-patriots usually in cafes or bookstores and some nice French people. The American ones were usually very pleased to help with local knowledge/navigation/suggestions/introduction to friends as they had had to go though a similar process in their own earlier stage.


Keep at it. I know how you feel. Many years ago I did the same in Lisbon to learn Portuguese and then in Guinea Bissau, West Africa to learn Kriolo.

It is worth it. You will want to scream, bang your head against the nearest palm tree and yell as loud as you can in English, or kick the cat - just make sure it isn't a cougar! At least now you do have social media. When I did the same there was no social media.

I think, as Europeans we often under-estimate how different non-European cultures are. I would suggest that if you do total immersion in a non-European culture you find out as much as you can about that culture first, in books, on-line r whatever method you choose.

European culture and language learning is much easier. You learn a language which is supposed to be the lingua-frnaca of a country but when you get there you discover just how different the "accent" and coloquialisms are. It's like learning English and then going to live in a housing estate in Glasgow. Same thing.

Ichthus talks sense and has been there and done it too.

You will get there George. Keep your pecker up. It really is the best way of language learning.


I did immersion learning Chinese in Elementary School, and I was basically learning chinese as well as english as I grew up. I guess it was easier since I started with about the same level of knowledge in both languages.


I’m curious how that worked exactly. For a year in my elementary school we had japanese class as a kind of pilot for an immersion program (this was 1990-1991). It didn’t work at all. I learned two phrases. Afterward I’ve always felt like it was a missed opportunity. Both the teachers and the students were not able to make it work and I wonder how a successful program like this would actually work.


I am an English teacher and I've been conducting immersion-style classes for the past six years. In my experience, it is important that the children are still young enough (elementary 3rd/4th grade or younger), and that the class is frequent enough. One hour a week, unless it is heavily supported at home by the parents, is not going to make the students fluent. I think at least four hours a week in a dedicated space is necessary. Also, the classes must be small and the rule to not speak the non-target language (unless in an emergency etc.) must be enforced. I will say that one hour a week immersion style classes will help the students with pronunciation and a basic understanding of the target language's flow, but again, it is just not enough time to make the students truly fluent.

For adult beginners, I think it is better to use the native language in combination with the target language. Once they reach advanced beginners or intermediate level, you can start using only the target language.


Listening comprehension is key. Listening to various accents in your target language can help. Slang in everyday speech of your target language is important to understand. Even when I move from one English speaking country to another I will modify my accent and slang. Accents and slang can made a foreign language difficult to understand in everyday situations. Slang is not taught in most language schools / courses etc. Immersion is the way to go!! Hang in there you will "absorb" the local language in time!


Spanish in Ecuador is different from Castilian Spanish too because in South America these countries have their own vocabulary, which you can tell from a really good dictionary. It sounds like a great experience. Are you picking crops?


Not picking crops, helping a micro-finance organisation which makes things a little tough because there’s a lot of business vocabulary I don’t get either haha


Hang in there! You can do it!


You know how when we look back at hardships we’ve gone through and we can see the funny side to things plus what we actually learned from the experience? Try to see it now. Hang in there and if possible post follow ups. :)


I say (from experience), even if you don't know the exact words, or mess up a bunch, just keep trying to talk to people! Usually you can get your meaning across with a very limited vocabulary. Plus, you will be getting in a lot of practice, learning some new words, and making new friends!


I agree BE BRASH! They already think you are a weirdo from another planet!!!! Be happy friendly and just GO FOR IT!!! If they laugh at your Spanish ,SO WHAT? You don't think you are an expert anyhow!!!! GO FOR IT!!!


i've been in a similar situation in poland, although i was there for different reasons and not really actively trying to learn the language. besides, i lived with a polish person who was fluent in english, which made things much easier. also, the majority of young people could at least exchange a word or two in english. that being said, it was still a very alienating experience. for one, you never really know if you will be able to communicate with the next person. some situations where verbal communication was impossible were fun to say the least, but they could also be frustrating. at times, someone would start talking to me and i'd be endlessly trying to figure out what they were saying, and they would be doing the same. now, i can't even imagine how tough it must be in a country where most people don't speak any english and without help from someone else.

that kind of immersion is good for improving listening and speaking skills, but if you don't have a decent vocabulary and some basic notions to work with, it will most definitely be rough. the common argument is that babies learn through immersion, but we are not babies and we have already learned our native language. plus, there are no 'parents' to teach you how to speak on a constant basis.

anyway, as alienating as it may feel, try to lower your expectations as far as fluency is concerned, have fun and enjoy the experience. i think that one's frustration in that kind of situation lies precisely in the misguided expectation that they will be able to learn a language just by interacting with native speakers for a couple of months. don't focus so much on that, immerse yourself in the culture instead, and on your free time study the language itself as much as you can (with pen, paper, etc.) that's what i would do.


Yeah I think I wasn’t really prepared for no one speaking any English, I’ve been around Europe a lot and even in quite remote areas of France, Spain and other countries people can speak a few words of English. For my language learning on pen and paper I’m just writing anything that I hear regularly and don’t understand down and translating and learning it, I’ve filled almost 2 pages in my notepad already :)


I experienced this in rural Czech, even in Prague to a degree as there are many inhabitants that do not speak English well, while studying at VŠE. If you didn't feel culture shock from anything else, nothing has felt worse than not being able to communicate, no matter how hard you want to. We're social creatures of varying degrees and not having that need be fulfilled in the face of desire can be rough.

Stick with it though, I have understood from old friends and colleagues that Spanish can be rather forgiving in full immersion; if you can find some means of having them talk slower, it will help a bit. Even as English speakers, we talk faster than we realize and you can lose quite a bit information that way as the words run together. Best of luck to you and do your best to develop an optimistic view towards this challenge, it'll make you more receptive and will help with the shock. You will learn quickly because you need to survive; you will learn quickly not because you're having an easy time, but because you're floundering, adapt and overcome bud.


George - here are six suggestions: 1) Consider using one of the Live Translation Tools referenced in the two articles below. It might help you have more extensive conversations. https://www.cnet.com/videos/3-ways-to-use-google-translate-when-you-travel/ https://www.igeeksblog.com/best-language-translation-iphone-apps/

2) Script conversations you would like to have with the locals and rehearse them before you leave home everyday.

3) Focus on learning more than language. Focus instead on learning as much as you can about the country, the culture, the people, and the individuals around you. Try reading local papers (if there's any) AND try writing articles in Spanish about local subjects whilst you're there. Embracing such challenges will enrich you, assuage your sadness, and make the time go by quickly

4) Remember that communication is about a LOT more than language. If you're feeling self conscious, frustrated, insecure, miserable and so forth, those emotions WILL negatively affect the energy you project when you interact with the locals. They will be more likely to assist and embrace you if they feel comfortable, welcomed, and appreciated by you, and if the energy you project is warm and positive.

5) Perhaps most importantly, embrace the humour and humility and being a learner. Laugh at yourself when you get stuck or when you get things wrong,

6) Learn how to ask people to speak slowly. Learn how to ask them to repeat things. Learn how to ask how to say things. And most importantly learn how to smile and look embarrassed in the fun ways that will endear you to the locals. There is NO shame in not knowing.

Stay positive my friend. A lot of us would love to experience the adventure that you're having right now. Enjoy it :-)


You are absolutely right. I did a global health internship in India, and I found my experience to be incredibly isolating. I was around English speakers, but the Indian dialect was really difficult for me to understand. I thought if there were just a few other Americans around for me to debrief with, it would have been a lot easier for me to handle emotionally. I ended up going home a lot sooner than I planned to. And I didn't regret that decision.


Yeah I’m thinking of shortening my trip slightly, it’s weird how you don’t think small chats with family and friends are that important until you don’t have them.


I think that service missions take a lot out of you too. It's not like you're a tourist enjoying a margarita on the beach. You're exposed to a different level of humanity. It's all very raw.


that's a great point


This is true. I've spent a week in Romania, in the slums by the landfill every afternoon, and it is emotionally very exhausting.


I kinda had something similar but much smaller. I am learning German and felt kinda confident. I called a friend, who is native German and speaks fluent English, on Discord and started off small. It slowly got into bigger words then he just took off going close to 100000 words a minute. Languages are funny things. You think you speak em good but then they speak words you never even began to hear. My advise, practice until your pretty good, then talk to someone who speaks English and the language your studying, then once you think you can make it a bit, try immersion learning.


I find this post very touching and personally relatable. This is a problem I personally cannot seem to escape at all. I'm bilingual since childhood, been uprooted/emigrant, and honestly am actually no longer even sure which language, if any is my real language (the one I can truly express myself in, an communicate the most authentically). On top of that I have Aspergers syndrome, which makes communication oftentimes even more of a challenge... Being able to communicate with people around you and being able to understand one another is such a fundamental human desire and need... If that's taken away... One feels lost.


I can't necessarily give any advice other than what you said about having someone who knows your native language so you have an outlet... I did an immersion program for two summers with Middlebury College in Vermont and we were not allowed to speak, hear, read, anything in anything but our target language (Spanish for myself and my classmates). It was very hard, and very lonely at times. But I do believe immersion is the best way to gain fluency, so if you can push through it will be worth it:)


Hey, do not worry, it will get better soon. I had the same experience in English, which I was taught in school for a few years. I went to Australia and had nobody speaking my native language with me for eight months. I remember the exact same feelings that you describe. Complete loneliness as one feels so completely isolated and unable to communicate sufficiently. However - I remember it became better in big steps. My abilty to understand developed so quickly, I noticed that after one month I understood practically everything. And the talking - even faster. One develops short cuts through the language. Always the same sentences, words, adjectives with only minimal changes according to purpose makes you feel that after a week or so you are able to communicate about almost everything. On a very basic level but nevertheless. I remember it was really tiring. Really. Good luck, all worth it!

<pre> Write your thoughts in a journal! Just do it! Write down everything! The first thing you need to do (and what you've already started here) is to get your ideas and experiences somewhere you can expose them to the cold truth of sunlight. When you see your troubles side by side with things you've actually enjoyed, you'll better understand the admission price for the some of the greatest memories of your life! I too have been fortunate enough to travel widely and had my own share of legitimately sickening/life-threatening experiences; found out +2000m. up a Swiss mountain on my own I don't enjoy/landmine education-removal in rural Mozambique is extremely tough/not eating for days in Xian, China because it was difficult to find food you trust. Gut twisting emotions all feel the same, but in time they become the foundations to your best memories and character. I know that may sound corny, and hard to see through the weeds, but when you read your thoughts today, tomorrow, and 10 years from now, you will find a counter-weight to your fears and maybe an idea or two to improve yourself in the moment. </pre>


Beautiful comment @Kyle.

I can relate with everything you've written. So much depth in your piece.

Thank you for sharing this to everyone at no cost.


Oh wow... I also agree that it is emotionally taxing to not be able to explain yourself easily. I’m very extroverted and seeing people but being unable to befriend them and understand them would be torture for me...


I’m in Brasil for the 16th time and I still can’t converse or understand what people say but I’ve found a way to make friends and somehow communicate in a friendly but non verbal way. I’ve been studying Portuguese for almost 5 years and I’m still looking for a way to learn how to read and converse. I can’t even make out what people say. 1 out of 15 words maybe. I practice every day with my girlfriend too. She only speaks Portuguese. I translate everything into English which isn’t right but I don’t know what else to do. I’m trying to listen without translating every word because it was slowing the listening down but I haven’t noticed any improvement yet. How does a person begin to understand the new language? My son can converse and he hasn’t studied Portuguese, he has been with me to Brasil 5 times and he’s picked it up. I usually learn quickly. I had my hearing tested and it is ok. Any ideas about what I’m doing wrong? I’m thinking that I have a language learning problem or a memory problem or dementia. Even if I’m not studying correctly I thought I would be able to converse by now. I use a lot of different learning tools and techniques.


Bom dia, Pat. Forget trying to speak "correctly" - speak with emotion! Meaning is conveyed not just with words, but tone of voice, emphasis, rhythm, facial expression, gesture etc. Act out what you are trying to say and how you feel. Likewise, pay attention to those cues from the people you are conversing with. And always start with a greeting, to make an initial connection with the other person.


You are exactly right! I make lots of friends here in Brasil and I always find a way to communicate. I just can’t communicate much verbally. I don’t have a problem understanding my girlfriend usually, I can pick up on what she is trying to say using body language, etc. I just can’t make out the words people are saying, where one word ends and the next word starts. Your point was right on the money. Thanks! I need to quit translating and find a way to understand and read.


What made you choose Ecuador?


It wasn’t a specific choice of Ecuador really, instead I saw the opportunity to volunteer and went for it :). As well as this I’ve done a lot of travelling around Europe and felt I should try and get out of the Eurocentric bubble and see somewhere really different.


I know I've always wanted to make a trip down to South America myself!


I have a thought, might be crazy! but you could see if there are any people doing wwoof near you. this would probably be people in who speak english, or you could go do wwoof with some other english speaking people for a little bit near you, then you will have the same people to connect with each day. just a thought! might get you out of a rut for a minute. here is their site for ecuador: https://wwoofindependents.org/hosts/search/location/ecuador-50562


oh this one has a language school: https://wwoofindependents.org/user/430581

I would assume some people would then know english


You’ve only been there two days? I’m not trying to be mean, but you are just homesick. Happens to everyone-before our crazy overly connected world, you just had to suck it up. That’s my advice: don’t find solace in an English language online refuge-Get your butt back out there and be immersed! LOL good luck


What is immersion?


He is living there without fully knowing the language to be completely exposed to it. Ie the culture music language food people etc.


I suggest keeping yourself focused on something for as much time as possible. It helps keep the thoughts of home at bay.


Yeah my saviours have been music and reading to keep myself occupied, just sitting in bed I get way too homesick


Yes, reading is a very effective way to distract yourself from your troubles


a very brave move. We are going for a much softer immersion experience in Costa Rica in the fall. We will stay with a family and go to the school for about 4 hours in the morning each day. The rest of the time we are on our own. Just doing it as a way to get acquainted with the country.


Hi George,

Two days. I can feel your pain and sadness - but believe me: it is only the start. The 1st week will be hard, but then the knowledge will come fast. (in case you had some basic knowledge). I remeber when I went to England with my basic English knowledge, and lived at a family. I heard ONLY English. After 2 weeks I started even to dream in English. Then I met a someone from my country, we started to speak our language for a short time every day, and all my dreams turned back to my native language. The learning speed was cut a lot. So don't give up, very soon your efforts pays back. And don't long for English speaking people. Instead try to be away of them. It will be much better for your Spanish knowledge! it is similar like losing weight: it is hard, with some suffer, but but you will enjoy the result very much... Until no measurable results, it is the hardest. But after you will be proud for the progress. :) It is like quitting smoking. First it is terrble, but after some weeks you start to feel the adantages. You start to feel better tastes, smells, easier to run after the bus... And feel yourself happy, that you could do it.

After one month you will feel a pity, that you can't continue your progress, that will be very-very fast that time, and that you will be enjoying so much.

I have a friend, she is a dentist, and she was offered a possibility to go to Sweden to work as a dentist. They were taken from differnt countries to a small Spanish town, and had every day ONLY Swedish to speak. Of course there were teachers, anyhow they were separated and having only Swedish. After 1 month(!!!) they were ready to work as dentists in rural Swedish towns, where people were speaking only Swedish. So one month with hard immersion, plus some study by yourself can make miracles. So please come back after 2-3 weeks, and face your sadness that you felt after 2 days. You will be very-very surprised. :))) And very happy by your progress. :) And please write us your oppinion after 2-3 weeks.


Hang in there George! What a valuable learning experience


I am totally sympathetic with these observations. I too am from England albeit 51 years ago! I’m living in Todos Santo in Baja California Mexico. Am trying to learn the language but it’s really tough although there is a significant American expat community here all escaping Trump!! I can well imagine how lonely it would be if there were no English speakers. Sounds far too daunting Lots of luck and thanks for taking the time to express your observations. JEE


It is important to froget everything you think you know. All too often, people try to tell me about my culture as a spanish speaker or try to compare it with another Spanish culture. Each country and town will have ist own customs and vocabulary. Try to speak clearly... its more important to know a few words right than to say a lot of things wrong.


Kepe up the great efforts we believe in you!


I’ve been studying Portuguêse for 4 years 11 months and 16 days and I am in Brasil for the 16th time and I still can’t understand what people say. I can’t make out the words. I can’t read yet either except for an occasional word so I’m isolated too. My girlfriend here only speaks Portuguese and I’ve been practicing with her for over 2 years now and can’t understand without translating. It’s like I’m deciphering a secret code instead of learning a language. I understand exactly what you are going through. I have fun here though and am not alone. I need to find a way to understand and learn. I’m not even at A1 yet which is frustrating. Good luck!


I really hope you make it through. I know I would never be able to go through at least one week without talking to someone. But I am giving you my support, try and look for a bright side to something (what you are eating?). There cant be dark without a light- I don’t know who that is by.


Courage George! I appreciate your honesty, as I have been considering such a step myself (Immersion) While your post hasn't changed my mind, I do appreciate hearing the adversity I may run into. I hope things get better for you. All the best.


As hard as it is I still think it’s the best way to learn a language, especially if you’re like me and struggle with motivation to practice at home. My main takeaway is just to have someone in country who speaks the language who you can retreat to if things are tough, a student of your native tongue or someone similar :)


You are probably going trough what most immigrants go trough, execpt this feeling lasts much longer in their case... You might also have had too high expectations and have not realised that rural communities in a third world country are not an easy change from daily life even for native speakers. Unfortunately the gap between cultural and social levels is very deep in these situations. So it will make your experience harder, but still, it Will give you a whole new vision nas understanding on the world! try to relax and learn as much as you can, and try to live as they live to make the most of this experience


C'mon George,

that is typical for staying abroad in the initial days: poor command of the language, everything is new and unknown, food you have not eaten before, new people around you, you're away from home.

The first days are always frustrating, in particular in a different cultural ambience. Try to get in contact with people despite your limited ability to communicate and it will get better day by day.

Trust me, I've gone through this experience a couple of times in my life in culturally very different settings.

Good luck,



Second it. I do actually have some advise: Soft immersion. And better start with a written communication. This last one is actually the best in my experience. Have a serious thing going - correspondence with some govermental or non govermental organisation, something of that sort. If no - just exchange letters or messages with someone you value. At any rate it will give you time to properly understand them and write a good answer, and you will have enough incentive and emotions around the process. You will also get to know your level better.


Don't forget, George is already abroad in a rural area fighting with the practical and emotional difficulties of the initial days. Your advice comes too late. He is presently going through the first one of several stages of culture shock.

There is light at the end of the tunnel for George. The next stage is adaptation to the unknown ambience, and he will find the experience enriching.


Hey George! Remember, the vast majority of people will not care if you make mistakes. That's all you have to do is make yourself understood - you're not going to speak perfectly. I know it's super hard, but as long as people get the gist of what you're saying, you're doing your job!

Imagine a concert pianist - they started off playing with one hand, one note at a time. It is with constant practise that they learnt to play Rachmaninov, Beethoven and Bach. Own your mistakes, learn from them, and keep going, because when you speak amazing Spanish you won't regret it. No te rindes ;)


Good for you!!! Stick it out!!! What an opportunity!! Have a lingot!!


Wishing you ease. Wishing you openings to return home if that's what's best.


My experience in China for a month as a solo traveler. I landed in southern China, which was cantonese speaking China, a friend of mine told me that all Chinese people spoke mandarin atleast a little bit. Well he wasn't really correct, in some of the slummier areas they did not speak a single bit of mandarin and a security guard tried to spit on me for trying to communicate with him in mandarin, I was scammed by a few cab drivers who didn't understand where I wanted to go but knew I couldn't know where they were taking me so they dropped me off in random locations and charged me for that. But when I finally got to mandarin speaking China, my experience was overall pretty great.

I was never expecting to have a full versed conversation with anyone, I only memorized about 200 symbols of the aforementioned 1000 critical symbols necessary to speak 95% of most spoken chinese. I typically made a game out of trying to make jokes out of the few lines I knew, I remember making one chinese laugh hysterically when I asked for his sisters number. But so really actually to get people to talk to you when you have a very weak language base, for starters I stuck to topics I could know, lots of food talk, lots of small talk. But also I took a slow train (12 hours) to some place, and I went through some areas where white people didn't really go to and before I knew it half the train was sitting around me and I was telling them stories about how I had been awake for 30 hours, a little lost, just trying to find some rocks to climb. They loved it so hard, and omg flirting with all their women (I'm a menace). But yeah so then after maybe like 7 days of not finding anybody who spoke a word of english, it was kind of lonely, I then started seeing people from all kinds of european backgrounds in hostels and some of the hostel workers themselves spoke english so it was best just to hang around the hostel if feeling lonely and in need of a deep and meaningful conversation. But I did get myself into some situations, like ending up on TV (I don't know what for), and taking some girl on the back of one of those motorised scooters, almost getting hit by buffalos to add to the excitement.


Maybe a success story can help? I was taking 3 weeks of Spanish immersion in Guanajuato, Mexico, 6 intense hours of classes per day. I felt stressed and overwhelmed! But one day I was walking back to my room, suddenly stopped in my tracks, and realized - for the first time in my life - “Estoy pensando en español!” I’m thinking in Spanish! That’s a great feeling when it finally happens. It made me smile. After that, everything seemed like fun again.


Everyone feels homesick sometimes. You're not alone. I was away from England for just five days on my own and I felt very homesick.


abrazos y besos. In the grand scheme of things a month is nothing. When you return home you will realise that you learnt a lot more than just the language. This experience is making you stronger which will help with your work goals.


Go to Puerto Rico, they speak Spanish and English. You will learn Spanish and communicate with new friends.


Keep going - it is emotionally very difficult. It helped me to try to greet ten people a day and to follow a routine I saw a few of the same people, everyday. It was also useful for me to have several sentences to choose from that I had practiced for those I saw daily. I like games so I also found it helpful to be in places where I could just listen and learn, and kept lists of 100 words I heard a day and any new words I learned by listening.


This is really helpful. But I have the opposite problem. Right now my family has two Chinese exchange students, both about thirteen staying with us! Both knew some English before coming, but it has been really difficult to communicate some simple things to them. For instance, they didn't know the English word "snack" and so we were trying to explain like food, but not during meals, and small, finally we had to use Google Translate for the Mandarin word snack. Do you have any advice on how we can make their stay easier? They are staying with us for a while, and we are supposed to be helping teach them English. Do you have any ideas on how to help their immersion experience easier and less taxing? I don't know any Mandarin, although I have considered using Duolingo to learn basics, but the whole purpose of them being here is to improve their English, so would that be helpful or actually would it not benefit them, because they would want to converse solely in Mandarin? It's nice to have two of them because sometimes if one doesn't understand some English word the other will explain to them in Mandarin. Should I talk like I normally would but slower, or should I use basic words? I want them to learn English, but I also don't want them to over exert themselves. Any ideas?


Looking forward to reading your first journalist release in Spanish. Maybe it will be about your experience in Ecuador??


Haha we’ll have to see how confident I’m feeling for a full spanish article


I learned Chinese in my early 20s by buying a one way ticket to China with only US$100 in my pocket. I stayed two years and did learn the language. The first two months were horrible; I spent them mostly trying to memorize stuff but found that I couldn't say anything that anyone could understand. My point is that you should have the basics down before going. From what you said, it sounds like that's what you're doing. Don't be shy, find people who want to help. If need be have a couple beer to loosen your tongue.


How do people finish everything.


Hang in there and thanks for the tip!


In my own experience I found alot of spanish know english, alot more than most native english speakers do.


Wish I could help. Google culture shock and acculturation. When I went for immersion, I got very sick-first from the food, then the pollution. Spent a lot of my time in bed. Money went to the pharmacy and not to outings. My friend did better, and went dancing with friends most nights.


George923684 -- Are you using Duolingo at all during your down time? I've seen comments that Ecuadorian is a little different than regular Spanish but I can't imagine it would hurt to practice.


Hang in there, George. You are doing something brave and excellent. Maybe start with food and drink. : )


Maybe you are just in the wrong area/country?


Jesus loves you pray to him


wow nice you are very wise person and a great educator


I know right???

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