What Does “Immersion” Really Mean?

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The Meaning of Immersion

Cultural immersion, language immersion, immersion programs—no matter in what combination you find the word, it inarguably adorns any vague concept with a certain air of je nais se quoi. Translated to English, immersion is crazy attractive. Why strive to just get a glimpse into a new culture when you could instead marinate and be immersed in its glory day and night? Powerful stuff!

In the travel industry, immersion has transformed into a go-to buzzword to market various types of travel that are more than just your average whirlwind tour bus excursion through Europe. One of the well-known benefits of international travel is becoming a more worldly person by learning about dissimilar ways of life and people around the world.

Since travel is done within a limited timeframe, it makes sense that people want to get the biggest bang for their buck by experiencing as much of the destination as possible. To help capture this higher sense of purpose when traveling, alternative forms of travel like volunteering, teaching, studying, and language programs abroad have sprouted up for travelers of all ages — answering the demand for more immersion programs and learning opportunities that double as adventure.

What does immersion really mean?

The literal meaning of immersion is: to submerge in a liquid or being deeply mentally engaged, but in terms of traveling, what does immersion really mean? Can you have American roommates during a study abroad program in Barcelona and still be immersed in the culture? Is participating in a hands-on calligraphy workshop geared toward tourists in China actually an immersive experience?

Being such an incredibly vague concept, immersion doesn’t have a concrete one-size fits all definition. While we unfortunately don’t have all the answers on how to become convincingly Peruvian in a year, we do have a few solid ideas to consider before setting off on your next cultural or language immersion program. Here’s what immersion really means...

Mimicking reality rather than buying into cultural stereotypes.

It’s easy to get carried away with the idea of what you think a culture is all about, rather than tuning in to the realities going on around you. Foods, festivals, clothing, and holidays are all obvious aspects that differentiate cultures and transmit an representational image around the world. In highly touristy areas, these aspects can even be severely distorted to meet tourists’ expectations, rather than reflect reality. As the old saying says, "The traveler sees what he sees, the tourist sees what he has come to see." It’s the subtle cultural nuances, such as formality of speech and how to accept compliments, that create the foundational differences in mentalities across countries.

Immersive programs and experiences should provide the opportunity to get into the heads of locals, observe their day-to-day lives, and try to understand the differences between you and them, which can change between cities or even neighborhoods. Explore the same hangout spots, TV shows, grocery stores, and community events.

gondola in the Venice canals
What can possibly be more Venetian than a gondola ride?

The biggest (and perhaps most difficult) pitfall to avoid is buying into stereotypes and your own unfounded perception of a culture. While eating dumplings and walking the Great Wall of China may be the quintessential picture of China, that’s only dipping a toe into the vast ocean of culture. It’s through frequent interactions with locals, that you’ll be able to understand how the Chinese socialize and what modern society is actually like.

What does immersion mean if your goal is cultural immersion? It means you accept your surroundings for the good, the bad, and the weird. It means not projecting expectations or stereotypes onto your observations.

Enter with an open mind and you’ll be good as gold.

Actively participating in the language immersion process.

It’s a romantic notion to think that just living with a host family, watching local shows, listening to music in your target language, and eliminating all traces of English is a guaranteed ticket to fluency. That’s just the beginning, because it takes more than that! Unless you’re an infant or young child, advanced proficiency or even fluency will take more than having foreign words yelled at you.

Language immersion programs strive to provide intensive language classes in addition to the environment needed to reinforce what you learn in the classroom. Without a foundation in grammar, basic conversational skills, and an active effort to learn new words and practice, the impact of an immersive environment is limited. Try watching a movie in a completely new language without subtitles, and by the end you’ll find it’s all just still gibberish. Yet if you put in the extra effort to look up some of the commonly repeated words throughout the film, you’ll start to make some progress.

What does immersion mean if your goal is fluency in a foreign language? It means actively participating in the language learning process, rather than sitting idly by, being surrounded by a language.

posing with an Indonesian man
You won’t be picking up any complex grammar structures through osmosis.

Embracing a new culture, while acknowledging your own.

Heaven forbid that even after dedicating your heart and soul into perfecting your Swiss-German accent and mastering Swiss fashion, someone *gasp* catches on to your expatriate roots! Immersing yourself in a new culture doesn’t necessarily mean you have to hide every trace of your own foreign origin. The goal of immersion isn’t to replace your own customs and perspective—all that extra knowledge should supplement what you already know. After all, upbringing and environmental influences from back home condition your brain to perceive your surroundings a certain way.

By embracing your own culture, you can also teach those around you the side of your home country you want them to see, rather than leaving them to pick out stereotypes and prejudices from the media. Cultural exchange is a two-way street! Unless you’re training to be an undercover spy and need to completely assume a new cultural identity, you don’t have to worry about ignoring your own while learning about another. 

learning to dance Gangnam style
Cultural exchange is about teaching others too, and not being the only one to benefit

Recognizing there are limits.

Unless you plan on never coming back home and living abroad for the next 10 years (most students claim this by the end of their study abroad program, but few succeed), there are limitations to how involved in your host community you can get. Language barriers and time constraints are uncontrollable factors that dictate just how far into the culture you can wade. However, just because you face those challenges, doesn’t mean you can’t find ways to maximize your cultural immersion during short term study abroad programs! Some pre-departure preparation and putting yourself out there past your comfort zone can do wonders.

The dynamic nature of cultures and people means that there’s no cookie-cutter mold for what immersion looks like. The people you meet abroad on an immersion program and the connections you have with your surroundings are unpredictable factors that determine how deeply you can immerse yourself. Living with a host family doesn’t guarantee they’ll include you in their everyday routine, just as having American roommates doesn’t mean you’ll be left out of the locals’ loop. What you do have power over is taking advantage of every opportunity to get involved that comes your way to ensure you’re immersed head-deep!

KEEP READING: How to Integrate into Your Community Abroad