Learning by OSMOSIS – Learning by IMMERSION – what’s the difference


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Over the years I have always been astounded at how many people (not thousands but there have been quite a few) students who have paid the money to sit in a class and believe somehow that immersion in this way will create some kind of osmotic process within their system so that when they finish over a period of time, suddenly they will speak fluent English. Why? Because it has all been soaked in in the most natural sense.

The outcomes have been far from this. Most usually give up after a few sessions ultimately designating the new language as some kind of irritating background noise that seems to be around them. The usual response is to expel yourself from this situation so you can have some peace of mind.

So where does this ‘osmotic principle’ come from?

I remember my 6th form biology class and how osmosis was described  as the process of which something moved from one place to another by moving through a ‘semi permeable membrane’, well if you consider the surface of your brain to be a ‘semi permeable membrane’, perhaps there is something in it. However your brain isn’t a ‘semi permeable membrane’, and information just doesn’t move this way.

So then what is immersion if it’s not osmosis?

Immersion is far more interactive. Immersion means you have to survive in there, you can’t just hope that the language will soak in, you need to engage with the process of communication using the words the others understand, to get what you need.  There is no membrane, there are only interactions, and results. Immersion is a darn sight more difficult than osmosis. Osmosis is just a biological state of being, immersion is a physical action.

So how do we change an ‘osmosis-driven’ student to an ‘immersion-driven student’?

Simple, for him/her to engage with the class, ask him questions and make sure he is answering. Make sure he knows also that he has to answer or at least try, and then the results will start coming.

Is there anything someone does get from trying to learn through ‘osmosis’?

I have to say that I don’t speak Italian and can’t understand it, but whenever I am around a group who are only speaking that language, I do come to appreciate the lyrical aspect of it. I find it a beautiful language to listen to, and often find some turns of phrase easy to remember and fun to use and practice from time to time.

At other times I have been in the situation where I have been surrounded by a language that I find very abrupt, annoying and almost violet in its execution. That to me turns me off and I usually have to move away from the crowd.

So osmosis does happen in some ways, but I would suggest only in the form of the appreciation of the sound, nothing more.

What do you think?

2 thoughts on “Learning by OSMOSIS – Learning by IMMERSION – what’s the difference

  1. The difference between osmosis and immersion is the difference between soaking up water with a sponge, and dropping a swimmer from a helicopter in the middle of the ocean and watching him try not to drown. Immersion is an active, almost desperate, learn-this-language-or-you-won’t-survive situation. And, yes, it is the best form of learning a language. Before I came to Peru, I spent about three months studying Spanish intensively on my own. I read the textbooks, I memorized lists of vocabulary, I wrote verb tenses on a whiteboard. None of it helped. I couldn’t remember what I was studying, and I often became frustrated when the lists of vocabulary I thought I had memorized slipped from my mind! When I came down to Peru, however, and started *using* the language, within that same time frame (three months) I was able to converse almost fluently, and within five months, I was translating for other people!

    Unfortunately, the kids in my classroom don’t have access to that sort of sink-or-swim immersion experience, so we have to try to get them to use their English in other ways.

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