I had my first encounter with immersive language learning when I lived in Thailand for a month. I was 23 years old, I had just graduated from college, and I was eager to attain fluency because the man I was dating was Thai. So far, I could fluently tell Thais that their country is beautiful, the weather is too hot, the food is delicious, and please, where is the bathroom? The trip to Bangkok was my big chance to meet his family and make a good impression.
But when we touched down, I stepped onto the tarmac in soupy air and breathed the steamy atmosphere of one of Southeast Asia’s great metropolises. It smelled of diesel fumes, dog piss, and rotting fruit. I was grateful for the band of jasmine flowers that my boyfriend’s father tugged onto my wrist, the flowers cool and moist against my skin.
But the assault on my senses was only the beginning. One month in Bangkok proved to be one of the most challenging–and rewarding–months of my life. And the first major lesson came ten minutes after deboarding the plane–when I stepped into a Thai taxi.
For those of you who have raced down Bangkok tollways with a Thai driver at the wheel, you know first-hand the terror and the sudden, deepened understanding of your own mortality. The driver careened past barreling semis by veering into the shoulder. Merging back into traffic that only vaguely suggested lanes, motorcyclists raced alongside us and then weaved in front of us. Our taxi driver slammed the accelerator and weaved around them.
No one was wearing seatbelts, helmets, or even shoes.
Within five minutes, I had attained a level of Zen calm that I have rarely achieved since: I was going to die. It was very likely that I was going to die. But suddenly I was Buddhist, and I was okay with that. I let go to fate or god or just the strangeness of chance, and I accepted that whatever was going to happen would happen.
This choice to let go in the midst of what seemed like incomprehensible chaos became one of the best tools in my language learning arsenal.
For one month, I didn’t interact with a single Westerner. I was surrounded by codes–cultural, social, and linguistic–that I couldn’t understand. Language learning, whether you’re immersed in the target language or not, can feel just as overwhelming as culture shock. And just as anxiety-producing.
The second major lesson was to balance my surrender to chaos with achievable goals. Surrender is helpful, maybe even necessary, when you’re speeding down a lawless highway in a Thai taxi. But the brain is built to make sense of things. I needed to find comprehensible input in an ocean of incomprehensible information.
So I developed a system. Each day I traveled through Bangkok with a dictionary and a highlighter. Every time I heard or saw a new word that stuck with me, I whipped out my handy Thai-to-English dictionary and highlighted the new word. Soon, everyone around me became involved in my vocabulary project–from a two-year-old child to a 90-year-old grandmother. I was surrounded by enthusiastic teachers.
I never have become as fluent in Thai as I had once hoped to be. And the relationship didn’t work out. But I still have dear friends there, and it’s a country where I plan to teach English when I finish my Masters. And the tools I developed have been useful throughout my adult life. I continue to work toward surrendering to the initial chaos and confusion of anything new–as well as setting myself one small patch of knowledge that I can steadily work towards mastering. I encourage you to use these tools not only in learning languages, but when encountering anything unfamiliar. You’ll be surprised by the bridges you can build.