Total Immersion: Learn Another Language

Total Immersion: Learn Another Language

Total Immersion

The Most Effective Way To Learn Another Language


Learning a foreign language on a gap year can be the perfect goal to accomplish on your trip abroad. Mary Beth whets our language appetite by telling us about the benefits of mastering another language. She describes this from her position as the travel language consultant at Habla Ya Spanish School in Panama. This article originally appeared in NomadHead Issue 11.

Did you learn a foreign language in school, but feel quite embarrassed to use it with native speakers? Do you dream of working internationally, possibly in a country that doesn’t speak your native language? Do you love experiencing culture with the locals?

If you answered YES to any of those questions, then a language immersion program should be on your gap year to-do list!

What exactly is a language immersion program? It is taking language classes in a country where the foreign language is primarily spoken and living with a local family.

© Habla Ya Spanish School


There is absolutely no better way to learn a language than in a country where it is spoken natively. Not only will you learn common phrases and slang terms (not taught in school!), but you will also be surrounded by the language and therefore forced to use it to communicate. As anyone who has learned a foreign language knows, the trick is practice, practice, practice.


The biggest benefit to living with a local family is that they know you are trying to practice the new language, so they will take time to talk to you. Most cultures are shy to correct foreigners, but if you feel comfortable with them correcting you (to help you improve), be sure to give them explicit permission or else they probably won’t otherwise. The other huge benefit is getting to connect with the locals on a deeper level and with better cultural understanding.

Learn Spanish © Art of Backpacking

Many language schools provide activities and excursions so that their students and teachers can take learning outside of the classroom. You are on a gap year after all, not enrolled at university!


Being able to interact with native speakers in different settings is hugely important to help you develop broad vocabulary and use what you have learned in everyday situations.

Nowadays many immersion schools combine language learning with other active endeavors such as surf lessons, scuba diving courses or even yoga. If you’ve always wanted to surf, get a PADI certification or you really don’t want to put a pause to your yoga practice, you will certainly find a school out there that will fit your needs.

Depending on your current level in the foreign language, you may decide to study for just one month or up to a whole year! The time necessary also differs by language. For example, if you have no Spanish knowledge, it will take about 20 weeks for you to become completely fluent at the native level (taking 20 hours of class per week). But even a couple of weeks can make a huge difference. Many students who’ve had Spanish lessons in high school and university for up to 3 years, end up learning more in only 3 weeks by becoming immersed in the local community.


Language immersion programs are a fantastic way to learn a new language, experience culture first-hand, and have new encounters that you probably wouldn’t have if you were simply touring the country. It’s an experience that you undoubtedly will not forget! Adding a skill such as being able to speak another language is a great way to make the most out of a gap year.

Mary Beth is a Language Travel Consultant at Habla Ya Spanish Schools, and has lived in Panama since 2010 when she joined the Peace Corps and started to perfect her Spanish and work with indigenous communities. Currently she is considered an expert in Panama's growing Spanish learning industry.

Follow Habla Ya on Facebook.

Find out more on their website.

This story originally appeared in Issue 11 of NomadHead gap year magazine. Get it now for free! Just click here to download the free app and subscribe.

  • The Roaming Renegades

    I think this is definitely the best way to learn a new language, it brings it to life instead of just being words and letters, you can learn how people actually speak it too, dialects and accents, it’s more conversational and real. You also get a richer travel experience by interacting more with the locals and their way of life.

    • NomadHead

      Plus the locals are super appreciative of you attempting to learn their language too! Thanks for your comment :-)

  • Jowita

    Language schools are great. While I choose volunteering in a foreign country to study language and experience new things I see many advantages of the language school. Mainly because you focus only on a language, and you meet people who want the same. You can exchange opinions, help each other and have fun 😉

    • NomadHead

      I think going to a language school is a more intensive way to learn, particularly for those people with a short travel period. Agree that the preferred way is to slow travel and immerse yourself naturally. Thanks for the comment!

  • travelgeekery

    Yeah there’s no better way to learn a language than immersing yourself in a country and hanging out with locals. As it’s often not easy to just join locals, staying with a local family is the best start :)

    • NomadHead

      Good tip!

  • Kristen Sarra

    Great article. I’ve been looking into many immersion schools in South and Central America as I am starting off my ‘gap year’ (if you can call it that at the age of 27!) in Chile and spending several months in South America and would love to become fluent in Spanish.

    • NomadHead

      Never too old for a gap year! I highly recommend basing yourself somewhere for a couple of weeks at least. Then you will properly get to understand the local customs and language. Get in touch if you’d like a recommendation for a homestay :)

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