What Does It Mean to Learn a Language Through Immersion?


  • Language immersion is a broad term that encompasses a wide range of naturalistic language learning situations.
  • Immersion in VR refers to the ways in which virtual reality creates realistic, psychologically authentic experiences that deepen the potential for learning.
  • Immerse is a social VR language learning platform that combines the elements of language immersion and immersion in VR to create a learning environment that epitomizes everything that makes immersion so effective.

As a language enthusiast, you may be curious about language immersion, or immersive language learning. After all, it is widely regarded as the best way to learn a language fast, fluently, and well. But what exactly is language immersion? And how does it lead to such great results for language learners?

These are the questions that guided Immerse as we worked to create the most effective language immersion experience anywhere. We continue to partner with researchers from more than 20 universities to advance research into immersive language learning and keep our platform updated according to the latest findings.

So read on to find out more about how language immersion works and how virtual reality has upped the language immersion game.

What is language immersion?

You’ve likely heard the term language immersion before. From learners and educators to blog posts and popular media, it’s a widely used term. Yet while the name gives a pretty good general sense of its meaning, finding an exact description that encompasses language immersion in all its forms is surprisingly difficult.

In many contexts, language immersion is synonymous with immersion education, the teaching of academic subjects to children through a language that is not their first. Immersion education itself is a broad term that encompasses several different types of learning programs, but language immersion extends even beyond immersion education.

The employee relocated to a new country, the college student studying a new language abroad, the spouse accompanying his wife on a visit to her family - all of these individuals may find themselves immersed in a language and its culture.

What all forms of language immersion have in common is that they are situations in which individuals build the skills to understand and express themselves in a new language through direct experience of the language being used naturally.

In most cases (specifically, when the individuals are motivated to learn and the situation provides adequate support or context), language immersion is one of the most effective ways of learning to communicate well and appropriately in a language. In the right circumstances, it can also be one of the most fun.

But what is it that makes language immersion more effective than good old-fashioned lessons in a classroom? The biggest factor is that language immersion more closely mimics the way we naturally learn languages.

When you learned your first language as a child, you didn’t hit the books and pull all-nighters with flashcards and grammar charts. Your language abilities developed gradually through interaction with everyone and everything around you. You heard your first language in contexts that helped you figure out what people were talking about, and when you spoke, it was to communicate your needs and desires. Language helped you become part of the world around you, a member of your own family and of the wider community.

Experts used to believe that only young children could learn a language simply through exposure like this, but more recent research supports the hypothesis that adults learning in the same way can become fluent in any language.

The key to language immersion success is a setting that allows you to connect the language you are learning with sensory experiences and physical actions, as well as to engage in meaningful interactions with other people.

There are different types of language immersion for adults. So long as it provides ample opportunities to experience the language through authentic, contextualized interactions with the people and things around you, any type will let you reap the benefits of true language immersion.

A banner inviting you to click and sign up for a free membership for the Immerse virtual world for language learning and community. It includes a free expert instructor-led class so that you can experience immersive language learning as part of the Immerse program. You can access Immerse with the VR app if you have a Meta Quest 2 headset, or through your web browser on a Mac or PC.

What is immersion in VR?

The other type of immersion that applies to discussions about language learning is immersion in VR.

But what exactly is immersion in VR, and why is it important for learning?

There are many technical definitions, but in simple terms, immersion in VR refers to a person’s sense of feeling physically present in a virtual environment. This sensation is created by the graphics, sounds, and other sensory feedback, such as vibrations of the handheld controllers when a person’s avatar touches an object in the virtual environment.

There are also non-sensory types of immersion, which unfortunately are often neglected in definitions of immersion in VR. For instance, you can experience mental immersion by becoming fully engaged with solving a puzzle in a virtual experience, collaborating on a task with other people, or participating in an interesting event.

Immersion is the key feature of VR that makes it so special, whether for entertainment or learning. When you are immersed in VR, you feel like you are really there even though you are not physically present in that world, and in fact this sensation is often referred to as “presence.”

Immersion is also the key feature of VR that makes it such a successful medium for learning. The sense of reality that accompanies VR allows you to experience concepts and knowledge directly, increasing focus, engagement, comprehension, and storage and retrieval of information.

Effective VR learning experiences make the most of all the factors that contribute to creating a sense of presence.

Various frameworks can be used to evaluate the level of immersion a VR learning experience creates through technology and lesson design.

4 important criteria for effective VR learning

One such framework presents four criteria that make for optimal immersion, two technical (sensory and actional) and two pedagogical (narrative and social):

1. Sensory immersion

Sensory immersion is what you experience through graphics, spatial audio, sound effects, haptics, and other kinds of tactile or sensory feedback. For example, if you are writing or drawing with a pen in Immerse, the controller vibrates slightly as the pen moves along the virtual notepad or whiteboard, creating the sensation that you have physical contact with the canvas.

2. Actional immersion

Actional immersion refers to the extent of your ability to interact with and manipulate the environment, and also to how well your physical movements translate into VR. At Immerse, for instance, you experience actional immersion when you grab vegetables in the kitchen scene, chop them up, and throw them into a pot.

3. Narrative immersion

Narrative immersion has to do with how engaging, authentic, and meaningful tasks are to you. When this is done well, it leads to cognitive and emotional engagement. For example, passively listening to a lecture in a virtual classroom offers little narrative immersion. On the other hand, an Immerse role-play activity like checking in at the counter in the airport scene and then going through security with your luggage connects the learning to a real-life story you are likely to participate in.

4. Social immersion

Social immersion is achieved through genuine social interaction with other learners as well as with your instructor. Communicating with other learners and doing collaborative tasks helps you learn, particularly when it is scaffolded and structured by an instructor. At Immerse, an example of social immersion might be your instructor teaching you how to describe people, followed by you and other learners describing your favorite portraits to one another in the virtual art gallery scene.

Why is VR ideal for language learning?

Language immersion and immersion in VR have been combined with great success to create optimal language learning experiences.

The four important aspects of immersion in VR - sensory, actional, narrative, and social - happen to overlap with types of learning that are known to be effective, such as embodied learning, task-based learning, communicative learning, and social learning.

When a virtual language experience includes social interaction, role play, and meaningful tasks that allow you to use the objects around your avatar in an authentic way, you will experience immersion in VR. When this is done through the medium of the language you’re learning, you will also experience language immersion.

Thus, when you learn a language in an optimally designed virtual setting, you reap the learning advantages of language immersion and immersion in VR. This translates to language learning experiences that are engaging, memorable, and meaningful, and you are likely to learn faster and gain confidence more quickly.

It isn’t just the device, such as a VR headset or a desktop computer, that makes you feel immersed, it’s the design of the virtual experience itself. Crucially, this means that desktop VR can be as immersive as headset VR if done well. And headset VR experiences can be less immersive if done poorly.  

The emotional and cognitive engagement that result from actional, narrative, and social immersion contribute heavily to the success of the learning outcomes in any form of VR. A mentally stimulating task-based social activity in desktop VR can create greater immersion, and greater learning, than passively watching a lecture in VR headset.

Ultimately, immersion in VR is less about the type of technology and more about the quality of the overall experience.

How does Immerse epitomize immersion?

Right from the start, Immerse was developed around the specific principles of language immersion and immersion in VR that scholarly research identified as advantageous for language learning.

The entire platform, from the Commons, where you can spontaneously meet up and practice with fellow learners to the classes, where you learn live with expert Guides, has been meticulously designed to provide language immersion that is sensory, actional, narrative, and social.

To show how Immerse integrates the four aspects of immersion, here’s an example of a class you might take in the headset or desktop app called “It’s a Pretty Picture!”

The class meets in the Immerse art studio scene, a visually rich virtual space with an art gallery and a studio with painting supplies. (sensory immersion) Your Guide will invite you and your fellow learners to try on various costume hats, teaching you the vocabulary to express your opinions of them. (actional and narrative immersion).

To practice specific adjectives that will be helpful in describing paintings, you and your classmates will then sort vocabulary tiles into columns on the wall under headings like “your best friend” and “the art studio.” (actional and social immersion) Afterwards, you’ll learn a few helpful sentence structures that you can use with the adjectives in order to make descriptions, and you and a partner will practice using them. (social immersion)

Once you feel comfortable with your new language skills, you and your classmates will move into the gallery and talk about the pictures that you see there. (sensory, narrative, actional and social immersion)

Thus, Immerse blends technical and pedagogical design features into a highly immersive and effective language immersion experience so that by the end of a 30 minute class, you’ll have the skills to use your new language to talk about things you see around you out in the real world.

The future of language learning

Immerse was designed around research into second language acquisition and immersive learning in VR, so even though it’s fun, everything you experience in Immerse is actually designed to maximize learning. We’re confident that this is the future of language learning and that once you experience one of our classes, you’ll see why.

So, are you ready to give language immersion a try?