A Guide to Learning Spanish Through Immersion
The Ground Rules
No matter where you go, whether it's a Spanish-speaking country or hubs in the local Spanish-speaking community, you're going to run into people who speak varying degrees of English. While this may be a big help in survival or critical-need situations — like if you're running late to a business meeting or need help finding a safe place to sleep — making the most of your Spanish immersion experience means avoiding translations from others as much as possible.
You should also resist the urge to carry a hefty comprehensive Spanish-English dictionary for reference. Limit yourself to a small travel dictionary or phrase book that you can stick in your back pocket, and pull it out only for emergencies. Learning by immersion is like jumping into the deep end of the pool, so this is written with the assumption that you have at least a very basic command of some vocabulary and a few basic verbs.
After all, if you can't swim at all — to continue the analogy — there's not much point in your jumping into the deep end of the pool, is there? But as long as you have at least the basics of paddling under your belt, you'll get some benefit from the practice. And, the more theoretical knowledge you have, the faster you'll improve — leaps and bounds — as you learn to apply it properly.
As counter-intuitive as it may sound, one of the keys to learning a new language by immersion is not obsessing too much about what you understand or don't in the streams of words that pass you by. Obviously, you want to get the gist of what is said as often as possible, but you should enter the experience having already accepted that there will be a lot you won't understand at first. Don't try to make a mental list of every word that goes by and then recall its English correlation.
Instead, just listen for a while without fretting about comprehension at all. Get a feel for the rhythm and flow of conversation around you, and let yourself acknowledge that some words are familiar without fretting about what they mean. Doing this is like the difference between looking at a forest (the conversation as a whole) or individual trees (focusing on each word as it goes by). You'd never get anywhere if you looked at a vast forested landscape one tree — one word — at a time. But, if you take in the entire forest at once, you'll have a chance to at least gather some useful impressions from it.
You might surprise yourself by discovering that even though you're not worrying about translating familiar words from Spanish into English, you still have some idea of what's being said. This is because, if you're lucky, your Spanish studies have forged not just connections between Spanish and English words but also between the Spanish words and the same concepts their English equivalents are rooted in. It may take up to several days for these links to kick in, especially if you had previously been obsessing about first thinking in English, then translating to Spanish.
Even if you find yourself having to translate Spanish words you hear — or want to speak — through your English comprehension first, rest assured that the habit will eventually fade. It just happens sooner rather than later for some.
So you've got a dictionary in your back pocket for emergency reference, and you've spent a few days just taking in the flow of conversation around you. You have a general feel for what's going on, even if you don't catch every word. You're ready for one of the most harrowing and yet rewarding experiences of an immersion education — speaking.
It's simple: You should try it. Just open your mouth and let the words come out. Accept in advance that, yes, you may sound different from others around you; yes, you may pronounce a few words wrong here or there; but your goal at first is not so much to have perfect diction and grammar but to make yourself understood. Once you're capable of doing that, you're ready to fine-tune your communicative abilities.
Again, resist the urge to clarify things in English whenever possible, unless you're able to switch right back into Spanish. Some people, especially in other countries, will seize the chance to practice their English on you instead of allowing you to practice Spanish. Instead, ask for clarification in Spanish. So instead of asking, "Cómo se dice 'horse' en español?" you could instead query, "Cómo se llama aquel animal?"
Before you know it, you´ll be ready to abandon the dictionary entirely. After all, that is the point of Spanish immersion.