Most of us generally agree that we need some type of “immersion” experience in order to really learn a language. Normally we think of going and spending time in the country that speaks the language as the best way to learn. O how I wish I had taken advantage of study abroad options in college! Of course, this type of immersion isn’t always the best option, or even possible. Especially if you’re truly a beginner in a language, going to the country can cause a lot of extra stress! Imagine if you really can’t say more than a few sentences, and as a result you can’t do basic things such as checking into a hotel room or reading a restaurant menu without either pointing, depending on hand motions, or resorting to English. This can happen frequently if you don’t already have a good “core” of vocabulary. My opinion is that the least stressful way to do this is to learn the basics of the language in your own country, and create your own immersion experience. There are many ways of doing this, some which will be different depending on which language you’re learning:
Movies/tv shows: A lot of languages will have a mix of dubbed/target-language subtitled movies. If you already have seen a movie or a tv series and can find a dubbed version, listening comprehension can improve a lot with about six hours a week. This also works in reverse, where foreign movies have the English subtitles.
Newspapers: This can depend on what your level currently is. It seems to be one of the first types of suggested reading for some languages, but personally I found it very challenging in the beginning. Still, it helps you to acquire vocabulary about political and world affairs. If you’re from the US, most major news sources will have reports on US news, which will already provide you a certain level of familiarity.
Wikipedia: If you really want to improve vocabulary, you can do some Googling and look up Wikipedia articles on a particular topic that interests you in the target language.
Podcasts: These are probably the best way to begin if you’re in the very early stages of language learning, because they can be a much shorter length, of various topics and language levels.
Music: Although this is a current experiment of mine, and I’m not sure how successful it’s been yet, this is good to have it as “background” noise, so that you at least can hear how the language sounds. Personally, I’ve listened to a lot of Disney songs, because I know them very well.
In creating your own immersion environment, the key aspects are 1) learning the language and developing better comprehension and 2) having some familiarity with what you’re reading/hearing. Of course once you get to a certain point it can be quite fun (and gives a real sense of achievement) when you can follow a conversation without any prior familiarity on the subject. In the beginning though, using material that you already know can help in learning vocabulary for specific subjects and topics.