What Makes Immersion Meaningful (And Why Passive Immersion Isn’t a Thing)

You're probably familiar with the concept of passive immersion. If you're not, Refold defines it as immersion where you are not 100% focused on the content. Your attention is split between multiple activities (such as cooking, cleaning, commuting, exercizing, etc.).

In reality, the distinction between passive and active immersion is a bit of a false dichotomy. Even when you're actively immersing, you're not always operating with 100% focus. And when you're passively listening to something, there are times when you're more focused than others.

Something I uncovered during this period is that high performing undergraduates, as a general rule, seem to internalize the following formula:

Work Accomplished = Time Spent x Intensity

This formula helps explain why some students can spend all night in the library and still struggle, while others never seem to crack a book but continually bust the curve. The time you spend “studying” is meaningless outside of the context of intensity. A small number of highly intense hours, for example, can potentially produce more results than a night of low-intensity highlighting.

(This is how I avoided all-nighters, for example, during my three year stretch of 4.0’s as an undergraduate.)

— Cal Newport, Work Accomplished = Time Spent x Intensity

I first read about this concept from Cal Newport a few years ago, and it's been stuck in my head ever since. While he was originally referring to studying in general, I believe the concept also fully applies to language learning.

One detail that I want to nitpick at is the use of the word "intensity" in that formula. Personally, I prefer to frame it as Time Spent x Focus, because I think focus is the element that determines intensity in most situations.

In my mind, thinking about your immersion time in terms of time and focus is much more meaningful than active and passive. Time Spent x Focus provides a full spectrum of efficiency rather than a purely black-and-white perspective. This is important because it gives us a (slightly more) accurate way to measure the usefulness of immersion.

For example, there is some evidence that performing menial tasks (such as walking or cleaning) while listening to something can actually increase your focus. In this situation, walking while listening to your target language (TL) (which Refold counts as passive listening), could be more effective than siting on a couch doing nothing other than focusing on listening to your target language (active listening). That's not to say all passive immersion is more effective than active immersion. Rather, the distinction between passive and active isn't useful, and focus is the only element that really matters.

Using this new model of thinking about immersion, we can start to identify some activities that are deceptively not-useful:

Listening to TL audio in the background while doing a mentally intensive task, or watching TL video while your mind wanders are both activities that are fine to do without the expectation of significant improvement. These activities could be a good downtime activity during rest from actual language study, but if they're your only form of immersion, you're gonna be spending a lot of time.

Personally, I consume an hour or so of low-focus raw listening per day. However, that's just because I find it to be an enjoyable activity. I'm not convinced my language ability would be significantly different if I didn't do it.

When examining your own study habits, you may find it useful to reflect on which activities you're employing the most focus on, and what activities might not be that useful. During your immersion you might also try to stay mindful of your focus, and try to notice when your mind has wandered.

Even if you're only employing 1% focus, it's still greater than 0. However, low-focus immersion is only good in comparison to no immersion. By immersing with high levels of focus, you'll drastically reduce the number of hours required for language proficieny.

Keep grinding away at those immersion hours, we're all gonna make it.