Immersion-based language learning

Many of us has experienced learning a language at school. For most, the experience is rather painful and few end up speaking or understanding the language. These courses are structured similar to other courses in such subjects as mathematics or chemistry. They attempt to present a regular, organized view of structure of the language (“grammar”) and a massive list of words (“vocabulary”) which you would memorize and hopefully use to parse texts and express yourself.

However, this approach generally does not work well, because human languages are neither regular nor intentionally organized, and memorizing so many words for a prolonged period is incredibly difficult. For every rule they come up with, there are always exceptions, which can only be captured with more rules, and so on. Furthermore, it is difficult to actually apply these rules while listening or speaking, because the explicit rule-understanding parts of your brain are not able to process them so quickly. In some ways, this predicament is only natural: natives don’t use grammar rules to construct their sentences when speaking; rather, it is the grammarians that undertake the herculean task of formulating these rules, so they are bound to be complicated.

How then, might we actually be able to learn a language in a less painful way?

Emerging evidence suggests that learning a language is most effectively done by gradually building understanding of a language through input, or immersion in the language, and then learning to speak. This is how you and everyone else learned their first language. One may observe, however, that babies require many years of listening (and later reading) to gain proficiency in their native language. Would we, as adults, require the same amount of time? If so, how would we have any hope of learning another language at all while still living a normal life in a country that does not speak the language? Fortunately, as adults, we have at our disposal a variety of mental faculties and external tools to speed up this process.


Now, realistically, most of us are not going to find a native speaker to speak to us all day. Fortunately, with the advances in modern technology such as the internet, it is possible to find pre-recorded content in many different languages. The bulk of your language learning journey would consists of listening and reading.

The general rule of deciding what content to use is that it should be mostly comprehensible and interesting. It must be only mostly comprehensible, since you acquire the language by understanding new messages that you couldn’t understand before, which cannot happen if you are able to understand the content perfectly. It needs to be interesting, because not being able to understand something is inherently frustrating, and one would quickly give up if the partially comprehensible were to have no redeeming qualities. Moreover, the brain is simply more able to absorb and remember interesting information.


Where do tools like VocabSieve come in? Tools help you improve the efficacy of your efforts in immersion. VocabSieve is intended to help you in your immersion in two ways:

  • Increasing comprehensibility by helping you look up the meaning of words during immersion.
  • Increasing your learning speed by committing new knowledge into a spaced repetition system (SRS), such as Anki.

Spaced repetition is a highly efficient learning technique that helps you memorize material with minimum effort by testing you at increasing intervals. As an adult with limited time, spaced repetition allows you to acquire words and phrases more easily than you could otherwise, while only immersing a few hours each day (rather than the whole day as a child).

Note: Although Anki is not technically required for VocabSieve to work, it is best used with Anki. Anki setup guide

Free software

VocabSieve is free and open source software. This means you are able to view its source code and use it for whatever purpose you like, including modifying and redistributing it, so long as you also distribute the modified source code under the GPLv3 license. More importantly for most users, however, it means that you own your data. Your data is never sent to any remote server I operate, and you don’t need to be afraid that the company behind the software will one day fold, taking all of your learning tools with you, or simply making the product worse to extract more money out of you. There is no subscription you need to pay because there is essentially no running cost I have to pay to keep the servers on.

Further reading


Wikipedia: Input hypothesis

Immersion learning guides

This manual is not primary about the methods of immersion-based language learning. Refer to the following guides if you are not familiar with immersion-based language learning

Tatsumoto guide

Refold roadmap