Does English (or L1) Have a Place in an Immersion Classroom?

I’ve read a a great deal of promotional material for various immersion programs. A common thread is that they claim to use very little of the L1 in class. In the US, the L1 is generally English. So I am going to refer to that language as L1 for the rest of this post. A parent reading about immersion programs might think that there is a relationship between how little English the teachers use and the quality of the program.*

Invest Time in Frequently Used Words/Structures

I think that it is perfectly fine to use some English in a Chinese class. This is especially true if that class is only meeting for a couple hours a week. Research shows that we should spend time helping students acquire the most commonly used words, structures and expressions. This means that it is probably fine to use “Pizza Hut” in a story in class because the students just aren’t going to use 必胜客 (Pizza Hut) until they are traveling in China, which probably won’t happen for several years.

It is far more important that students acquire structures like “她在Pizza Hut吃饭” (lit: She at Pizza Hut eats) than to memorize the Chinese names of American restaurants. In Chinese, we put the location before the verb. Students who study through legacy methods, however, often do not get enough input of the correct structure, so they continue to using non native-like phrases like *她吃饭在必胜客 (She eats at Pizza Hut) even after 5-6 semesters of college Chinese. With the limited class time that we have available, the minutes are better spent giving students comprehensible input, through storytelling, reading, or even watching a movie. This is a better use of time than making sure every word is spoken in the target language.

Textbooks Don’t Help

Open any Chinese textbook, even one meant for kids, and you will see names, places, and other proper nouns with their Chinese translations. It is a mistake to spend time on learning something like Pizza Hut. There are much more common words and structures that students should acquire first. They’ll pick up 必胜客 (Pizza Hut) pretty quickly when they are in China in any case :).

textbook photo showing problems with legacy teaching methods of Chinese
There is no reason to have beginner students memorize names of different countries in Chinese. They could be learning words and structures they’ll use every day instead.

*A more detailed (and research-based) discussion of immersion, or dual-language as it is often called, is available here. The platform is local to San Antonio, but the issues about language immersion could apply anywhere.

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