The promise of language immersion

Last semester, I pointed out to different groups of classes (or their parents) that I was using almost 100% Chinese in class after about ten hours of class time (the exact number of hours was different for different classes and different age groups). These are the kind of results that encourage boosters of immersion or dual-language programs. It looks like evidence that students can be put into an immersion class where the teacher only speaks in the target language and students simply “pick up the language” in a short amount of time. The reality is, a language class that is near to 100% Chinese in the early days uses very different language than a group pf native speakers would.

Immersion as illusion

First, let’s take a look at a poorly done immersion class for kindergarteners, assuming they do not come from families who speak the target language. Italics represent the target language:

Teacher: During circle time today we are going to talk about the parts of a flower. (Pulls out book on flowers). This is a flower, right? Okay, these are petals. (Goes over parts of a flower in target language)… Great, now we are going to make our own flowers with tissue paper. Go get a pair of scissors from the arts and crafts corner and go back to your seats.**

What the students hear: Blah, circle time, blah blah blah blah flower. Blah, book, blah blah blah blah blah blah flower, blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah….. Blah blah arts and crafts corner blah blah blah your seat.

Students do not have a magical way to understand the target language after only a short time of instruction. What outside observers might see is an illusion: students appear to be understanding because they are sitting quietly and looking at the teacher, but they are really not comprehending what is said because it is being spoken too quickly, with too many unfamiliar words and with sentences that are too long.

If a class is going to be conducted using the target language at least 90% of the time, as ACTFL recommends, then teachers need to use language that students can comprehend. After 10 hours or so of class time with a group of young learners, we are not going over the parts of a flower. That vocabulary is way too complicated for them, and it is likely that they do not even have this information in their home language, making comprehension even more difficult.

Appropriate Language for a Beginner Immersion Class

A better approach to conducting a beginner class in nearly 100% target language would go something like this:

Teacher: What is this? This is a flower? Is it a book? No, it is not a book. Is it a tree? No it is not a tree, it is a flower. What color is the flower? The flower is red. Is the flower blue? No, the flower is not blue. The flower is red. It is red.

Students might be able to answer the questions the teacher is asking, or they can follow as she answers herself. This input lends itself to a neat little task for kindergarteners. They can make guesses about the different colors of flowers they might find around the playground, go outside and count, and then make a nice chart showing the results. This task is about more than just language and incorporates counting, which American kindergarteners usually need more practice doing.

Why does immersion work when it works?

Immersion can be an effective approach for language learning because it leads students to attend to meaning when hearing the target language. In a tradition “teach and practice” class, a teacher would introduce target vocabulary and grammar and then have students practice. (Don’t ask me how to do this with kindergarteners, I have no idea). There is no evidence that this “teach and practice” strategy works well to build language acquisition. There is no meaning, or very little meaning, attached to the language in these types of classes. There is, however, a great deal of evidence that language acquisition happens most effectively when students have access to input in the target language that is comprehensible to them. When students are working in the target language in an immersion classes, they are thinking about meaning in the target language. They are not thinking about verb agreement, articles, particles or any of the nuts and bolts of language that teachers tend to focus on in traditional classes. Students in my example above with the task on flowers are colors are busy counting and they only need a small number of vocabulary words (flower, various colors, numbers) in order to do this meaningful task.

Immersion goes wrong when students and parents expect that a student can be immersed in 100% native-like language from day 1 and learn as normally as they would in an L1 class. Immersion education is not magic. The target language used in an immersion environment needs to be comprehensible to the students, or else all they will hear mostly blah, blah, blah, blah.

*I’m conflating immersion classes that happen as part of dual-language programs in k-12 schools and immersion classes that could be part of an FLES program, private classes, Saturday school classes, etc. There are many differences in these types of classes, but their similarities are what I am talking about today.

**I’ve changed the details, but this example is based on a kindergarten immersion class that I observed

What do you think about language immersion education? Share in the comments.

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