Language immersion, or simply immersion, is a method of teaching a second language in which the learners’ second language (L2) is the medium of classroom instruction. Through this method, learners study school subjects, such as math, science, and social studies, in their L2. The main purpose of this method is to foster bilingualism, in other words, to develop learners’ communicative competence or language proficiency in their L2 in addition to their first or native language (L1). Additional goals are the cognitive advantages to bilingualism.
The first modern language immersion programs appeared in Canada in the 1960s. Middle-income Anglophone (English-speaking) parents there convinced educators to establish an experimental French immersion program enabling their children ‘to appreciate the traditions and culture of French-speaking Canadians as well as English-speaking Canadians’.
- Early immersion: Students begin the second language from age 5 or 6.
- Middle immersion: Students begin the second language from age 9 or 10.
- Late immersion: Students begin the second language between ages 11 and 14.
- Adult immersion: Students 17 or older.
- In total immersion, almost 100% of class time is spent in the foreign language. Subject matter taught in foreign language and language learning per se is incorporated as necessary throughout the curriculum. The goals are to become functionally proficient in the foreign language, to master subject content taught in the foreign languages, and to acquire an understanding of and appreciation for other cultures. This type of program is usually sequential, cumulative, continuous, proficiency-oriented, and part of an integrated grade school sequence. Even in total immersion, the language of the curriculum may revert to the first language of the learners after several years.
- In partial immersion, about half of the class time is spent learning subject matter in the foreign language. The goals are to become functionally proficient in the second language (though to a lesser extent than through total immersion), to master subject content taught in the foreign languages, and to acquire an understanding of and appreciation for other cultures.
- In content-based foreign languages in elementary schools (FLES), about 15–50% of class time is spent in the foreign language and time is spent learning it as well as learning subject matter in the foreign language. The goals of the program are to acquire proficiency in listening, speaking, reading, and writing the foreign language, to use subject content as a vehicle for acquiring foreign language skills, and to acquire an understanding of and appreciation for other cultures.
- In FLES programs, 5–15% of class time is spent in the foreign language and time is spent learning language itself. It takes a minimum of 75 minutes per week, at least every other day. The goals of the program are to acquire proficiency in listening and speaking (degree of proficiency varies with the program), to acquire an understanding of and appreciation for other cultures, and to acquire some proficiency in reading and writing (emphasis varies with the program).
- In FLEX (Foreign Language Experience) programs, frequent and regular sessions over a short period or short and/or infrequent sessions over an extended period are provided in the second language. Class is almost always in the first language. Only one to five percent of class time is spent sampling each of one or more languages and/or learning about language. The goals of the program are to develop an interest in foreign languages for future language study, to learn basic words and phrases in one or more foreign languages, to develop careful listening skills, to develop cultural awareness, and to develop linguistic awareness. This type of program is usually noncontinuous.
- In submersion one or two students are learning the L2, which is the L1 for the rest of the class. By analogy, the former are “thrown into the ocean to learn how to swim”.
- In two-way immersion, also called “dual-” or “bilingual immersion“, the student population consists of speakers of two or more languages. Ideally speaking, half of the class is made up of native speakers of the major language in the area (e.g., English in the U.S.) and the other half is of the target language (e.g., Spanish). Class time is split in half and taught in the major and target languages. This way students encourage and teach each other, and eventually all become bilingual. The goals are similar to those of partial immersion. Different ratios of the target language to the native language may occur.
- In language travel, a person temporarily relocates to a place where the target language is the predominant language. For example, Canadian anglophones go to Quebec (seeExplore, and Katimavik) or Irish anglophones go to the Gaeltacht. Often this involves a homestay with a family who speak only the target language.
- “Improvement in linguistic and meta linguistic abilities”
- An increase of cognitive ability “such as divergent thinking, concept formation, verbal abilities,” listening skills “and general reasoning”
- Improves one’s “understanding of his/her native language.”
- “Opens the door to other cultures and helps a child understand and appreciate people from other countries.”
- “Increases job opportunities in many careers where knowing another language is a real asset.”
- Superior SAT scores and standardized testing
- Enhances memory
Learning a foreign language has its assets, and studies suggest that immersion is an effective way to learn foreign languages. Many immersion programs start in the elementary schools, with classroom time being dedicated to the foreign language anywhere between 50% and 90% of the day. Learning a second or third language not only helps an individual’s personal mental skills, but also aids their future job skills. Jean Piaget, a developmental psychologist, had a theory that stated that when a child faces an idea that does not fit their understanding, it “becomes a catalyst for new thinking”. As a new language is completely foreign to a child at first, it fits perfectly as this “catalyst for new thinking”.
Baker found that more than 1,000 studies have been completed on immersion programs and immersion language learners in Canada. These studies have given us a wealth of information. Across these studies, a number of important observations can be made.
- Early immersion students “lag behind” their monolingual peers in literacy (reading, spelling, and punctuation) “for the first few years only”. However, after the first few years, the immersion students catch up with their peers.
- Immersion programs have no negative effects on spoken skills in the first language.
- Early immersion students acquire almost-native-like proficiency in passive skill (listening and reading) comprehension of the second language by the age of 11, but they don’t reach the same level in reading and writing because they have enough level to communicate with their teachers. Also, if they communicate only with their teachers, they don’t learn the skills to hold day-to-day conversations.:275,309
- Early immersion students are more successful in listening and reading proficiency than partial and late immersion students.
- Immersion programs have no negative effects on the cognitive development of the students.
- Monolingual peers perform better in sciences and math at an early age, however immersion students eventually catch up with, and in some cases, outperform their monolingual peers.
- Studies have also shown that students in dual programs have “more positive attitudes towards bilingualism and multiculturalism”.
Cases by country
In the United States, and since the 1980s, dual immersion programs have grown for a number of reasons: competition in a global economy, a growing population of second language learners, and the successes of previous programs. Language immersion classes can now be found throughout the US, in urban and suburban areas, in dual-immersion and single language immersion, and in an array of languages. As of May 2005, there were 317 dual immersion programs in US elementary schools, providing instruction in 10 languages, and 96% of programs were in Spanish.