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Content Type3
TitleLanguage Learning through Immersion

Robert Davis is a Professor of Spanish at the University of Oregon, where he serves as Director of Language Instruction. He has served as the director of the Middlebury at Mills Spanish School, a language immersion program of the Middlebury Language Schools.

Millions of Americans start their acquisition of a second language (L2) in a classroom, but with famously disappointing results. Travel and study abroad are intuitively more attractive to many, but immersion programs, in which students dive into an all-L2 environment, are an increasingly popular option. The best known programs are residential experiences operated by the Middlebury Language Schools ( and the Concordia Language Villages (, but the idea of immersion can be implemented on a local level in informal community conversation groups like Les tables françaises (Dwyer’s Café, Lafayette LA

Why does immersion work so well for language learning? The research points to three main factors:

1. Commitment to using only the target language. “Diving into the deep end” gets at the meaning of immersion and highlights the risk-taking that is essential in acquiring another language. The immersion environment forces the learner to face head on the issue of ego permeability, or the ease and openness with which the learner can create a new L2 identity (as opposed to holding fast to their sense of self as an L1 speaker and member of L1 culture). The immersion environment often gives even the most resistant (or low ego-permeable) learner the license to experiment with the L2, make sounds that seem silly, or utter phrases that induce embarrassment in a classroom-only learning context.

2. Combination of classroom learning and social interaction in co-curricular activities. Traditional language classrooms are famous for stultifying drills and nonsensical examples that only serve to illustrate grammatical points (e.g., “The pencil of my aunt is under the table”, to illustrate prepositions). Immersion programs typically include classroom learning, but connected to social and cultural activities outside the classroom (cooking classes, sports, dance, lectures, films, etc.), in which language use is inherently interesting to learners. Participants form new social relationships, mediated only in the L2, while engaging in activities that they enjoy.

3. Intensive personalization: Immersion programs ideally tailor the curriculum to the interests and needs of learners, making the first two conditions above possible. Teachers can draw on students’ experiences in the co-curricular activities for class content and discussion, and learners come to the classroom with genuine questions about how to use the language to express meaning that is important to them.

However, not everyone can afford the expense in time or money of participating in a residential immersion program. What can classroom teachers take from this proven learning context? First and foremost would be the personalization of learning materials: make your lessons relevant to your students’ experience. Then, build in more authenticity to your activities, so that language use in your classroom more closely resembles real-life uses of language (no one does verb drills in the real world!). Finally, include explicit discussion with your students of the psychology of language learning. They may not be aware of the limitations they place on themselves. Ask them how a role-play exercise made them feel, validate those feelings, and encourage them to take more risks in future activities, to be playful with language, and to have fun with the learning process.

SourceCASLS Topic of the Week
Inputdate2016-05-18 16:10:37
Lastmodifieddate2016-06-13 03:38:09
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Publishdate2016-06-13 02:15:01
Displaydate2016-06-13 00:00:00