Stages of Immersion: Language Learning

05.09.20 01:02 PM

Many parents these days are quite worried about having their child take classes in a foreign language. They have a belief that there's an underlying burden in a full immersion environment. However, research shows that there are plenty of benefits and an overall success rate in learning a language through an immersion program. Schools have been teaching in this style since 1965 in Canada, and surely back when in something thousand BC where much migration took place. Today, let's look at some of the things we can generally expect to go through a language learners mind.

We listen intently to the foreign language first.

We begin much like babies. We sit back and listen in silence, watching various facial contortions and actions take place in front of our curious eyes. Depending on how receptive we are to experiencing new things on an individual level, this period can last a few weeks or a few months. This doesn't seem to change much when we look at classes done in-person or virtually. Willingness to engage is either already present or emerges here. 

It's important to note that the learner is not completely silent during this period. There is actually quite a bit of repeating that goes on. As the language learner continues with class they are bound to find that the teacher is using either characters they are familiar with, songs that they recognize the melody of, or objects that they genuinely have an interest in. This prompts them to repeat whatever it is that the teacher has just said in connection with the character, song or object in immediate view.

Personally, I've seen students go from just staring to "I like tomatoes!" in their very first immersion class. They fully understand that whatever they are saying, it's positive about the tomatoes that they like. I've also had students get to their 6th month of classes and suddenly burst out with "If you don't want a tomato, just say 'no'" in the target language. At that point, they could still be mimicking a phrase they've heard in class, but this time they fully understand its implications.

We now know when to answer and how.

After all of that mimicking and hearing the same certain words over and over and over again in different forms, language learners realize they should either be saying 'yes' or 'no'. They also realize they should be sharing their own feelings about what they do and don't like, where they do and don't want to go.

My favorite in-person experience is with a child that suddenly gathered that he could not just repeat 'do you want one or two?' inquiries at lunch-time. One day his eyes got wide and he took a deep breath and said 'you want two'. 

To which I replied, "I only want one, but I see that you want two." He was so pleased with himself that he almost skipped back to his table. After that, he ended up using numbers for just about everything we did. Throughout classes he'd say 'I want four papers!', 'I want 27 pencils' 'do you like eating 100 burgers?' and so on.

Just like that, he was able to connect what was expected of him by using the basic numerical vocabulary that we went over occasionally and the themes of the stories we'd read, songs we'd sing and discussions we'd have off-hand. The brain is able to take this repetitive information and store it in different files of experiences. It learns that 100 is not just about the pencils from the May 27, 2016 class. 100 can also apply to the June 2, 2016 hamburger class, even though we didn't see or eat 100 burgers for real.

We realize we cannot speak the foreign language the way we want to.

The next stage may bring a bit of frustration to language students. They know how to answer questions in a simple manner. They can follow a story and laugh when there is something universally accepted as funny, but they still feel like they are lacking something. They want to tell their teacher all about the weekend, or the scary event that occurred while visiting a relative’s house far away.

This period usually takes fully form about a year or so into learning in an immersion environment. Students can adjust their grammatical mistakes on their own and have conversation with both their teacher and their peers. It's also an important time for the student to be patient with themselves, or for their parents to be patient once again in the case of children.

Some of us get to this point faster than others, and some skip it entirely, depending on how much energy we put into engaging with our out of classroom duties or interjecting our thoughts during class time. Key Babel teachers handle this in two ways: we offer plenty of homework and resources that build upon class material, and we encourage more talking time from students during classes and events. This period passes just like the others. We just need to be patient and allow the brain to do what it does best - learn.

We feel so comfortable in the foreign language we make things up.

This can sometimes be a stage that causes many parents to really worry. It's the point at which a student feels so comfortable in the foreign language that they end up either cracking many jokes, or rearranging the grammar structures to emphasize their own points. We don't see this as a bad thing at all. If you think about it, when we feel that we've gotten the hang of our mother tongue we immediately find joy in joking. We also practice rearranging sentences to see how they'd sound or how someone else will react to it.

Why fear something that can develop into an art form? In fact, our teachers implement song and poetry into classes in addition to dance and print art. The comfort in a language is the most important part of the learning here. We don't go through all of this to merely pass an exam with full marks. We also don't do it to become an interpreter to the king. Well, even if we were, we'd surely be disciplined enough to respect that there is a time and place for everything, and the king's court is no place for a joke while interpreting.

So take a deep breath, and just dive on in. Whether the classes are for you or your child. The language will come to you if you're using all of your senses during class. It'll also come if you decide to spend time with the additional materials related to class. Being immersed in a language is not like being immersed in water... there's no danger of drowning.

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