We are not teaching math class, we are teaching Spanish.
Sure, we use tables, graphs, charts and formulas to teach grammar and other language elements.
But when it comes down to it, you simply cannot learn Spanish by memorizing black and white equations.
There really is no other successful way to learn a language than to be immersed in it.
If your students are not fully immersed in Spanish—constantly absorbing it, processing it, living it, breathing it and becoming it—then they are going to have trouble achieving fluency, or even basic proficiency.
How Spanish Immersion Works: The Newborn Metaphor
Think about an infant.
When we’re babies, we are exposed to the language our parents and immediate surroundings speak to us. These interactions are not based on selected grammar patterns but emotional, physical, spiritual and intellectual responses. We react to sensory cues and begin communication with sensory output.
Sounds robotic, right? Well, it is much more human than all that. We smile when spoken to with words of adoration. We cry when we are scolded or when we are frightened. We squeal with delight when we recognize things that are pleasant.
We know babies cannot speak until they have reached a certain amount of exposure and maturity, but we also know (or trust) that they can understand what we say to them. We do not give up talking to them because they cannot or will not produce the language.
How to Achieve Total Linguistic Immersion
Babies are bombarded with novel input from the time they are born. They do not just hear a voice in isolation, they see things, smell things, feel things and taste things while hearing voices speaking words. Words are learned by association with all these sensory experiences.
We need to recreate this holistic language learning experience for our students.
Our eyes, our ears, our noses, our mouths and our hands are the most important collectors of data for learning a new language, at any age! Is it easier to associate the word “red” with how it appears visually or to define it in words? How do you explain the smell of a mercado? Or, how do you explain what flamenco or mariachis sound like? Languages are mirrors of life and as such they need to be taught in dynamic and authentic environments.
Until students learn all the senses that these things trigger, they will only learn to translate a word into Spanish from the word in their native language. This is a huge roadblock to learning a second language effectively.
Physical, Emotional, Mental, Spiritual Engagement
Engaging students through their senses will yield the highest return in terms of language learning.
When we connect physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually we tend to experience life at its fullest intensity. This means we are participating and engaging with a topic better than even. In this situation, we learn almost effortlessly.
In other words, there are not many barriers that inhibit understanding when we are totally engaged. If there are any, our motivation and engrossment are so high we persevere to understand. We want to continue experiencing our newly-found expression of life in a different language.
In its essence, language learning is addictive!
4 Steps to Achieve 100% Immersion in Your Spanish Classroom Without Bending over Backwards
The classroom is not the easiest place to transform into a quaint, cobblestone Spanish street.
However, there are four things that will help you come very close to actually achieving this transfiguration.
1. Strong Sensory Input
If it is not clear yet, it will be now! Make sure your lessons are infused with physical, tactile, savory, auditory and visual experiences that stimulate your students.
But what exactly does that mean?
If you are studying verbs of motion, go outside and have a Physical Education session to get students to put language into action.
Or even better, pick a day of the week to go outside and get physical. Have a Yoga session in Spanish. Play Simon Says. Invite a member of your community with dance expertise to teach your students regional dances. Host dance parties with the other language learning classes. Do not underestimate the power of music and dance as an immersion experience!
Bring in objects that are unique to Spanish culture and have them touch them and describe them (in Spanish).
If you are studying clothes, bring in clothing. Have a fashion show.
In the past I have assigned a country to my students and had them come up with an outfit that represents their region. The activity is entirely DIY, accessories may be purchased but I do not allow them to buy whole costumes. Once they have chosen their outfits, they need to prepare Spanish descriptions of what they are wearing. I give them a model of what I want to avoid confusion and misunderstandings.
The description is what the Master of Ceremonies (a designated student) will communicate to the audience about individually designed regional apparel. I have invited other classes, reserved the gym and had someone film it. I would also incorporate commands and use them when we practiced walking down the aisle.
It is important to remember that every classroom situation is different, and that you have to plan things out according to your situation. Be adventurous and learn from every experience that yields feedback—be it positive or negative.
When studying the outdoors, go outside and garden. Simply planting a seed is a great opportunity to engage in 3-step direction listening. Invite Spanish-speaking gardeners from your community to show you how to care for a garden.
When studying food…eat, cook and have a show and tell session. Study new and eccentric recipes and have your students cook at home or cook in class (have possible). Have a cooking show or a cooking class. Invite parents to come and cook with their students! Associate language with food, flavor and culture, and those Spanish words will never be forgotten.
Invest in Spanish films. Have periodic movie days complete with snacks. Movies are great ways to immerse in language and culture with a story. Depending on the level of your students you may choose to leave the subtitles on.
If you are in need of inspiration for appropriate video content, you should click over to FluentU’s Spanish language video collection.
FluentU takes authentic videos videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
We have gathered entertaining clips from all corners of the Spanish-speaking world, covering everything from Nicaraguan boxing to Cuban politics and our favorite translated musical numbers from “the Little Mermaid.” There’s guaranteed to be something that your students will love to watch and learn from in class.
We even have tools for active language practice, like interactive subtitles, flashcards and vocabulary lists. These can be used together to practice as a class, in groups, or they can be part of your students’ at-home assignments.
The point is to make your classroom vibrant, colorful, exciting and inviting. Make it a real-life immersion experience where students collect cultural experiences.
2. Solid Routine
The simplest secret to immersion is to create a solid routine.
Remember the newborn metaphor?
Just as babies and parents need routines to feel comfortable, secure and happy, so do you and your students. Routine and repetition are very important in creating an immersive environment.
Select the experiences you want to focus on and create a cycle of repetition (words, pronunciation, phrases, conversation). The goal is for your students to recognize, predict and master the experience so that they can successfully navigate it. Do not become too strict, though. Flexibility is essential in order for learning to remain dynamic and fun.
3. Relevant, Authentic, Meaningful Social Connections with Spanish-speaking People of the Same Age
Nothing excites children and adolescents more than meeting new friends from a different country that are the same age.
This piece of the immersion puzzle usually aids in accelerating the effective production (writing and speaking) of the language.
There is a purpose for speaking: communicating with others. When students have someone in front of them who they actually want to communicate with, this fuels the development of their Spanish communication skills.
Social Media has made these interactions easy, free and very accessible to all. However, I would recommend searching for a school (in any Spanish-speaking country) that wants to connect with English speakers. If you do not have any connections of your own, start by asking within your immediate surroundings. That is, ask fellow teachers, students, administrators and parents if they know of any schools that would be good for a virtual student exchange.
If that does not yield any results, go online and research schools with a similar profile to yours. Reach out to the teachers and ask if they want to begin an exchange. Another option is for you to go on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram and begin your search there. If you are comfortable giving your students ownership, have them help you research schools.
Above all, you will have to promote your need and desire until you find a good match. Once you find it, you may use any social media channel to open up communication—just make sure you are in accordance with your school policy on social media and you have parental approval.
You could always use the old, tried and true “pen pal” snail mail method. Whatever you end up doing, trust me when I say inquiry-based learning will skyrocket once you connect your students with other kids their age.
4. Faith, Discipline and Persistence
Keeping an immersion environment is not an easy task.
If you are the only teacher in the classroom, it can be frustrating and lonely. However, this is where your fortitude must kick in.
It requires a lot faith (trusting something you cannot see), discipline (not speaking any English) and persistence (the obstacle is the path). If there are more faculty members that teach the same level you do, collaborate and team teach your classes whenever possible!
Remember, it should be as engaging and fun for you as it is for your students. After all, you are the leader. If you are unsure of where to start, begin by setting small goals. Start small. Your first immersion goal can be as simple as 15 minutes of class time.
Reflect on the experience. Write about it. What went well? What could be improved? Keep the same goal for a week.
After a week, check in and see if you are ready to kick it up a notch. Again, I will reiterate the importance of keeping a teacher’s journal where you can document your progress. Share it with a mentor or supervisor. Ultimately, the goal is to maintain a 90-100% immersion environment, where virtually no English is ever spoken in the classroom.
There really is no other way to effectively learn the Spanish language apart from being surrounded by it and having an immediate use for it.
It takes humans two years to begin experimenting with oral production of their native language. Hence, it is important to note that in the beginning you will not achieve linear results. You may find blank stares and unresponsive attitudes when you first start.
Re-read the paragraph on faith, discipline and persistence and, just when you are about to give up, you will notice that your efforts have suddenly paid off exponentially.
Process Beats Results
We live in a world focused on results. However, it really is the process that holds the learning treasure.
With this in mind, be vigilant of the process. Observe every detail and suspend judgment. Avoid giving your students feedback that focuses on results. “Excellent work,” “good job” and “well done” are phrases that do not speak to growth and thus do not teach the value of mistakes as stepping stones.
Record the struggles as they relate to progress. Train them to recognize persistence, discipline and faith as essential components of success.
If you bring all of these elements of immersion into your classroom, and if you never stop trying to surround your students with Spanish, your students will be better equipped to survive in an immersion environment outside of your classroom—i.e., the real world.