7 Immersion Activities to Help Your Language Students Soar
Wish you could whisk your class away to a country where the target language is spoken?
Have you daydreamed about planning a fully immersive trip for your students?
Want to make your classes potentially even more immersive and motivational than actually flying into the country and living among native speakers?
Through the seven immersion activities I’ll share with you below, your students can be instantly transported into the country where the target language is spoken, without purchasing plane tickets.
Or, you know, bending the laws of time or space.
But before we get into them, let’s briefly look into immersion as a teaching technique and see how it actually works.
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How Does Immersion Work?
You don’t need to take your class out of the country and into some foreign land to experience linguistic immersion. As I’m sure you already know, immersion can be had inside the four walls of your classroom.
This teaching method is often likened to doling out tough love, throwing learners into the water as a means of teaching them to swim. However, while there’s some truth to that, your students don’t need to actually risk their survival in order to be immersed.
In immersion, the target language is used in some engaging activity or in a communicative way. Immersion works because it fundamentally changes how your students think about the target language. The language ceases to be a separate entity, something that needs to be memorized or mastered, whose vocabulary needs to be learned rote.
Suddenly, the language is not simply some school subject that their mom enrolled them in. With immersion, the language becomes the very instrument with which students are gradually able to think, express themselves and accomplish tasks.
In a way, immersion puts the focus on the language itself. Just as a fish swimming in the ocean doesn’t focus on how wet it is and instead busies itself with engaging in its everyday “fishy” activities on the ocean floor, students immersed linguistically forget, for example, that they’re learning Russian. They just learn how to order coffee as if they’re in a Starbucks in St. Petersburg.
With immersion, students get to actively practice the target language. They’re not just learning about the language, its different usage rules and such. They’re actively engaged in its actual use, even if awkwardly at first.
Instead of learning the traffic rules, your students are actually driving. And this real-world, rubber-meets-the-road, close-quarter experience with the language effectively mimics how native speakers learn their mother tongues.
And guess what, you don’t have to send your students to get passports in order to have that experience. You can simulate those things in your classroom so that the target language isn’t just an amalgamation of five unconnected sentence examples at the end of each chapter in some textbook.
Instead, it can become so real and so useful that it becomes the medium with which they ask a question, meet somebody new, make a purchase or watch a movie. It can guide their senses and inform how they look at things.
That being said, here are some activities that can provide the needed context to make the language vividly come to life.
7 Awesome Language Immersion Activities That Teleport Your Class to Another Place
1) Native Speaker Visit
If a Spanish class were to go on an in-country immersion in Spain, they’d be flooded by the sights and sounds of native speakers going about their business. Good times! But that would make a huge dent in everybody’s budget. So why not bring a native speaker to class instead?
Pick somebody who’s outgoing, a natural extrovert who loves interacting with people and doesn’t take himself too seriously. Ask him to prepare a short talk. And he can really talk about anything—so long as he does it in Spanish. He can tell his personal story, talk about his job or share some interesting quirk about his culture.
You may be a native speaker yourself, but count yourself out. Bring some new face to stand in front of the class. (There’s just something more effective about a fresh face.)
Here are some tips for making the process run smoothly:
- Assign one student the task of briefly introducing the guest before a 15-minute presentation. The rest of class time will be spent engaging and interacting with the native speaker, with little regard for grammatical perfection. Let the class do a Spanish Q&A with him, for example.
- Assign some students the task of asking some questions after the presentation, but don’t dictate what the questions are going to be. These have to come from the students themselves. Listen carefully, because they’ll clue you in to what your students are most interested in.
- Brief your guest beforehand, explaining there will probably be times when he and a student will have miscommunications and have to try to decipher what the other is saying. Let him know that you’ll let these moments play out and allow the student to figure things out, intervening only when absolutely necessary.
- Assign one student the task of expressing thanks to the native speaker on behalf of the class at the end. And be sure to invite him to visit again if he should ever find the time.
Do this often enough in the course, and your students will have more time interacting with native speakers than learners who fly all the way to the target country without engaging in serious discussion with anybody there.
2) Audio Immersion via Transcription
Being in the target country means the moment language learners switch on the TV or the radio, they get to listen to native speakers talk. So over time, their ears become attuned to the rhythm and rhymes of the language. For a class immersion, you need to actively feed your students something to listen to.
You can let them listen to songs, podcasts and radio shows, and let them consume the very same content that native speakers themselves listen to.
But then there’s always the danger of passive listening, where the sounds go into one ear and escape through the other, without any meaningful processing in between.
And so you should give this transcription activity as homework.
Choose an audio clip that’s about one minute in length. It can be anything. It can be a news clip, a short narration of a scene, a brief dialogue, an excerpt of a speech—anything! (But don’t tell them what it’s all about. They’ll have to figure this one out for themselves.)
The students will have to listen to the clip and transcribe what they hear. This creates an active listening experience for your wards. They have to carefully listen to what’s being said. They have to make out the exact words and also figure out if the sentence they end up with actually makes sense.
The transcription exercise compels students to wrestle with the language. It’s not just passive and unconscious reception. They’ll have to exercise auditory and mental agility.
3) Video Immersion with FluentU
FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language lessons.
You can utilize FluentU for immersion in many ways:
- You can easily use FluentU videos as material for the audio transcription exercise shown above.
- With a Teacher account, you can assign some videos as homework, so that when students come into class, they come in with a little pre-teaching for a lesson.
- You can use the videos as a teaching partner and lift examples of actual usage so your students can hear how native speakers actually use their language.
- FluentU videos can scaffold your lessons and ensure that students get a full multimedia experience in class.
- You can also let your students interact with built-in quizzes, or create your own quizzes, basing your questions on what the videos present.
In summary, FluentU is an awesome teaching tool that makes your classes truly immersive.
4) Food Safari
One of the first things a language learner or traveler often does when immersing themselves in a foreign country is to go on a tasting tour of the cuisines that the local culture has to offer.
In this activity, each student is assigned a dish native to a culture that uses the language. For example, if it’s a Japanese class, then sushi and ramen could definitely be on the list. Let the students draw slips of paper to see who will be preparing what dish.
When a student, for example, is given sushi, the most basic thing she can do is obviously to bring some of it in and share it with the class. In this way, the class can have a literal taste of what the culture is all about.
But that’s really just a literal and figurative appetizer. The student who cooked the dish will then be asked to make the dish come to life. She’ll be given full range and absolute freedom to present the dish in class. She can do a cooking demonstration and talk about its history, or the different recipes developed over the years. If there’s a play or movie based on the dish, she can share that as well. Anything remotely related to her dish, she can do.
It goes without saying that this class presentation will be done in Japanese.
The important thing is that beyond immersion through tasting, this activity coaxes students to wrestle and struggle with the language itself. Food becomes the backdrop for all this learning, because while prepping for their presentations, while researching the history of the dish, while crafting their props or while composing the stuff they’re going to say in class, they’re already picking up not only food and cultural insights but language lessons as well.
And those are the type of language lessons that are very hard to forget because they’re tied to a rich, memorable context. (It’s like how you never forget the mechanics of the water cycle because you were once assigned a report on it.)
If the native speaker activity developed students’ curiosity and their ability to ask questions, this one will hoist them to the other side of the communication process—that of making statements of fact, sharing information and delivering a message.
And like in the first activity, some presentations will be replete with grammatical errors, like those linguistic errors committed by learners immersing themselves in the country. Hold yourself back from making corrections and let the student do her thing. I’m sure you’ll find time to right the ship some other day. (An uninterrupted presentation will give the student confidence and the self-assurance that she’s making progress in the language.)
Imagine, if you have just 10 students, the class can have a taste of 10 different authentic dishes! It’ll really help make the culture come alive for them. It beats living in the country and seeking to eat American food all the time.
5) Historical Flashback
In the target country, language learners swim in the culture and the history of the people who speak the language. They can walk around historical buildings or visit ruins of historical significance.
In this activity, we make that history even more palpable. Instead of passively listening to a guided tour, we let students do their own research and find out as much as they can about a little part of a country’s history, learning the language along the way.
Students get to pick a historical figure whose story they’d like to share in class. The advantage of tapping famous historical figures is that they’re already quite familiar to the students and their lives have plenty of interesting stories, incidents and facts that the students can use for the activity.
In a German course, for example, you might get the likes of Luther, Marx, Bach or Merkel. Having several students pick the same person is fine, but for any culture there should be lots of varied possibilities to choose from, and they can include people who are well-known or of historical interest for any reason—for example, depending on the language and maturity level of your students, an infamous figure like Hitler shouldn’t necessarily be considered off-limits.
This activity has two elements to it: a written and an oral one.
The students are to present their chosen figures in fifteen interesting, coherent and grammatically sound sentences. They’ll write these sentences and their translations on a sheet of paper which they’ll submit to you. (For advanced classes, encourage the students to go for more complex sentences.)
They’ll then present the fifteen sentences in front of the class. The use of costumes, props and visual aids is highly desirable and will definitely get some bonus points. During their short presentation of 5 to 7 minutes, they won’t just be limited to their fifteen statements. They can expound and add a few more details if they so wish.
The written element of the activity will allow you to have a visual gauge on the kind and level of communication the students are capable of. It will be helpful in fine-tuning their understanding, especially of usage and syntax.
The oral element compels them to actually have a go at the language themselves, as if talking to native speakers. A mere fifteen statements may give them more practice than those going to the target country but not taking enough chances to communicate with the native speakers around them.
6) Ritual Investigation
This is a homework assignment designed not only to familiarize students with the distinctive traditions of the culture in question, but also to build students’ individual vocabularies.
Students get to pick a ritual, a tradition or a feast day celebrated by native speakers. In a Chinese class, for example, somebody might choose to read up and investigate Chinese New Year celebrations.
The goal of the thing is not just to find out as much as they can about the tradition, why it’s celebrated, how it all started or how it evolved over the years. It’s also to find 7-10 vocabulary words associated with the whole ritual or celebration.
This could be a set of vocabulary words that are used in this celebration that are also used on a daily basis by native speakers. For the Chinese New Year, these words might include “luck,” “new,” “year” and even the names of certain animals. The students will write these down on paper and create a two-sentence English definition for each of the words. They’ll submit this as homework.
Because of the context provided by the ritual or cultural celebration, your students will find the words easier to remember. So they’ll not only have gained interesting insights into the culture, but a new set of vocabulary in the process.
After this assignment, you can then help process the whole activity by explaining how cultures might be different on the surface, but as a whole experience a shared humanity. Take the opportunity to teach students about the importance of respecting cultures different from their own. Because you’re not simply a language teacher, you’re a cultural guide.
7) Site Visits
For this last one, you’re actually going to step out of the classroom, but not to go to another country. It’ll only be to go to a different part of your town or city.
You can arrange for your class to visit “Chinatown,” “Little India” or expat organizations, ethnic museums, embassies, even the homes of native speakers.
Site visits are important in that they already contain the visual, auditory and kinesthetic prompts that your students might experience if they actually go to the target country. Think of the whole environment as a visual aid and prop for a class lesson, with everything already in place. All you need to do is to point everything out to your students, and all they have to do is to take it all in.
For example, Chinatown would in many ways sound, look and smell as if you are indeed on the other side of the world. As a cultural area, it’s arguably just as “real” and “authentic” as China itself.
Your students’ only assignment in this case is to interact with the environment: To ask questions about where stuff comes from, touch the goods on sale, taste the samples, etc. No handwritten work, no oral presentation in class. Tell them that it’s a slice of the culture they’re learning and the best thing they can do is to luxuriate in it and take it all in.
So there you have it! Seven activities that make any language come alive.
They’re much cheaper and sometimes even more engaging than being in the country where the native speakers live.
Paired with your creativity and pizzazz as an educator, your classes will truly be an immersive experience.
Download: This blog post is available as a convenient and portable PDF that you can take anywhere. Click here to get a copy. (Download)