The Perfect Immersion Classroom: How to Overcome the “Mountain of Struggles”
Immersion. We all want it.
It’s the pinnacle of language learning.
We teachers would all love to give our students that authentic language experience.
We’d take our class to London, Paris, Madrid or Beijing today if we possibly could, surrounding them with the sounds and culture of their second language so that they could learn it with all the magical ease with which they learned their first.
But how to bring that stimulating experience into the walls of our classroom? How can we immerse our students in the target language when there’s just one teacher who knows it and 10 or 20 (or more!) students who don’t?
There are many very real obstacles to immersion teaching, but don’t let these hold you back.
First, here’s a recap of all the reasons why immersion is worth the effort.
Why do we want immersion in the first place? Here are four of the best reasons:
Immersion leads to true bilingualism.
Students need to learn more than just their numbers and how to introduce themselves. A full immersion experience gets them communicating about diverse and necessary topics, such as classroom rules and what they might be learning in other classes.
In full-time immersion programs such as those offered at Middlebury Language Schools, students start out knowing very little of the language but can learn to have a full conversation in just a few weeks.
Immersion activates different parts of the brain than more traditional teaching methods.
When students are immersed in a language, their brains become accustomed to listening and breaking apart sound to make meaning. That’s the reason that bilingual children score higher on tests of cognitive ability and executive function.
Immersion trains students to become better listeners.
You can’t learn to speak a language without listening to it. The listening skills students develop can help them in almost every other area of life, building qualities like empathy and creativity.
It can lead to near-native levels of fluency.
When immersion is sustained over the long term, students are able to communicate effectively on topics that are important to them.
For all these reasons—and many others—the ACTFL (American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages) recommends that 90% of communication should be in the target language.
But is this feasible, given all the obstacles?
Here are some of the common problems encountered in an immersion program and some suggestions for solving them.
Your Immersion Classroom Problems Solved!
Problem 1: How Can I Make My Input Comprehensible If My Students Are Just Starting Out?
This is perhaps the thing that strikes the most fear into the hearts of language teachers when thinking about immersion.
What’s going to happen when you begin speaking in the target language all the time in the classroom? What if the students don’t understand?
These fears are grounded in reality, since students do often rebel when confronted with incomprehensible input. Their gut reaction is anxiety or, more accurately, terror. And no one can learn when they’re feeling terrified!
So what to do?
The solution: Make sure that your input is comprehensible. All the time.
What does that mean? It means taking whatever steps are necessary to ensure that the students understand absolutely everything you say in the target language.
How can you do that? You may need to meticulously plan ahead everything you’re going to say, and how you’re going to say it. (No one said this would be easy.) You may also need to go completely outside your comfort zone and become creative with gestures, visual cues, facial expressions and any other forms of non-verbal communication that can help you get your point across.
Be sure to speak slowly, enunciate clearly and repeat phrases as often as needed. Remember that slow, deliberate speech and frequent repetition were the things that helped us the most when we learned our first language, all those years ago.
Most importantly, stop very frequently and check for understanding. Each time you say something, ask members of the class to show you that they understood. This understanding “check-in” doesn’t have to be complicated. It can take the form of simple yes/no questions. You can also check for understanding with clickers, exit tickets or the old-fashioned “thumbs up/thumbs down” hand gesture.
If only a few students don’t understand, you may just need to repeat what you said. But for the times when most of the class isn’t quite on board, you might have to completely overhaul what you’re saying.
Problem 2: How Can I Teach Complicated Concepts with Simple Language?
Yes, it’s going to happen. The day will come when you’re having a discussion about history, sports or just life in general, and you’ll feel unequal to the task. How can you have a meaningful lesson or discussion while still keeping your language simple enough for your students to understand?
In this case, again, preparation and planning are key. Practice any potentially complicated topics ahead of time, gradually adjusting to make your language more comprehensible.
Also, think through your entire lesson and make any necessary changes to your classroom setup. In a great immersion lesson, your students enter a magical world where the outside world cannot intrude.
Moving furniture around or searching for necessary items during the lesson will distract your students and take away from their experience. Check and double-check that all required props and materials can be accessed quickly, and that the arrangement of tables, chairs and desks enhances the planned activities. Try sitting in a student seat to get a true sense of what their immersion experience will be like in your classroom.
Also, this is a situation in which technology can really benefit you! Whenever possible, find instructional videos in the target language to help you get your point across. You can even find some material that was created specifically for language learners.
For example, ESL students may find it helpful to read articles in the Simple English Wikipedia. The popular online encyclopedia provides articles written with basic English vocabulary and grammar and short sentences, making them accessible to English learners of all ages.
Most languages also have several authentic podcasts that use learner-friendly language. For example, the popular Taiwanese talk show podcast “Pastimes of Youth” can be downloaded on iTunes or accessed from the web. The show features topics of interest to teens and simple language geared to a young audience, making it a fantastic resource for Chinese learners.
A great resource for French learners is Coffee Break French, a fun podcast featuring French teacher Mark interacting with his student Ana. The engaging characters and the simple explanations in these lessons make this a pain-free way for students to access the French language. There are also similar versions of Coffee Break podcasts for German, Italian, Spanish and Chinese.
Problem 3: How Can I Get My Students to Stay in the Target Language?
It’s just human nature. The students know they can make themselves understood faster and more easily by using their native language, so they’ll lapse into that often. We’re fine-tuned to take the easy way.
In the interest of full immersion, student use of the target language should always be strongly encouraged. But do so gently. In order to take the risk of speaking, students need to feel that they are in a comforting and supportive environment. Set clear expectations and goals for student use of the target language and reward them when they do it well. In fact, reward them if they do it at all.
Here are a few practical tips to help you foster use of the target language in the classroom.
- Start with a “question of the day.” The question should be somewhat challenging, but still attainable for every student. This will help build confidence.
- Have students give a brief report on something of importance to them, like a sports broadcast or some entertainment news about a favorite celebrity.
- Use puppets or stuffed animals to get younger children more interested in speaking.
- Have students describe a picture.
- Try a historical flashback: students choose a historical figure from the target culture and share his/her story, using costumes and props for added fun.
When it comes to target language use, the key is to encourage rather than force, and to make the classroom environment as inviting as possible.
Problem 4: Where Can I Find the Right Training?
What’s the hardest thing about immersion-based teaching? The answer: Most of us have never really learned how to do it.
Those of us who learned a second language in school were usually taught by means of a textbook and verb conjugation charts. And we’re simply most comfortable with what we already know.
Not only that, but if you’re undertaking the task of immersion teaching, you may feel very lonely. It can be isolating and scary to try something new if you don’t have colleagues to help you bounce ideas around.
My best advice to you is to find that veteran teacher in your school or your region who has “walked the walk” of immersion teaching, who has all the battle scars as well as the success stories. Make that person one of your mentors.
Even better, try to find a core group of experienced immersion teachers who can share their best practices with the staff at monthly meetings.
If you work in a small or remote district where such a community is not available, technology can once again step in to save the day.
Members of the ACTFL can access their vibrant Language Teacher Communities, featuring forums on diverse topics for teachers of a wide range of languages. Here, you can post questions and get feedback from veteran language teachers.
If you’re a Twitter user, check out LangChat, an online professional learning network almost 4,000 teachers strong, offering a wealth of articles, ideas and support for language teachers. Even if you don’t use Twitter, you can still see their posts and access the resources they mention.
And whenever possible, attend available workshops and professional development courses on immersion teaching. There are lots! Here are just a few organizations that offer them:
- Concordia Language Villages
- The Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition (CARLA)
- The ACTFL
- Association of Two-Way & Dual Language Education
Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “Whatever you want is behind the mountain of struggles. Nothing great comes with ease.”
It may feel like there’s a “mountain of struggles” between you and your ideal immersive classroom, but it’s well within your ability to get to the top.
And just think of the reward in store when you get to the other side.