What is Language Immersion?

Language immersion is basically a method developed to teach people a second language, in which the language being taught is used specifically for instruction purposes.

Immersion programs that exist today actually originated in Canada in the 1960's, when middle-class English speaking parents campaigned for their children to be taught French through the experimental technique of language immersion. This enabled tutors to try and teach their students about specific French culture and traditions and to help them appreciate and understand them.

Unlike more traditional language teaching programs, where the language is taught simply as a subject to be learned, language immersion focuses more on the second language being a tool which is used to immerse the student completely within the subject.

In the US in 2005, there were approximately 317 dual language immersion programs in place within elementary schools with a vast choice of languages. There are mainly three different types of language immersion that are primarily dependent on which age group the students fall into. The first stage is Early Immersion, where students begin to learn their second language between the age of 5 or 6. The second stage is Middle immersion, where students begin learning their second language around the age of 9 or 10. And the final stage is Late Immersion, which is typically the most popular, where the students learn between the ages of 11 and 14.

Types of language immersion can also be characterised by the total time students spend in the program. Altogether, there are typically five different types of language immersion that are based on the extent of the immersion. Firstly, there is Total Immersion, which is where students spend 100% of their class time in the foreign language. The goal of Total Immersion is to encourage students to get used to using their second language casually and within spontaneous conversation, rather than planned sentences that are learned off by heart. The second type if Partial Immersion, which is where 50% of class time is spent learning the language. The main focus of Partial Immersion is to teach students about the culture of the country whose language they are studying.

Thirdly, there is two-way immersion, also known as dual immersion, where half of the student population consists of people who know two or more languages. In two-way immersion, class time is split in half, each half focusing on one of the two languages. This method encourages the two sets of children to interact and teach each other so that they all eventually become bilingual. In FLES (Foreign Language in Elementary Schools) programs, 5-15% of class time is spent in the foreign language, and the rest of the time is devoted to learning the language itself. The main goals of FLES programs are to achieve accuracy and proficiency in listening and speaking, and to acquire a thorough knowledge of the cultures of that country.

Finally, there are FLEX (Foreign Language Experience) Programs which consist of short but regular sessions over a certain period of time. Although only 1-5% of class time is spent using the foreign language, the main goal of FLEX programs is to spark an interest within children about foreign languages so that they may continue on in further education to learn that language.

Although research into language immersion programs has shown that children who enter Early Immersion programs at the age of 5 or 6 tend to 'lag behind' for the first few years only, statistics show that encouraging children to learn about cultures other than their own and become bilingual appears to promote a more positive attitude towards multiculturalism.