Monday, September 04, 2006

The advantage of full-immersion language instruction

As a language teacher for young children I am often asked questions like, "What is the best method for teaching a foreign language?" "Does it depend on the learner's age?" "Is the best method one that uses the learners native language or one that relies on full-immersion?" Many adults would agree that they learn much more quickly when teachers use only the language being studied. Use of a person's native language can help in some situations but overall the use of only the language being learned gives the most opportunities for exposure and practice.

So does the same hold true for young children? Most certainly! Young children are still learning their first language and are quite used to not understanding everything that is being said. Hearing someone speak in another language is not as surprising as it is for older children who have not been exposed to foreign languages. Teaching a foreign language to young children in a full immersion setting has several benefits. They learn the language as a whole language system. They are, in effect, learning a second language as if it were their first. They do not need to translate from one language to another to be sure they are understanding what is being said. This gives them a huge advantage in becoming fully bilingual later on.

The most difficult age for full immersion is with older children. First of all, older children tend to be less interested in learning a foreign language. Of course that really depends on whether there are any motivational forces that are encouraging the learning of a foreign language. In the older grades children have become much more comfortable with their level of fluency in their first language and become frustrated when they do not understand everything that is being said. The most important part of using a full-immersion program at this age is to make sure it is clear that the children are not expected to understand everything all of the time.

At any age, a well designed, full-immersion program can have enormous benefits. Students in such programs are surrounded by the language, have more opportunities to speak and hear it and learn not to depend as much on their native language for translation.