Language immersion - why it isn't suitable for every child

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As a Mandarin teacher working on my own, I get asked by parents all the time to ‘use more Mandarin’ or even ‘Mandarin only’ to teach their children. The ‘child-sponge’ analogy has obviously rooted in most people’s minds. Meanwhile, the increasing trend of language immersion schools/programs effectively deepens people’s belief that the more, the better.

When I first started my own teaching (rather innovative, I thought it was back then), I kept trying on this tempting idea that young children will naturally ‘pick up’ Mandarin by ‘just using it’. I spent a long time on preparing beautifully designed templates, interesting books, songs and videos for my classes. However, the outcome? Terrible, absolutely terrible.

Not until I had done proper research and, to be honest, a quite painful reflection, did I accept my downfall and realise the fact that language immersion just isn’t suitable for every child. In fact, language immersion sets very high standards for a student to really excel in it. Click here to find out why Emma Waverman pulled her children from a French immersion school.

What is immersion?

Immersion refers to a method of teaching and learning that involves total transition into a target language. The fundamental reason for using immersion is the belief that you learn a language by using it.

Language immersion takes various forms. At an immersion school, subjects are taught in the target language instead of the local language. For example, students at Camberwell Primary School learn their subjects such as maths in French for half of each day.

In a pure language class, immersion usually means giving instructions and managing the classroom in the target language. For example, when I was teaching at a weekend Mandarin school, I was asked to name every item in the classroom in Mandarin when I needed to, whether the students had learned before or not.

Immersion if done right, can be an effective way for a child to completely experience the target language first-hand and make the best of the sensitiveness and flexibility of his/her young ears, mouth and brain.

However, the problem is immersion doesn’t always work.

When does immersion work and when not?

As the title of this article will suggest, language immersion will not work for every child. I personally believe that the following four factors collaborate to impact the outcome of immersion.

1. Foundation

There is a simple fact of immersion that struggles to attract people’s attention. The authentic use of a target language involved in immersion that students need to deal with is actually the goal of the whole learning process. To make it more vivid, you can imagine teaching a five-year-old child to play piano by starting from Beethoven and his world-famous pieces instead of the simple Do Re Mi tune.

One of the golden rules of education is that the optimal learning outcome happens when the challenge is slightly above the learner’s current ability. Based on that notion, foundation plays a crucial role in the success of language immersion. With an existing foundation, children are able to fast-track their learning because they are able to pick up clues and add their discoveries upon their previous knowledge. On the contrary, the students lacking proper foundation will feel nothing more than lost in an immersion language classroom.

However, this is not to deter those without any foundation to give it a go because of the existence of the other three factors.

2. Age and Developmental Stage

Age is arguably the most interesting factor of the four. From my own experience of being a nanny of two boys (6-yrs, Boy O and 2-yrs, Boy A) for nearly three years, you just need to conduct careful and ongoing assessment of children’s development for the immersion to work.

Three years ago, I tried a few times to immerse Boy O in Mandarin. He was 3 years’ old back then and highly articulate in English. It didn’t work at all. Then we made a deal to keep Mandarin within his weekly session with his friends. Even though I sneaked Mandarin words into our daily conversations now and then, his happiness and motivation bounced back. Now aged 6, he seems more relaxed when dealing with a little Mandarin immersion whether within his class or at home.

Boy A has been immersed in two languages since infancy and now totally grasps the idea of using different languages in front of different people.

As you may see, it is probably ideal to immerse a child into language from birth. If it isn’t realistic, age and the developmental stage is something we need to consider before introducing immersion.

3. Personality and Skill set

Learning doesn’t happen like magic but will prosper under consistency and persistence. When it comes to language learning and immersion, students need more patience, motivation and even emotional regulation in order to succeed.

In an immersion classroom, students are not given as much explicit facilitation as they would in a non-immersion one, so sometimes it feels like playing a live puzzle game. For example, while students could be directly told Dà Xiàng means elephant, immersion students need to gather enough clues such as size, colour, diet and so on to find out the meaning by themselves. In this process, they may face a range of challenges in locating the clues and decoding them.

Just like some children love puzzles while the others don’t, participating in language immersion strikes children in different ways. Whether they see it as extremely boring and challenging or engaging and fun depends largely on the child’s individual personality and skills.

4. The Design of the Curriculum

Considering the above factors, schools and language teachers are required to give extreme diligence in designing and conducting an immersion curriculum. Both expectations and learning outcomes need to be carefully assessed regularly. How to handle the selection and release of students can be challenging within certain cultural and religious communities.

Risk of Rapid Immersion

Immersion takes itself in the form of the ‘sink or swim’ approach. This approach is exactly what it sounds like, such that we can analyse it through the example of when one learns to swim. This is an arguably controversial method, with a hint of tough love – please note, these following words are not to be taken literally nor is it a method we suggest or encourage: So, want your child to learn how to swim, quickly? Throw them into the pool and let them try to keep afloat themselves. There can be only one of two outcomes, they either sink, (which means they have failed), or they successfully learn to swim!

Sometimes this will work; congratulations, your child is gifted! However, most other times, this method will backfire tremendously. Following on with the throw-them-in-the-pool approach, what if your child was unable to swim immediately? What if they had almost drowned? In most cases, it will be in the nature of your child to almost immediately hate swimming, they’ll become scared of the pool hereon after.

So back to language immersion, this will be exactly the same. When I was doing my painful reflection on my failure in immersion in my early days of teaching, I came to realise many times that students in an immersion environment are not ‘just’ using the language but are rather forced into pretending to use it.

Forcing your child into an environment unfamiliar to them creates a lot of panic and distress, to the point where your very opinionative child will not want to attend classes and even begin to detest learning the language altogether. This sort of bad memory will keep to them for a very long time; it will always serve as a constant reminder in the back of their minds in anything related to it. Overtime, this may even affect their view on education overall, they may become demotivated to learn. Just as children can be taught to enjoy and appreciate learning, one tiny unpleasant encounter can undo all the efforts in an instant.

What should children be really immersed in?

Using immersion as a means to teach child a language has its limits. As already discussed above, it can be advantageous if it works, but can be quite detrimental if it does not.

Instead of immersing children in a language that they may not even be familiar with, why don’t we think outside the box? A human by nature, is a social animal, which means community and culture has a huge fundamental impact on every one of us. That is, in my opinion, what language-learning children should be immersed in.

Seeing and feeling the language and its culture helps children build a bond to it and increase their motivation. Meeting the same group of friends and studying a language together introduces the children into a world that is different from their own but can be engaging and vibrant.

Now I’d like to use the child-sponge analogy for something really positive. When a child is placed into an immersion of culture and community of the target language, they will quickly absorb the inspirations and fun that they get from there. Through this, they know that they can take their own time to learn in their own way.