Language immersion, or simply immersion, is a technique used in bilingual language education in which two languages are used for instruction in a variety of topics, including math, science, or social studies.The languages used for instruction are referred to as the L1 and the L2 for each student, with L1 being the native language of the student and L2 being the second language to be acquired through immersion programs and techniques. There are different contexts for language immersion, such as age of students, class time spent in the L2, subjects taught, and the level of participation by the native L1 speakers.
Although programs differ by country and context, most language immersion programs have the overall goal of promoting bilingualism between the two different sets of language speakers. In many cases, biculturalism is also a goal for speakers of the majority language (i.e. the language spoken by the majority of the surrounding population) and the minority language (i.e. the language that is not the majority language). Research has shown that these forms of bilingual education provide students with overall greater language comprehension and production of the L2 in a native-like manner; in addition to, greater exposure to other cultures and the preservation of languages, particularly heritage languages.
Bilingual education in the U.S. and around the world has taken on a variety of different approaches outside of the traditional sink-or-swim model of full submersion in an L2 without assistance in the L1. According to the Center for Applied Linguistics, in 1971, there were only three immersion programs within the United States. As of 2011, there were 448 language immersion schools in the U.S. with the three main immersion languages of instruction being Spanish (45%), French (22%), and Mandarin (13%).
Bilingual education started from 3000 BC, it began with traditional language instruction in which target language was taught as a subject in schools. The first language immersion program in which target language was taught as an instructional language started in Quebec, Canada, in 1965. Since the majority language in Quebec is French, English speaking parents wanted to ensure that their children could achieve a high level of French as well as English in Quebec. Since then, French immersion has spread across the country. It led to the situation of French immersion becoming the most common form of language immersion in Canada so far. According to the survey by CAL (the Center for Applied Linguistics) in 2011, there are over 528 immersion schools in the US. Besides, language immersion programs have spread to Australia, China, Saudi Arabia, Japan and Hong Kong that altogether they offer more than 20 languages. The survey by CAL in 2011 has shown that Spanish is the most common immersion language in language immersion programs. There are over 239 Spanish language immersion programs in the US due to large number of immigrants from Spanish speaking countries. The other two common immersion language programs in the US are French and Mandarin which have 114 and 71 language immersion programs respectively.
Types of learners
Types of language immersion can be characterized by the total time students spend in the program and also can be characterized by the student's age.
Types that are characterized by learning time:
- Total immersion: In total immersion, the language of instruction is the students' L2, meaning that students spent 100% of the school day in their L2. The main problem with this type of language immersion is that students feel that it is hard to understand more abstract and complex concepts if they are taught only via their L2.
- Partial immersion: In partial immersion programs, the class time is shared between the students' L1 and L2. In most cases this is an even split of time between the two languages. This type of language immersion is more acceptable for students.
- Two-way immersion: This type, which is also called bilingual immersion, is a way to integrate both students of the minority language and students of the majority language into the same classroom with the goal of academic excellence and bilingual proficiency for both student groups. In this type of language immersion, the instructional languages can be two languages but only one language is used at a time. Students learn languages by the interaction with their peers and teachers. This method of language immersion is popular language in America.
Types that are characterized by age:
- Early Immersion: Students start learning their second language at five years old or six years old.
- Middle immersion: Students start learning their second language around nine years old or ten years old.
- Late immersion: Students start learning their second language after the age of 11.
Type of Instruction
- In foreign language experience or exploratory (FLEX) programs, students are exposed to a different language(s) and culture(s) in the classroom. A small percentage of class time is spent sampling one or more languages and/or learning about language; therefore, proficiency in the target language is not the primary goal. The goals of the program are to develop careful listening skills, cultural and linguistic awareness, and interest in foreign languages for future language study, as well as to learn basic words and phrases in one or more foreign languages.
- In foreign language in the elementary schools (FLES) programs, students focus on listening, reading, writing and speaking in the target language. In contrast to FLEX programs, proficiency in the target language is the primary goal, whereas a secondary goal is to expose students to the foreign language’s culture.
- In submersion programs, bilingual students generally receive all of their instruction in their L2. These programs are often referred to sink-or-swim programs because there is little support for the students' L1.
- In two-way immersion programs, also called dual- or bilingual immersion, the student population consists of speakers of two or more languages. Two-way immersion programs in the United States promote L1 speakers of a language other than English to maintain that language as well learning English as a second language (ESL). In addition, these programs allow L1 speakers of English to be immersed in a “foreign language acquisition environment.”
- In early-exit programs, bilingual students transition from a bilingual program to a mainstream classroom at an early age (around 7 or 8 years old). These programs are supported by the belief that bilingual children will benefit the most from transitioning into a mainstream classroom at the earliest age possible.
- In late-exit programs, bilingual students transition from a bilingual program to a mainstream classroom at a later age (around 10 or 11 years old). These programs are supported by the belief that bilingual children will do better academically from being supported in both languages.
People can also relocate temporarily to receive language immersion. This type of immersion occurs when a person moves to a place within their native country or abroad where their native language is not the majority language of that community. For example, Canadian anglophones go to Quebec (see Explore and Katimavik) while Irish anglophones go to the Gaeltacht. Many times this involves a homestay with a family who speaks only the target language. Children whose parents immigrate to a new country also find themselves in an immersion environment with respect to their new language. Another method is to create a temporary environment where the target language predominates, as in linguistic summer camps like the "English villages" in South Korea and parts of Europe.
Study abroad can also provide a strong immersion environment to increase language skills. However, there are a variety of factors that can affect immersion during study abroad, including the amount of foreign language contact during the program. In order to positively impact competence in the target language, Celeste Kinginger notes that research about language learning during study abroad suggests "a need for language learners' broader engagement in local communicative practices, for mindfulness of their situation as peripheral participants, and for more nuanced awareness of language itself.”
The stages of language acquisition by the way of language immersion
- Pre-production: It is also called “the silent period”. They are new L2 learners, this period will last 10 hours to 6 months in language immersion environment. They may have about 500 receptive word in their mind but can’t speak yet. This is a mimicking period. Students likely to repeat everything that they heard in class. They can respond to pictures and ‘yes or no’ questions by using their gestures like nod or shake head. The class needs to integrate pictures and physical response methods 
- Early Production: In early production stage, students can master about 1000 receptive and active words. This stage will last 6 month after pre-production stage. They can answer simple questions, like ‘Yes or no’ question, ‘are you hungry, Yes’ . They also can repeat and know how to use two word phrase like, put down. They maybe can not use the pattern correctly, but they can discover the problem. This is a self-discovery period.
- Speech Emergence: In this stage, students will have about 3000 active words. It will last 1 years after early production stage. They can answer simple questions and use three or more words simple phrase and patterns. They can understand the general idea of a story with pictures. They may not can use the patterns correctly, but they can correct some by themselves. This is also called a self-correcting period. Teachers will focus on conversations part in class in this stage.
- Intermediate Fluency: In this stage, students will have nearly 6000 active vocabulary. This stage will last 1 years after speech emergence. English language learners at the intermediate fluency stage have a vocabulary of 6000 active words. They start to use complex sentences in their speaking and writing. They also know how to respond others’ questions. It is not hard for them to use the target language to learn math and science subject. They are beginning to use more complex sentences when speaking and writing and are willing to express opinions and share their thoughts. They will ask questions to clarify what they are learning in class. More culture and literature stuffs will be taught in this stage.
- Advanced Fluency (Continued Language Development): It is also called continued language development. It requires students know most all content area vocabulary. This stage will last from 4–10 years. It is an achievement of cognitive academic language proficiency in the target language. Students second language ability arrived at near native level.
Studies have shown that students who study a foreign language in school, especially those who start in elementary school, tend to receive higher standardized test scores than students who have not studied a foreign language in school. Students who study foreign languages also tend to have increased mental capabilities such as creativity and higher-order thinking skills (see Cognitive advantages of bilingualism), and have advantages in the workplace as employers are increasingly seeking workers with knowledge of different languages and cultures. Bilingual immersion programs are intended to foster proficiency or fluency in multiple languages and therefore maximize these benefits. Even cases in which fluency in the desired language is not fully attained, bilingual immersion programs provide a strong foundation for fluency later in life and help students gain appreciation of languages and cultures that are not their own.
There are no long-term adverse effects of bilingual education on the learning of the majority language, regardless of whether the students' first language (L1) is a majority or a minority language or the organization of the educational program. Several observed outcomes of bilingual education are: the transfer of academic and conceptual knowledge across both languages, greater success in programs that emphasize biliteracy as well as bilingualism, and better developed second language (L2) literary skills for minority students than if they received a monolingual education in the majority language.
Language immersion programs with the goal of fostering bilingualism, of which Canada's French-English bilingual immersion program is one of the first, initially report that students receive standardized test scores that are slightly below average. This was true in Canada's program, but by the fifth grade there was no difference between their scores and the scores of students instructed only in English. The English spelling abilities matched with those of the English-only students not long after. Ultimately, students did not lose any proficiency in English and were able to develop native-like proficiency in French reading and comprehension; but, they did not quite reach native-like proficiency in spoken and written French. However, this immersion program is seen as providing a strong foundation for oral French fluency later in life, and other similar programs that might not fully reach their projected goals can also be seen in the same light.
Programs with the goal of preserving heritage languages, such as Hawaii's language immersion program, have also reported initial outcomes of below average test scores on standardized tests. However, it is possible that these low test scores were not caused by purely language-related factors. For example, there was initially a lack of curriculum material written in the Hawaiian language and many of the teachers were inexperienced or unaccustomed to teaching in Hawaiian. Despite initial drawbacks, the Hawaiian program was overall successful in preserving Hawaiian as a heritage language, with students in the program being able to speak the Hawaiian language fluently while learning reading, writing, and math skills taught in that language.
Partial immersion programs do not have an initial lag in achievement like Canada's and Hawaii's programs do, but partial immersion programs are not as effective as complete immersion programs and students generally do not achieve native-like proficiency in their L2.
- The design of exposure time for each language
The first issue is about the allocation of time given to each language. Educators thought that more exposure to the students’ L2 will lead to greater L2 proficiency, however it is hard for a student to learn abstract and complex knowledge only by L2. Different types of language immersion schools allocated different time to each language. There is still no evidence can prove that which way is the best.
- The challenge of curriculum, instruction, and instructors
In the United States, state and local government only provide curriculum for teaching students in only one language. There is no standard curriculum for language immersion schools.
Besides, states do not provide assistance in how to promote biliteracy. The research on bilingual teaching is insufficient. The report of the Council of the Great City Schools in 2013 has shown that half of city schools have a shortage of professional bilingual teaching instructor.
- Bilingual proficiency
There are challenges to developing high proficiency in two languages or balance in bilingual skills, especially for early immersion students. Children completed the development of their first language by 7 years old. L1 and L2 impact on each other during their language development. High levels of bilingual proficiency are hard to achieve. The one which were exposure more time will be better than the other one. For second language immersion schools, too young to immerse in a second language will lead to the students fail to proficient in their first language.
Cases by Country
As of 2009, about 300,000 Canadian students (or roughly 6% of national school population) were enrolled in immersion programs. In early immersion, L1 English speakers are immersed in French education for 2 to 3 years prior to formal English education. This early exposure prepares Canadian L1 English speakers for the 4th grade, the year in which they are instructed in English 50% of the time and French the other 50%.
In the United States, and since the 1980s, dual immersion programs have grown for a number of reasons: competition in a global economy, a growing population of second language learners, and the successes of previous programs. Language immersion classes can now be found throughout the US, in urban and suburban areas, in dual-immersion and single language immersion, and in an array of languages. As of May 2005, there were 317 dual immersion programs in US elementary schools, providing instruction in 10 languages, and 96% of programs were in Spanish.
The 1970s marks the beginning of bilingual education programs in Hawaii. The Hawaiian Language Program was geared to promote cultural integrity by emphasizing native language proficiency through heritage language bilingual immersion instruction. By the year 1995, there were 756 students enrolled in the Hawaiian Language Immersion Program from grades K-8. This program was taught strictly in Hawaiian until grades five and six where English is introduced as the language of instruction for one hour a day. The Hawaiian Language immersion Program is still in effect today for grades K-12. With an emphasis on language revival, Hawaiian is the main medium of instruction until grade five when English is introduced, but does not usurp Hawaiian as the main medium of instruction.
A study by Hamel (1995) highlights a school in Michoacan, Mexico that focuses on two bilingual elementary schools where teachers built a curriculum that taught all subjects, including literature and mathematics, in the children’s L1: P’urhepecha. Years after the curriculum was implemented in 1995, researchers conducted a study comparing L1 P’urhepecha students with L1 Spanish students. Results found that students who had acquired L1 P’urhepecha literacy performed better in both languages—P’urhepecha and Spanish—than students who were L1 Spanish literate.
New Zealand shows another instance of heritage bilingual immersion programs. Established in 1982, full Maori language immersion education has strictly forbidden the use of English in classroom instruction, even though English is typically the L1 of students entering the program. This has created challenges for educators because of the lack of tools and underdeveloped bilingual teaching strategy for the Maori language.
Malawi and Zambia
A study by Williams (1996) looked at the effects bilingual education had on two different communities in Malawi and Zambia. In Malawi, Chichewa is the main language of instruction and English is taught as a separate course. In Zambia, English is the main language of instruction and the local language Nyanja is taught as a separate course. Williams’ study took children from six schools in each country who were all in grade 5. Then, he administered two tests: an English reading test, and a mother-tongue reading test. One result showed that there was no significant difference in English reading ability between the Zambian and Malawian school children. However, there were significant differences in the proficiency of mother tongue reading ability. The results of the study showed that Malawian grade 5 students performed better in their mother-tongue, Chichewa, than Zambian children did in their mother tongue, Nyanja.
- Bilingual education
- English village
- French immersion
- Gaelscoileanna, Irish language immersion
- Kura Kaupapa Māori, Maori language immersion
- Native Language Immersion Student Achievement Act
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