In language instruction, immersive environments — those that compel students to communicate in their non-native language — are more effective than the classes most schools offer.
Evidence suggests that language immersion is an effective way to master an unfamiliar tongue. A 2015 article by University of Minnesota professor Tara Williams Fortune claims that students educated in immersive environments reap the benefits associated with bilingualism or multilingualism at greater rates than those who learned languages through typical classroom instruction — and that they hang onto their linguistic knowledge longer. Her findings, based upon studies and surveys dating from 1981 to 2015, show that some of the abilities that immersive programs develop include pattern recognition, creative thinking, and problem-solving.
The Benefits of (and Hindrances to) Language Travel
The most effective method of learning another language, more so even than an immersive school, is language travel — a form of total immersion in which a learner lives full-time in a foreign country.
Language travel provides broad contextual understanding that allows learners to think critically about both the language they are learning and their own native language. While language classes, textbooks, television programs, websites, and apps can provide students with important experience, actively participating in a different culture on a daily basis enables a language learner to understand the ways in which individual words, metaphors, idioms, and concepts work in the real world.
While living in another country is a great way to learn a second (or third, or fourth) language, it can be difficult to pursue, if not downright impossible, for a whole host of reasons. And immersive schools, though they’re growing in number, are still relatively few and far between.
The Partial-Immersion Compromise
A more realistic option for most families is to create a partially-immersive environment for their kids. In this type of setting, just as in a partially-immersive school, students utilize their foreign language for a prescribed portion of time, and their native language for the remainder. Most of the 1,000-plus language immersion schools in the United States fall into this category.
While it’s difficult to maintain a partial-immersion environment outside a dedicated school, here are some strategies your family can use to support the acquisition of a foreign language.
At-Home Learning Strategies
One of the reasons that immersion programs are so successful is that they are not limited to a single lesson, subject, or set of materials. Consider, for instance, typical language instruction. Kids attend one or two 50-minute classes per week. Students may learn how to ask directions in Mexico or how to order a pizza in Italy, but they may not learn how to explain abstract concepts, or how to discuss art, news, and politics.
No textbook can predict the full range of any given conversation; this is where daily conversation about a range of issues — not just asking how to get to the train station — becomes important.
It should be unsurprising that this day-to-day, commonplace communication is also the most challenging element of language instruction for parents to replicate at home.
One option is to enlist the help of an outside expert, like a tutor. But while tutors can suggest that students use new language for a certain percentage of a given day, they cannot enforce any such policy. Kids will do what kids do, and they may choose to text friends, watch television, or speak to others in English. And if parents, friends, and teachers can’t understand the language they’re learning, can you blame kids for not using it?
There are ways, however, that you can encourage your child to practice language skills in a tutoring context. You can insist that all communications that pertain to tutoring lessons – emails, telephone calls, video chats, and texts — are to take place exclusively in the new language. If kids have questions about homework, or want to reschedule a session, they’ll have to trust their language skills in conveying the message.
This method of instruction is called communicative language teaching (CLT), and it emphasizes clear interaction between individuals as the goal learners should strive for. According to CLT, it’s less important to buckle down and memorize the rules of grammar than it is to get your hands dirty and speak the language as frequently as possible, learning as you go.
Parents should feel empowered to tap into community resources. Perhaps a friend of a friend is a native French speaker, or perhaps a colleague spent a few years living in South America. Invite these people into your home, and ask them to chat with your kid in their own native (or fluent) language. Maybe they have children who would be able to converse with your child in this new tongue. Consistency is key in large-scale pursuits like this, so parents should seek out recurring opportunities for their kids to hang out and talk with fluent speakers.
3. Field Trips
While it is difficult to replicate the experience of traveling abroad, briefer jaunts can help students apply new language skills in real-world contexts.
For example, your city or town may be home to a market that focuses on foreign cuisine. Many such shops are owned and operated by people who strive to keep the selection of items as authentic as possible. They also, very often, speak the language(s) of the region from which their inventory originates.
If your child is learning Mandarin Chinese, ask her to select a dish to cook, and then visit a Chinese grocery store together to shop for the necessary ingredients. This type of experience allows students to practice their language skills (in part by acting as a guide for family members who do not speak the language), and also offers insights into the ways that food, language, and culture intersect.
You may have similarly instructive experiences at restaurants specializing in international cuisines.
All language learners can benefit from a more immersive environment, especially ones in which they’re given no choice but to get by with their developing abilities. While lessons and tutoring may not be as immersive as language travel or immersion schools, community resources (and, to a lesser extent, the Internet) can enable a student to learn languages as diverse as Arabic, French, Hebrew, Mandarin Chinese, and Spanish.
Find a nearby K–12 school with an excellent language program by using the Noodle school search to find a great program for your child. You can ask questions to gather more information.