“Do you think I could learn English better if I just went to Canada or the United States for a few months?” I’ve been asked this question many times over the years I’ve been teaching English. It’s an interesting question, with “does immersion work better than what I’m doing now?” at its heart.
Most people immediatly think that 100% immersion works better and faster than the usual classroom experiences that they are used to. (And just to clarify, when I say immersion at this point, I’m talking about living in an 100% English speaking country for an extended period of time.) So…does it work?
I almost always share my own experiences with them around Spanish immersion. I’ve been living and working in a 100% Spanish speaking environment for around seven years now. I can happily say that I understand pretty much everything. I can watch movies in Spanish. I enjoy listening to Spanish radio. I can understand most telephone conversations, and easily follow extended conversations at “native speaker speed.”
That’s the listening bit.
My speaking skills are little further behind. I feel completely comfortable talking with everyone in Spanish. I no longer translate - think about what I want to say first in English, and then translate over to Spanish. Nope. I just let loose, and am usually pretty fluent. However, I still get into trouble with my verb tenses. I find it hard to stick to the correct time of my sentences sometimes. If I’m talking about stuff in the past for example, I sometimes screw up the verbs. I sometimes, especially around more complex topics, find myself on thin vocabulary ice. I sometimes need my kind listeners to help me out with missing words, that they almost always can supply given the previous content of our conversation. I am also getting much better at giving extended presentations and speeches on a wide variety of topics…so the fluency and speaking part is getting pretty good.
My worst area is still writing stuff in Spanish. I am really terrible at this. I often find myself writing in Spanish as if I would in English. (Direct translation.) Sometimes I’m successful at taking “snippits” of Spanish that I’ve heard people say, and include them in my writing, but most of the time I just suffer. Spanish spelling and accents…ha. We won’t even talk about that.
So, a very brief report card of 7 years spent in 100% immersion, but with some additional information that is very important to consider:
1. I’ve never taken an officialy Spanish class. No teachers. No tests. No lessons. Nada. Just plain ole suffering.
2. Until recently, I’ve never really tried to focus my attention to careful and deliberate study in order to improve a Spanish skill area.
So what’s the point of writing about this? Well, a couple of posts I’ve read recently have gotten me thinking about the immersion issue. Those posts, though dealing with immersion, also provide some really interesting ideas to consider for “normal” language learning experiences. (Non-immersion.)
The first comes via the post: Immersion Plus on the Bill Kerr blog. (Thanks to Graham Wegner for the blog tip.)
Is Immersion Alone Enough?
I still like the Marshall McLuhan quote, “I don’t know who discovered water but it wasn’t a fish” - that some things seem effortless in certain environments - but have come to think that it doesn’t tell us all we need to know about learning. It is too clever. Immersion is essential for learning, but not enough.
Bill Kerr: immersion plus
Kerr goes on to describe some experiences he has had with English learners who have been immersed in Australia for 20 years, but still had poor English skills. Why is that? And in my case, why, after seven years, do I still sometimes struggle? Here are some of Kerr’s ideas:
1. No effortful study.
2. No deliberate practice.
And this great insight: “Just putting in more hours (immersion) is not the same as effortful study with clear goals to improve ones understanding.” (Kerr,2006)
I totally agree. While we can take in A LOT of new language from just floating around in it everyday, there is great need for focus, deliberateness, and goal setting.
Recently, I’ve started trying to be more deliberate with my Spanish development. I’ve started subscribing to local (Mexico City) blogs, with the purpose of expanding what I read. I’ve also forced myself to start leaving Spanish comments on those same blogs. (And just to confirm that authentic language tasks do indeed work: Leaving comments has been a REAL challange let me tell you. Due to the public nature of a blog comment, I certainly feel added pressure to produce a quality bit of work in the target language! I work real hard at making sure my comment is as well polished as I can possibly make it before I click the publish button!)
So what could this mean for classroom work?
1. It’s really important to encourage students to practice FOCUS, DELIBERATENESS, and GOAL setting with their language development. Maybe it would be useful to help them think about what each of those words would mean for them and their English learning.
Focus: Maybe decide to take 30 minutes or an hour each day to do something in English - outside of work, and on my own. Maybe it would mean making a solid committement to classes. (Say no to other things that would suck you away.)
Deliberateness: Learning how to focus on Quality not Quantity. Perhaps this would mean listening to the same English podcast, repeating it, until 100% of content is understood. Maybe this would mean helping students build an “English routine.” Seed up a bloglines account with personalized English content that the student finds interesting. Then encourage daily reading and learning addiction. Help students find interesting podcasts to listen to, but not just listen to: subscribe to.
Maybe it would also mean, and I cringe here cus I think this could be for me: but maybe encourage verb drills and vocabulary building exercises. Deliberately focus on problem areas: the past tense. The pefect tenses etc. Maybe it would mean encouraging students to pick ten new words to try and own over the next month.
Goal setting: Big topic, and not so easy to wrestle down. Most students come out with “My goal is to be a fluent English speaker.” So first of all, we need to learn what goals are, and what goes into making a doable goal: 1. Behaviour based so I can see the outcome. 2. Due date is set. (I will x by January 12, 2007.) 3. Realistic. (Hint: speaking fluently perhaps functions better as a vision or mission statement….but doesn’t work too well as a goal.) Maybe you could say: I will OWN and DOMINATE the following five vocab words by December. That gives me three weeks to work on them.) Or: I will start English conversations with two Native speakers this week. I’ve likey left a lot out under this point, but setting up learning goals could really be useful.
Kerr has a lot of really interesting things to say, but one thing I really agreed with was around the importance of crafting experiences that help immersion to happen:
So, the learning materials and the learning environment created by the teacher are vitally important! Some situations are more likely to lead to immersion combined with effortful study than others! This turns pedagogy, the art of teaching, into an art form. It is certainly not simple to create rich learning environments.
Bill Kerr: immersion plus
This quote comes from Kerr’s discussion around the role of appropriability (how things lend themselves to learning), evocativeness (how materials evoke personal thought), and integration (how well materials carry multiple meaning and concepts.) Kerr argues that teachers need to learn how to effectively balance all three while at work in the classroom. Hence the reference to teaching as an artform.
Kerr’s post, and then a follow up one from Graham around the same topic, have really given me much to think about. I have a feeling, that this is just a “part one”, with some more ideas to come.
An older, but related post over at the English360 blog, explores the “Teacher as Artist” meme: Strickland Series II: teaching artistry
What do you think? The conversation, as always, is wide open.
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