Language Immersion: Essential For Language Learning
Immersion language learning is on the rise, particularly in Minnesota. There are 107 immersion schools in the state, ranking the 9th state with the most language immersion schools in the United States. The French Académie is one of a kind among those immersion schools: it is the only French school in Minnesota accredited by the French Ministry of Education, following French standards, and licensed by the state of Minnesota. With this, we are able to impart not only the French language from native speakers, but also the French culture. It is as close as you can get to attending a French school in Minnesota!
What Is Language Immersion?
Language immersion is a method of instruction in which the regular curriculum is taught through the medium of a foreign language. The foreign language is the vehicle for content instruction; it is not the object of instruction. Taught at an early enough age, this method accomplishes two tasks with one effort as students are instructed on a curriculum while they absorb a foreign language. Studies have shown that immersion students' outcomes on standardized achievement tests are generally more favorable than those of general education, ESL or transitional bilingual education programs.
What is the Traditional Language Learning Approach?
In contrast, the traditional language learning model used by many American public and private schools has students go through Elementary School in English before picking up an elective language in Middle School (possibly even Elementary) and hopefully continuing that language on through High School. Like most traditional classroom settings, a teacher leads instruction, often including a text.
Can we achieve bilingualism using the traditional language learning method?
Students might develop an understanding of verb tenses, basic vocabulary, and introductory conversational skills in a traditional language classroom, but a trip overseas will soon reveal the holes in this method of language instruction. It is simply not enough. To acquire a language fully, to master its variations in expression, the experience must be immersive, direct, and continuous.
Language and culture go together.
At The French Académie, not only is French spoken by native speakers, but French culture is integrated into the entire school day. Culture is an essential ingredient in the language learning process, not to be separated from the language. Our students are able to live the language while they learn, and achieve a higher degree of understanding and fluency. Traditional classroom language learning is not enough to achieve this high-degree of language and cultural proficiency.
Native speakers are as important as immersion.
Aside from an immersive interactive environment, native speakers are crucial for a deep understanding of language and culture. The intonations of various phrases, idioms, slang, and social contexts are learned from native speakers. They are more deeply felt by native speakers, and therefore more deeply conveyed by native speakers.
Naturally, native pronunciation is also better. In a child’s early years, they are beginning to produce sounds, and are more easily able to replicate sounds in their environment. In order to achieve correct pronunciation, they’ll need to not only hear correct pronunciation, but see it directly communicated to them. These early years are referred to by scientists as the “critical period” for language learning. According to a 2018 study performed at MIT, it is nearly impossible for people to achieve proficiency similar to that of a native speaker unless they start learning a language by the age of 10. Language learning is certainly possible before 10, but native like-fluency less-so.
Written vs. Spoken French
Additionally, there is a difference between written French that is often taught in American classrooms (the traditional language learning approach) and spoken French. This might result in overly formal spoken sentence structures and vocabulary. As summarized by French Today, a popular French language learning app, “The way French is taught in schools usually focuses on written formal French, and teaches you to speak like you write… we want you to understand real French people, and be understood by them. In order to do so, you need to learn the modern French language, like it’s spoken nowadays in France… the modern French pronunciation of things.”
The importance of serve and return in spoken language acquisition
There is often a conversational script taught in traditional language classrooms. While this is a good starting point, it is also important for the language learner to hear and participate in many different conversational interactions for themselves in order to flexibly and comfortably engage in dynamic conversation.This is a great example of how important serve and return interactions are in language acquisition. Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child has been sharing research on the importance of serve and return interactions in the shaping of young children’s brain architecture and language development. This serve and return communication is as important in the development of second languages as it is in the development of first languages.
One way to learn French faster? Immersion, at a very young age.
The language learning journey is a long one. In Bilingual Families: A Practical Language Planning Guide, author Eowyn Crisfield emphasizes how important it is to have a long-term language plan to maintain and improve your target language. It certainly is! One way to make the entire process easier is through immersion in early childhood. In this critical period of language acquisition, kids are absorbing the languages of their environment. Dr. Carmen Muñoz, a language researcher who ran a longitudinal study called the Barcelona Age Factor Project from 1995 to 2006 points out that this sponge-like acquisition of language in young children only occurs with meaningful and deep exposure. “You need a high frequency of input, of good quality,” says Dr. Muñoz in a 2022 New York Times interview, “You have to live with the language, use the language and function in the language.”