Learning a language seems like an insurmountable task for many people. But it is well known that young children have a much easier capacity for acquiring a language, because their brains are literally wired for it. But by the time language courses begin in school, often after the age of 12 or 13, the window of childhood language assimilation has passed, making it much more difficult to learn in the classroom. That’s why it’s important to give children every opportunity to be immersed in different languages when they are young. In fact, if you’d like to give your child an advantage in school and later in life, provide as many immersion opportunities for them as possible in one or two specific languages.
What is immersion learning? Is it all just fun and games?
As we’ve discussed in this blog before, language acquisition happens best when the brain makes an emotional link with a real-world context. This happens when we are experiencing everyday life in the real world with our friends and loved ones. Immersion learning attempts to recreate these types of emotional experiences while being totally immersed in an English-language environment, for example. This has been proven to be the most effective way to learn a language, more effective than traditional classroom learning methods of memorization and testing.
Here’s why immersion learning works:
- Kids learn organically. Using familiar stories such as myths and fairy tales, for example, kids adapt their favorite story to another language. They learn the vocabulary, tone and voice pattern, and create an emotional memory about the story. They can do this at their own pace, through repetition. Immersion learning activities are not textbook-oriented, but rather task-oriented, which requires the use of language in a much more memorable, deliberate way, such as presenting oneself or a favorite toy or memory.
- Kids are allowed to fail. Playing simple games with other kids in English means that they will be forced to communicate naturally in play. When they can make mistakes without consequences, they will progress much more quickly than in a traditional classroom environment, because mistakes are vital to learning. Remember, with immersion learning, kids are learning not only words, but gestures, tone and body language that goes along with the fluency of a language and therefore understanding a culture. It is a lot of information to absorb, and they must be allowed to do this at their own pace, just as they did when learning their native language.
- Kids are open-minded. Immersion learning includes all kinds of communication within the culture of that language, including theatre, poetry, food, music, film, dance and more. This is an excellent way for kids to broaden their cultural knowledge, while also having fun and learning a language, oftentimes without even realizing it.
Sounds like a great idea, but how can we immerse our kids in a language where we live?
There are ways to immerse yourself and your family in a language. As you can imagine, this usually involves travel! Taking holidays to an English-speaking country, for example, can be an excellent way to be immersed in the language and acquire it more easily. But you must beware not to be part of a group from your native country. If you go the holiday route, you’ll only get the benefits if you take some risks: stay in local rental properties, make your own itinerary and do what the local families are doing!
But if you can’t get away, or if you want something more local, many cities have immersion programs for children at local language centers or schools. There are also many resources online, and you can always watch films and listen to music in any language—doing this regularly as a family activity is immersion learning!
For those of you lucky enough to live here in Grenoble, France, there is the Speak English Kids language center, which specializes in children’s English immersion programs during all the school holidays. Using traditional games and activities such as cooking, creating art or exploring the outdoors, the kids have an advantage of doing these typical holiday activities in English! Don’t hesitate to sign up for the next one!
If you are a teacher and you’d like ideas on how to implement immersion learning into your classroom, you can check out our article here.
Have you tried learning a language through immersion? How would you compare it to learning in a traditional classroom?
Do you think immersion is a good idea for very young children? Why or why not?
As a teacher, would you use immersion learning in your classroom?
We love to hear your comments and experiences learning English or other languages!