Why Immersion Does NOT Work - And What Does

Updated: Nov 1, 2020

As an expat who has been living abroad for the past decade, I am in a lot of social media groups. I’m in groups on Facebook for other expats, travelers, people who just love Mexico, those who want to learn Spanish, future online teachers, and everything else.

People Believe You Will Learn It Naturally, Despite Research

Believe it or not, I have my own group for people that are interested in moving to Mexico. It is called Future Mexico Expats. Today, it has over 8,000 members in it. But when learning Spanish comes up, a lot of people comment the wrong information. They will say that you don’t need to learn. They argue because when you get down there, you’ll pick it up. Or your children will pick it up because they’ll go to school in completely in Spanish.

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Immersion is Effective Marketing for Language Classes and Products

But we know this is not true. Still, consumers purchase Immersion/exposure-based programs all the time. They believe the ADs. If they hear it enough, that it is going to make sense. My response to that is that if it worked, Oprah would have given it away on one of her favorite things shows. My serious response is that if it worked that way, many countries would have implemented mandatory language exposure. They would have a bilingual population and an economic advantage.

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But it is NOT a Successful Strategy… Unless…

That is the #1 myth regarding language learning. Immersion DOES NOT WORK. True immersion only happens when children are very small. They are able to learn a language as a native speaker. They wont need instructional or maintenance classes in the future. But this only occurs when there is a balance between the languages. This means that if you go to school, you have half of your education in English and the other half in Spanish (just an example).

But they’re divided equally. You’re getting the same experiences in both languages. The result is that they’re going to develop at the same rate. Unfortunately, this is rarely what happens. If you’re in any elementary to adult language program, you will need instructional classes. Those, combined with immersion, will be the most successful strategy.

My Own Immersion Experience was Amazing

From my own experience, I know what it is like. I did an immersion program myself. But this was after several years of studying Spanish on my own. And it was very quick - just a week. It was in Cuernavaca, Mexico. Probably about 10 years ago, while I was in the university. I took a class called Mexican History and Culture. The class includes a mandatory trip to Mexico.

But, I was Already Amazed by Spanish and Mexico

I had already traveled to Mexico many times. However, I want mainly to the tourist areas and especially the Riviera Maya. This time, I planned to go to Mexico City. I absolutely loved the experience of the homestay, and living with a local Mexican family. My Mexican mom was absolutely amazing. The grandma showed me how to put spicy salsa in my soup. I still eat it that way. And the classes that we went to were interesting, amazing, and fascinating.

Half of our classes were about Mexican culture. The other half were for Spanish language practice. We had to take proficiency exams before starting our language classes. This was to make sure that we were in the right group level. I ended up in an upper intermediate class. There were only a couple other students there, just 5 in total. It was a nice, small, intimate class. There was a lot of opportunity to interact with the teacher.

Not Everyone Loved the Immersion Program in Cuernavaca

Though, I distinctly remember that there were two teenage girls there. They were just really miserable. While I was excited and asking about about por vs. para, and imperfect vs. the preterite, they moaned and groaned…literally. But the problem was that they were in this immersion program for months on end. During which, every week they had new classmates. I was only going to be there for five days.

And to make things worse, they really did not want to be in Mexico to begin with. They did not enjoy the homestay at all. They were extremely homesick and wanted to be with their friends over the summer. Not in a Spanish-language immersion program with adults.

I think it’s important that people know that not everybody is going to enjoy immersion. Some students are going to thrive in an immersion program. And others won’t. It doesn’t mean that you’re a better or worse Spanish speaker. It’s just that students like to learn differently. That’s why we have the Theory of Multiple Intelligences.

But it also comes down to

  • personal comfort

  • experience

  • open-mindedness

  • motivation

  • personality

Combine Instruction and Real Practice for the Best Approach

In my opinion, coming from both a professional teacher and a second language learner, instruction combined with immersion is going to be the most successful. My daughter is only 4 and bilingual. But I still have to really make sure that she’s getting English language instructional time. Otherwise, her English is not going to develop at the same rate as her Spanish,. Since she goes to school 100% in Spanish.

And then, there’s somebody who’s older, like my husband. He’s around people that speak English all the time. He hears me speaking in English all day long when I’m working. And even more when I am with our children.

When my brother comes to visit, we constantly speak in English, because that’s the only language my brother can speak. But this exposure doesn’t make him understand it anymore or less. If anything, I think it’s more frustrating for him.

Communication Happens when It is Necessary for the Person

Think about the people that live in foreign countries, and don’t speak the language. They have been there for a very long time. Why do you think that is? I know a woman, who’s been in Mexico for about six years. She is almost 50 years old. She is a single woman who dates, and is social. She doesn’t work currently, but has worked as an English teacher in the past. And she has not learned Spanish.

I commented on it. Honestly, I said she was very good at finding friends and companions that made it easy for her to not interact in Spanish. But I said that if she found herself alone, that very quickly she would figure out the words for what she wants. For example, to eat in a restaurant, and she would immediately be ordering and speaking the language. It’s because of necessity.

If you don’t need to use the language, you’re not going to use it. That’s for children, teenagers, adults, anyone in the world. But also, we cannot expect people to simple need it and all of a sudden be able to speak it…. Research tells us that is not possible.

Think About the Strategy as You Pick Your Language Program

Therefore, it’s important that students have a combination of instruction and immersion. If you only have instructional classes, you don’t get that push where you have to think outside the box. Where you have to be creative, and use the the language that in order to communicate.

On the other hand, if you do immersion, like the Rosetta Stone tries to do, then you don’t have somebody to answer the questions. When something changes, without a grammar explanation, it is confusing. I know, because I started off using the Rosetta Stone as well.

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Sara Tyler has 2 M.A. degrees, in Educational Technology and Curriculum and Instruction. Her B.A. degree is in ESL. She has worked online since 2014, and has taught languages since 2010.

Her company, Viva Online, L.L.C. provides Spanish language courses, immersion classes, and professional development teachers. She lives in Playa del Carmen, Mexico with her husband and 2 daughters.

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