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The Importance of Immersion

For the sake of demonstrating modern advances in language learning, I ask you to join me in a trip down memory lane…
Think back to your high school language class. Let me throw out the year 1986. Feel free to picture your big hair and acid-washed jeans as you sat in Spanish, French, German, or Latin class. Now try to remember the class itself. Most likely, it was an uninspiring combination of translating boring sentences out of a textbook, endless rote verb conjugations taken out of any meaningful context, and, if you were lucky, the occasional filmstrip of some far away land. Your confidence would soar after receiving an ‘A’ in Spanish IV Honors and being elected Vice President of the Spanish National Honor Society. Then, on your first visit to a Spanish-speaking country, you were served a generous dose of humble pie. Despite all your exemplary grades and accolades, you found yourself unable to understand or say even the most basic of things. Maybe this was only my high school language experience, but I doubt it! Thankfully, like those acid-washed jeans, the “memorize and translate” style of language learning is a thing of the past. Today’s language classes are built around the concept of immersion.
Linguistic pioneers, such as Noam Chomsky and Stephen Krashen, led the way for immersion instruction. Using their research findings on how language is acquired, Chomsky, Krashen, and others in their field challenged the traditional ways of teaching language in the classroom. Krashen’s theory of second language acquisition posits that true ‘acquisition’ is the product of a subconscious process similar to that in which children undergo when they acquire their first language. When young children acquire language naturally, they do so by reading stories, singing songs, repeating daily routines immersed in a rich linguistic setting, trying language and getting corrected (--“Mommy, I runned so fast!” –“Oh wonderful Johnny, you ran so fast!”), and simply by being an active participant in an all-around barrage of language in context. Exposure, risk-taking, repetition, and continual practice and correction are the components of natural language acquisition in children. As language teachers, we can never perfectly replicate these ingredients due to the constraints of time and context. Nevertheless, by mimicking the way children learn language in an as authentic as possible environment, we create a much more valuable experience for today's learners.  
Widespread implementation of the “communicative approach,” a byproduct of Chomsky and Krashen’s research, also assisted in transforming the language classroom into one based on immersion theory. The communicative approach encouraged teachers to elicit spontaneous, non-memorized responses from the students in the target language by offering a simple question, prompt, task, or visual. In addition, routine use of “information gap” activities, where the student must process a scenario and then use his or her language skills to find missing information or solve a problem, instantly changed the classroom dynamic from a teacher-centered environment to that of a student-centered one. Requiring the students to take an active, highly engaged role in language production, rather than a passive one, dramatically changed language instruction-- and thus language acquisition-- for the better.  By having to negotiate for meaning and relevance, the students must apply their grammar rules and vocabulary in a non-rote, creative manner, providing them with a much more profound understanding of the content.  
In an immersion classroom here at PRS, teachers use an extensive (and typically quite entertaining) array of techniques to best encourage, initiate, and cultivate language acquisition in our students. On any given day, you can find our language teachers acting or using art to illustrate meaning without resorting to English translations, playing immersion games where students must solve tasks or find meaning, overseeing role-plays, or showing music videos and other authentic clips, just to name a few of our tried and true activities. Without diving into the details behind our linguistic buzzwords like "comprehensible input", "manageable chunks", "the affective filter" and "i + 1", rest assured that our students are hard at work practicing their budding language skills and working their way down that oh-so-elusive path toward fluency. 
As language teachers who practice immersion instruction, we can attest that speaking, listening, reading, and writing in the target language, within a rich, yet controlled, thematic context of vocabulary and culture-- and asking our students to do the same-- reaps enormous, long-term benefits. The future’s so bright for our PRS language students…that we gotta wear shades. (Who got it?  Song from the band Timbuk3, 1986!) 

Meredith Brady, Spanish