Skip to main content

The immersion effect

Apart from being very well taught at school for seven years, three formative experiences stand out in my mind when I recall my own experience of learning French as a young person.

The first was doing an exchange aged 16 with a lad called Eric, the son of a solicitor. Quite at the last minute, when the local girls' grammar school needed a boy to make up the numbers, I dashed over on a train and boat from my terraced house in not-so-well-off Gillingham to the rather grand home of my partner in Solesmes, near Cambrai, northern France. I just about recall ivy on the walls, high ceilings and the unfamiliar odour of green beans cooked in garlic and butter. After a week in Solesmes we spent a week at their beach house in Brittany.

The second experience was a immersion course in rural Sussex, where about 30 sixth-formers gathered in an enormous house for an intensive weekend of French language with a virtual "no English" rule. Immediately after I had a practice oral exam and my teacher was impressed with my fluency.

The third was one of the best times of my life when I spent the third year of my university course as an English language assistant in Montauban in the Tarn et Garonne. I committed myself to 10 months largely uninterrupted use of French, joining a local choir, playing drums in a band and going tenpin bowling with French antique dealers in Toulouse. "FĂ©lix Antiquaire" was our team.

During and after each of these experiences my French came on in leaps and bounds and remains pretty fluent to this day. My French immersion experiences helped form my personal view about second language learning. While I believe that the traditional skill-acquisition model can, when well executed, be effective enough in school settings, it fails to take enough account of the huge value of general exposure to the target language and what goes on at the (for want of a better term?) sub-conscious level.

Many of you will have had the same feeling as me, and observed it in students too after they've done an exchange. It's as though the mechanisms of first language acquisition kick in, comprehension and fluency improve rapidly and motivation rises exponentially. You listen and listen and listen. You speak much less. Then you gain skill in as if walking up stairs, occasionally going back down a step. Good days, then not so good ones.

To me this is when the naturalistic hypotheses of Stephen Krashen and others start to make most sense. Acquisition occurs through understanding messages, he says. It is appealing in its simplicity.

But while most of us would value immersion so highly, is it the way to go in the classroom? Can we recreate to some degree the hugely beneficial effects of the linguistic bath? I think we have to try, while working within a structured "bit-by-bit" approach. Second language learning to my mind is both about learning and practising skills, paying attention to rules and form, and (perhaps more so) about being exposed to language in meaningful settings so that that uniquely human ability to sub-consciously develop highly complex, automated and creative speech can occur.

But, to be fair, the growth of neuroscience has meant that the pendulum in the theory books has swung a bit towards skill-acquisition of late. Some are now even questioning whether Noam Chomsky was right about "universal grammar" and our "Language Acquisition Device" which seems, almost magically, to produce fluent speakers by the age of five. Is learning a language, first or second, really magical or is it just like learning any other complex skill like playing the piano?

I really don't know for sure and no one does, but my sense is that the experience of language immersion suggests there is much more to learning a language than practising skills.




- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

5 great zero preparation lesson ideas

When the pressure is on and there are only so many hours on the week, you need a repertoire of zero preparation go-to activities which promote input and/or practice. Here are five you might well find useful.

1. My weekend

We know that listening is the most important yet often neglected skill for language learning. It's also something some pupils find hard to do. To develop listening skill and provide tailored comprehensible input try this:

You tell the class you are going to recount what you did last weekend and that they have to make notes in English. The amount of detail you go into and the speed you go will depend on your class. Talk for about three minutes. If you spent the whole weekend marking, you can always make stuff up!

You then make some true or false (maybe not mentioned too) statements in the target language about what you said in your account. Class gives hands up (or no hands up) answers. This can then lead into a simple pair work task where pupils make up their own tru…

New GCSE resources on frenchteacher

As well as writing resources for the new A-levels, I have in recent months been posting a good range of materials to support the new GCSEs. First exams are not until 2018, but here is what you can find on the site in addition to the many other resources (grammar exercises, texts, video listening etc).

I shall not produce vocabulary lists since the exam board specifications now offer these, with translations.

Foundation Tier 

AQA-style GCSE 2016 Role-plays
AQA-style GCSE 2016 Photo card conversations
AQA-style GCSE 2016 Photo card conversations (2)
100 translation sentences into French (with answers)
Reading exam
Reading exam (2)
How to write a good Foundation Tier essay (ppt)
How to write a good Foundation Tier essay (Word)

Higher Tier 

AQA-style GCSE 2016 Photo card conversations (Higher tier)
AQA-style GCSE 2016 Photo card conversations (Higher tier) (2)
20 translations into French (with answers)
Reading exam (Higher tier)
How to write a good Higher Tier essay (ppt)
How to write a…

What teachers are saying about The Language Teacher Toolkit

"The Language Teacher Toolkit is a really useful book for language teachers to either read all the way through or dip into. What I like about it is that the authors Steve Smith and Gianfranco Conti are totally upfront about what they believe to be good practice but back it up with research evidence." (Ernesto Macaro, Oxford University Department of Education)

"I absolutely love this book based on research and full of activities..  The best manual I've read so far. One of our PDs from the Australian Board of Studies recommended your book as an excellent resource.  I look forward to the conference here in Sydney." Michela Pezzi, Teacher, Australia, Facebook)

"Finally, a book for World Language teachers that provides practical ideas and strategies that can actually be used in the classroom, rather than dry rhetoric and theory that does little to inspire creativity in ways that are engaging for both students and teachers alike." (USA teacher, Amazon review)

Three AQA A-level courses compared

I've put together my three reviews of worthy A-level courses which you might be considering for next September. They are all very useful courses, but with significant differences. The traditional Hodder and OUP book-based courses differ in that the former comes in one chunky two year book, whilst OUP's comes in two parts, the first for AS or the first year of an A-level course. The Attitudes16 course by Steve Glover and Nathalie Kaddouri is based on an online platform from which you would download worksheets and share a logon with studenst who would do the interactive parts (Textivate and video work). The two text books are supported by interactive material (Kerboodle) or an e-text book.

Attitudes16





An excellent resource which should be competing for your attention at the moment is the Attitudes16 course which writers Steve Glover and Nathalie Kaddouri have been working on for some time. You can find it here at dolanguages.com, along with his excellent resources for film and li…

The Language Teacher Toolkit review

We were delighted to receive a review of The Language Teacher Toolkit from eminent applied linguist Ernesto Macaro from Oxford University. Macaro is a leader in the field of second language acquisition and applied linguistics. His main research interests are teacher-student interaction and language learning strategies pupils can use to improve their progress.

Here is Professor Macaro's review:
The Language Teacher Toolkit is a really useful book for language teachers to either read all the way through or dip into. What I like about it is that the authors Steve Smith and Gianfranco Conti are totally upfront about what they believe to be good practice but back it up with research evidence. So for example the ‘methodological principles’ on page 11 are supported by the research they then refer to later in the book and this approach is very similar to the one that we (Ernesto Macaro, Suzanne Graham, Robert Woore) have adopted in our ‘consortium project’(http://pdcinmfl.com). The point i…