Full language immersion is key for optimal learning

Anne Pritikin

During the few times last year that my former foreign language teacher instructed the class in Spanish, I glanced around the room as the instructions faded to background noise, watching other nervous eyes seek reassurance that their confusion and questionable understanding was shared among their peers. Two years earlier, I was in another classroom with a different teacher who taught only in Spanish. Then, I would have felt more comfortable with my pieced-together comprehension of the teacher’s message. If I had looked around the room then, I wouldn’t have seen any shifting eyes, mouthed questions to neighbors and waning interest in the day’s lesson. So what accounted for this difference in confidence between the listening comprehension of a classroom full of high schoolers and middle schoolers?

In the United States, fewer than 1 percent of American adults are proficient in a foreign language that they studied in a U.S. classroom—a dismal statistic considering that 93 percent of U.S. high schools offer foreign language classes, according to the National Survey of Foreign Language Teaching in U.S. Schools. Furthermore, only around only 17 percent of Americans speak more than one language, in comparison with 54 percent of Europeans, underscoring the U.S.’s multilingual shortcomings, a deficit with a simple solution. In order for students to improve their foreign language listening and speaking abilities, all foreign language classes should be taught completely in the target language for students to obtain the full benefits of learning another tongue.

The answer lies in teaching methods, a long debated topic within the World Languages Department at Redwood, according to head of the World Languages Department, Debbie McCrea. Currently, there is not one uniform teaching method adopted by the department, but instead each teacher employs the strategy that they favor most. The majority of foreign language classes are taught in both English and the target language, utilizing a bilingual teaching technique.

%no-caption% (leave this alone if you don’t want a caption)

At Redwood, 61 percent of foreign language students say that their foreign language class is taught in the target language and English, while 24 percent are taught only in the foreign language, according to a recent Bark survey. However, 47 percent of students prefer to have their foreign language class taught in the target language. McCrea, who teachers her AP Spanish Language and Culture classes solely in Spanish, says that she believes this is the most effective teaching method and that the goal of foreign language classes is to be taught in that medium.

Foreign language classes instructed solely in the target language create a learning atmosphere that is closer to the immersion-learning setting that helps students achieve brain processes equal to those of native-speakers, according to a study in the science journal PloS One. By continuously hearing and speaking the target language, students become more comfortable with the language and gain confidence in their abilities, inciting them to practice and improve even more.

“When learning a language, one of the most important things is your confidence level,” McCrea says. “If you feel like you’re learning, then you’re going to learn more. A lot of [learning] is about the output, which is like you practicing and talking and getting excited and getting experience.”

McCrea’s goal is to always have her students talking, which she says creates a self-fulfilling prophecy because when students constantly converse in the target language, their confidence increases and they feel proud of their progress, so they talk more and more and more, unconsciously improving their abilities.    

While initially some students might become frustrated or discouraged if taught only in the target language, based on teachers’ careful lesson planning relative to the students’ understanding and knowledge, students would feel comfortable in the classroom while being challenged. Students in lower-level language classes would also benefit from this teaching method as their teacher would instruct the class at a very basic level, allowing students to make substantial improvement in their speaking and listening abilities while still learning the fundamentals of the language. Additionally, students need not understand everything their teacher says in order to improve their skills, as long as they understand the majority of the lesson. Furthermore, the class would be structured to ensure students’ comprehension based on students’ proficiency levels, forming a supportive adjustment to the new, and arguably more advanced, learning method. McCrea says that students understand the majority of a foreign language without completely comprehending the teacher’s message if the class is organized in a way that is at the student’s level.

Learning a language in both English and the target language allows students to resort to talking in English when they do not understand how to convey their message in the foreign language. Students feel more comfortable talking or asking questions in English than the foreign language, especially if they do not know the specific words to communicate their message in the target language. However, speaking in English takes time away from speaking in the foreign language and hinders progress and learning. In a class taught only in the target language, students employ what McCrea calls “circumlocution”—using words within students’ repertoire to effectively communicate their message even if it is not said perfectly, which vastly improves students’ speaking abilities, increasing their confidence and completing the self-fulfilling prophecy.

“What is language? What is the purpose of language? Language is to convey a message! It doesn’t matter if you use big words, it matters if you get your point across,” McCrea says.

A combination of dedicated teachers and motivated students would allow more effective foreign language classes taught solely in the language to become a reality.

“It’s possible to teach a foreign language classroom in the target language,” McCrea says. “It’s a challenge to organize the class in a way that’s accessible to [students], but it is possible. It takes a belief that that is the best way to learn.” And a belief is what we need, a belief to obtain the most out of our learning, a belief to change that 24 percent into 100 percent.