Skip navigation

Category Archives: immersion

>by Pete Marchetto

A couple of thoughts on this one. A few students have told me that they had good intentions when it came to English-only dorms and classroom time but that it broke down after a day or two. Only the most motivated of students will manage day in, day out and they will usually succumb to peer-group pressure and give up when most of
their fellows do. They set their ambitions too high and then give up altogether.

I think the best thing in convincing the students of English-only is to give them the analogy of, say, learning how to play tennis. For an hour or two a week you, the pro., are there to show them how to hold the racket, swing it and hit the ball. But if they put the racket down for the rest of the week until they see the pro. again they won’t improve. That ain’t the way to learn tennis and it ain’t the way to learn English.

The next thing I do is tell them a true story. (If you have no such true experience tell them this one or lie). At my last post one of the students complained she didn’t like speaking English with her classmates because they laughed at her. The irony was – as I pointed out to her and all her classmates – she was the best of ’em when it came to English. She rounded her vowels properly instead of mumbling them into some convenient quasi-Chinese approximation and was careful with her difficult consonants – even if that did mean a glimpse of tongue for ‘th’ – and consequently, of course, she looked and sounded ridiculous to her fellows in much the same way we did when we were at school and got the knack of pronouncing Frrrrrench properly. I’m coming to the conclusion that a large proportion of pronunciation problems come from the embarrassment of saying things correctly – it sounds so odd to the Chinese ear.

Also, it is good to do is convince the students they don’t need to be given a topic or an exercise in order to speak English. I’ve had many students tell me they can’t express everyday thoughts unless in Chinese – even some teachers have told me that – but I’ve yet to have any university student (or teacher) want to express something to me and fail. Again, point that out to them. They are so unused to using the language in anything besides a formal exercise they genuinely believe a lot of the time that that is all they CAN use it for.

Many are concerned that errors made in the course of speaking, if not corrected, will become entrenched. For that one I ask them to think of a local three year old speaking Chinese. Do they really think that three year old will be making the same oft-repeated mistakes at the age of ten? And do they think the best thing that three year old can do to improve his or her Chinese is to stop talking it until he or she has learned more rules of Chinese grammar?

What I do, having gone through all that, is set them the task of speaking English only for one hour a day when they are together, Monday through to Friday; the same hour each day. They don’t have to say anything in that hour if they don’t want to… but if they want to ask to borrow a pen or draw attention to something happening outside the window then they must do it in English. I also give the monitors the task of seeing to it that THEY arrange the hour this is to be done and that they enforce it. (This is best done of course if the students spend a lot of study time in the classroom – otherwise you will have to find someone else to be ‘in charge’ or assign dorm-leaders if dormitory hours are chosen). I give my monitors permission to punch anyone who speaks Chinese though sadly this form of enforcement is rarely taken as seriously as I’d like it to be.

Another possibility I’ve toyed with – but not used – is an English-only space; say a computer room or television room which the students like to be in. (A TV room might be difficult as it will be difficult to break out of watching Chinese programmes to
comment in English and then switch back again). The price of being in there is they must converse in English. If the worst comes to the worst then select a room they have to go to every day; the dining hall perhaps, or you could take advantage of a mass break-out of food-poisoning and allocate the lavatory.

At my college all this is all easily done, admittedly; the students are used to taking orders AS orders and are highly motivated. However, at any university it’s worth while convincing the students that the best resource they have for learning oral English is each other. When students complain to me that the college doesn’t provide them with an English-speaking environment I tell them it’s their job to create it for themselves. And should it happen – which thankfully it hasn’t yet – that students at the end of a semester complain to me their English under my tuition hasn’t improved as much as they’d hoped then I can always blame THEM for
not following my directions. Even if you can’t convince them to do it, at least you’ve covered your own butt…


>By Eve Ross, Beijing Institute of Machinery

I was a Linguistics major at university, meaning I needed fluency in two languages besides English. When I was a freshman, I was very aware that I was getting no practice in French outside the classroom, so for my sophomore year, I moved to a special dormitory where students learning languages room with others learning the same language, with one native speaker for each 5 learners.

Although all the learners had the same L1 (first language, English), we promised (with no particular reward or punishment in the balance) to speak French at all times in the dorm, and to cook and eat dinner together four nights a week to give us time together to practice.

It was very difficult to communicate for about a month, but then something clicked and our (mine and my roommates’) oral French level skyrocketed. When I went to Paris for an internship after graduation, I was able to blend in immediately–people knew I was a foreigner but they couldn’t tell that I was American (Parisians have sharp ears for picking out American accents), and that made me very proud.

I agree that when you’re a freshman who can barely put sentences together, it’s nearly impossible to maintain conversation in the L2 outside of planned classroom activities. But my oral English students here are sophomores.

Last year I had juniors and seniors as well. All of them could hold relaxed, fairly normal, but somewhat limited conversations from day one. Their level of English is the same or higher than my level of French was as a freshman. All the English majors are already dormmates. If I could do an L2 dorm program, so can they. But when I told them of my experience in the French-speaking dorm, they said they had already tried speaking English in the dorm, and it only lasted about a day.

“Chinese is easier,” they all said with a giggle, and those who don’t care as much about learning English were dragging those who do care off the L2 bandwagon, so to speak. It boils down to motivation.

Obviously, there’s nothing I can do to enforce their speaking English outside of class. It’s something students have to choose to do on their own if it’s going to work. And, as Jennifer and others have said, we can only work with the time and resources we’ve been given. So my response is to enforce the English-only rule in my classroom, both in the few minutes before the start of class and during the break between the 2 consecutive hours of class. This isn’t much, but I hope it helps students realize that they can use English for real-life communication, as well as contrived role plays and formal debates.

Also, when my students set their goals for this semester, they were free to choose whatever methods of improving their oral English they wanted. Some promised to memorize more vocabulary words from the dictionary, because they need to prepare for TEM4. Shall we say, less effective? However, I was very pleased to see that some of them also promised to speak English with their friends. When students that I know are friends all put this as their goal, that gave me some hope that it might actually happen. And who knows how long it may last? Hope springs eternal.

>By Martin McMorrow, Auckland, New Zealand

I thought those interested in the discussion about L1 and grammar-translation might like the following quotes from Otto Jespersen, writing at the turn of the last century when this really was a hot topic!

It never seems to have occurred to the authors of some (textbooks) that there might be a limit to the amount of rubbish that can be offered children under the pretext of teaching them grammar. (p. 13)… ‘the first condition for good instruction in the foreign languages would seem to be to give the pupil as much as possible to do with and in the foreign language; he must be steeped in it, not only get a sprinkling of it now and then; he must be ducked down in it and get to feel as if he was in his own element, so that he may at last disport himself in it as an able swimmer.’ (p. 48)

Now that’s what I call “full immersion”!

Jespersen, O. (1904). How to teach a foreign language. London: Allen & Unwin (reprinted 1954 – by the way, what happened to the centenary edition?!)

> By Mert – Dr.M.L.Bland, Arlington, VA, USA

One thing I often do is to draw a chalk line on the doorsill of the classroom and announce, “out there you can speak anything you want, but in here only English is allowed.”

The simple act of creating an oasis of the target language in their lives goes a long way toward providing the immersion conditions which help crack the chains holding the two languages together. And if you can get them to use the target language to communicate (the essence of the CA), you destroy the illusion that the theirs is the only “real” language and all other languages have simply been created by their teachers to make life difficult for them.

And stock your oasis with as much authentic material as you can find: comic books, magazines, CDs, DVDs, paperbacks….. And drag in the occasional foreign visitor and let the students eavesdrop on your conversation.