Thursday, September 28, 2017

Immersion Can Turn into Submersion

In previous posts, I have blogged about my experience this summer learning Mandarin with Linda Li in a 4-day Fluency Fast class. Since then, my goal has been to continue acquiring Mandarin when I have time. Recently, I found a video on YouTube of a first day high school Mandarin 1 class, so thinking this video would be a great place for me to continue my language acquisition, I began to watch it. What I saw was that this teacher was using an 100% immersion approach on day 1. While there is nothing wrong with that per se, there was no attempt to establish any type of meaning in English, outside of gestures and handouts with Mandarin phrases where students filled in the English meaning during the class. In the video, when the teacher began to speak in Mandarin after the bell rings and asked the class to stand up, immediately you could see the confusion among the students, and only a few students caught onto what he was asking them to do. I am certain that affective filters immediately went through the roof with those students, because mine certainly did just watching it (and I was familiar with what he was saying in Mandarin!). For the remainder of the video, the teacher employed a traditional approach to an immersion classroom, with lots of the teacher saying phrases, students repeating after him (I wonder how many of those students actually understood what they were saying in Mandarin), and him correcting their pronunciation. Occasionally, the teacher would ask students (in Mandarin) to define words in English. While for me, much of what he said in the video was somewhat comprehensible (due to my limited Mandarin), I can guarantee that for most of the students in that classroom, it was not.

In reflecting on my experience with Linda Li this summer, I realize that from Day 1 of our Fluency Fast course, she could have employed a 100% immersion experience like the above teacher, but Linda also knew that this approach with beginning Mandarin students would not have been successful for every learner in our class. That is not to say that Linda did not utilize much more Mandarin as the class progressed, but it was not immediate from the first hour.

I am NOT saying that a classroom immersion environment in and of itself is a bad or terrible thing, but incomprehensible classroom immersion where the burden is completely 100% on students to establish and to negotiate meaning on their own in a "sink or swim" environment is where I have a problem. I have been in those types of immersion experiences, and I can definitely say that my affective filter went through the roof to the point of "fight or flight." Not every learner can succeed in that type of environment, and if equity in the classroom is our goal for all students, then a "survival of the fittest" attitude only excludes learners, as only "certain" types of learners end up finding success. Although we as teachers may have the best intentions in implementing an immersion approach, if we are not careful, immersion can quickly turn into submersion for students. When students do not perform well in this setting, our tendency is to to blame the students as being lazy or not trying (or even worse, that only certain students should take language, since not everyone can keep up in an immersion classroom). The reality is that students are not doing well, because we ourselves have not set them up properly for success in an immersion setting. An incomprehensible immersion environment is simply just noise to students.

In order to guarantee success for students in an immersion setting, then I feel that we as teachers must establish the following environment:
  1. Create a safety net for students. In my opinion, this is vital. A safety net empowers ALL students to inform you as the teacher NON-VERBALLY that they are not understanding what you are saying, that they need you to go slower, that their affective filters are skyrocketing, etc. It is very easy to get a false impression of what students are understanding or processing in an immersion environment if we are only relying on the fast processors to inform us. Even counting "1, 2, 3" aloud after you ask a question can greatly slow things down in an immersion setting in order to give ALL students time to process what has been asked (thank you, Annabelle Allen, for teaching me this).
  2. Strive to be 100% comprehensible by establishing meaning in L1. Nothing divides immersion-based teachers more than the topic of establishing meaning in L1. Some feel that this has absolutely no place in an immersion environment, as their argument is that students will figure out and determine meaning on their own or that students will be thinking in L1, instead of L2, if meaning is given in L1. Others feel that meaning can be established through props or pictures but still no L1. I am of the mindset that we teachers need to establish meaning in L1 if our goal is to be 100% comprehensible to learners. When understandable messages are delivered, then language acquisition can occur. In my language learning experiences with both Linda Li (Mandarin) and Betsy Paskvan (Japanese), each of them established meaning in L1 by writing any unknown language words on the board, having the English definitions next to them, and pointing/pausing when referring to them. I am so grateful that they did, because it made what was being said understandable to me. Yes, it was so helpful to have those words and meanings there as a reference, and yes, I was thinking in L1 during that time. To be honest, since I was negotiating meaning, it was necessary for me to think in L1. As the class progressed, I found that I no longer needed to refer to the words (although they were there if needed) and that I was starting to think in L2, instead of L1. Some may say, "If a student does not know a word in L2, can't just you explain the meaning in L2, instead of L1?" I have been in immersion environments where when I asked for a meaning of a word, the meaning was given to me in L2. Although these people had the best of intentions, i was already frustrated, because I did not know what the original word meant, so explaining the meaning in L2 only frustrated me more, thus raising my affective filter higher. In these situations, my thinking has always been "Just tell me what the d@*n word means in English, so that I can move on."
  3. Facilitate constant comprehension checks. This is a key point, because comprehension checks give students an opportunity to let you know what they think that you are saying and give you the teacher a chance to see if you are truly understandable. This can be done very quickly and easily either in L1 or L2 by simply asking, "When I said that, what did I mean?" Depending on their answer, this feedback can tell you whether to move forward or to "circle the plane a bit," since students are not understanding what you are communicating.
What are some tools and strategies which you implement in an immersion setting in order to guarantee success for all learners?


  1. What about the students who won't use the safety net? I'm really asking from a classroom management perspective. I've got a tough class that is fighting against receiving any meaning, including in L1.

    1. In order for students to want to use the safety net, there has to be some buy-in from them. I have students whom I really wish would use the safety net but don't, and it reflects in their grades.

      I completely understand what it means to have students that are resistant to receiving input. I have had a number of classes where that happened. As a result, since the students were not going to change, I'm the one who had to change, so I tweaked the curriculum to a degree so that the class was about them and their interests. This way, they were wanting to receive meaning/input, because it was all about them. They became main characters in stories, they were the ones to whom I assigned student jobs. Essentially, I had to win their trust so that they were wanting to be in my class.

      Hang in there!

    2. Thanks!

      I've never been able to get PQA to work with my classes, but I like the idea of putting them in the stories.

      Also, thank you for putting so much good stuff on this blog!