If you are a language teacher/principal who has just embarked on a journey towards implementing some elements of immersive learning into your class program/school curriculum, this blog post may help you sort out your priorities in terms of planning and conducting the language lessons. The earliest stage of the immersive language learning method can be broken down into two major components – listening (and absorbing as its natural consequence) as well as speaking. Children do need to be exposed to the foreign language in a skillfully created immersion environment where real-life scenarios are presented to them. But we must be cautious about simply having them surrounded by the foreign language without actively interacting with it. For immersion to have a real effect, children need to interact with the language in a meaningful way. As a language teacher, your ultimate goal is to have children manipulate the foreign language by communicating with others, naturally and spontaneously. Natural language acquisition starts with listening and understanding, then progresses onto learning to speak the language.
1. Listening and absorbing
The most crucial aspect of teaching is making sure children’s attention is focused and their listening skills are tuned up. I find it useful to start with “action activities”. Allowing students to act out verbal commands helps them learn to listen carefully. To make sure kids are focused and listen attentively, periodically incorporate misleading questions or instructions, change the order of action verbs to spot kids who might be lost in their thoughts or not attending to the information. Accurate response to instructions is also important for maintaining a safe classroom environment. Grab students’ attention and encourage them to listen intently by using facial expressions and gestures (silly faces will do as well especially when it comes to very young learners). A wide variety of stimulating and meaningful activities ensures full immersion and continuous exposure to the language. As a result, children start associating the meaning of the words and expressions with their appropriate context. Learning the new language must be always placed into context for a greater likelihood of word retention. Eventually, the absorption phase happens unconsciously and effortlessly as a natural by-product when students are attentive and receptive.
The challenge arises when students need to transition to the speaking stage. Once students start feeling comfortable using the second language through some common phrases and expressions, the next objective is to have them carry over these words and expressions to new situations. Take advantage of children’s natural tendency to be curious and inquisitive by provoking their curiosity and hence having them ask questions. By doing or saying things that may surprise them and trigger their instinct to question, you can not only capture students’ attention but also have them inquire using the target language (and of course in this case they have been conditioned into thinking that the target language is the only means of communication with you). It happened to me once when I started munching my apple during our lunch time when some Japanese preschoolers surrounded me and started asking “why? why are you…?” It turned out that Japanese people never eat the fruit’s skin.
The last and the most arduous step is having children interact with others and the world through the target language.