What is Language Immersion?

G. Wiesen

Language immersion is a method of second-language acquisition in which the student or students learning a second language are taught through the use of that language. This is in contrast to programs that teach about a second language while primarily using a student’s first language. There are a number of different levels of immersion programs, often based on the ages of those learning the language, and the amount of teaching that occurs using the secondary language rather than a first language. Language immersion is often used for younger students who need to learn a secondary language that is the majority language in a particular country or region.

People who are learning English as a second language (ESL) often enroll in immersion courses.
People who are learning English as a second language (ESL) often enroll in immersion courses.

As a teaching concept, language immersion primarily grew from programs used in Canada to help younger students learn French as well as English. Rather than using a student’s primary or first language to learn about a secondary language, this type of program tends to utilize the second language to teach about the language. This causes students to listen more intently and to be constantly surrounded by the secondary language, rather than using it only for particular lessons in the classroom. Though somewhat similar in name, language immersion should not be confused with language submersion, which typically consists of a student learning a second language while surrounded by those who are already fluent in that language.

Language immersion is often discussed in a number of different ways, usually based upon the age of students in the program or the amount of the secondary language used in the program. Early immersion programs are those in which students are still quite young, usually around 5 or 6 years old and still developing their primary language as well. Middle immersion programs are those involving students who are around 10 years of age, who have a greater understanding of their primary language. Late language immersion involves students who are older than middle immersion, but less than 14 years of age. Beyond the age of 14, these programs are typically not utilized in the same way and students usually take specific classes in a foreign language.

These sorts of language immersion programs are also typically categorized based on the amount of time spent in class using the secondary language. Total immersion classes are taught using the secondary language the entire time. Partial immersion classes involve only about half of class time being taught using the secondary language, though some of the other time will often be spent discussing particular aspects of the secondary language. Dual language immersion classes are taught when half the students have one primary language and the other half have a different primary language; each language is used during half of the class time and students are encouraged to help each other.

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