Language Immersion

Language Immersion – Making it happen in your classroom

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What is language immersion?

Language immersion is an approach to teaching students a second language. The Cambridge English Dictionary defines it as:

the fact of becoming completely involved in something

the process of learning a language or skill by using nothing else but that language or skill

It comes under various names and labels. Content Based Instruction. Bilingual Education. Content and Language Integrated Learning. English As A Medium Of Instruction. Dual Language Approach. And so many more! But essentially it is letting students learn the target language (L2) indirectly, by using the target language to learn traditional school subjects and content.

Most of us have experienced the magical moment of learning when you don’t realize you are learning anything at all! You are just “immersed” in the experience. It’s “flow” and an optimal experience, as relates Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his famous book of the same name, “Flow. The Psychology of Optimal Experience.”

Think of it as Maria Montessori once put it;

“The greatest sign of success for a teacher is to be able to say, the children are now working as if I did not exist”.

Language immersion has been implemented to various degrees of success in my countries and school systems. It was famously started in both Canada and Singapore in the 60s and 70s. It’s success and failure is a matter of debate and dependent on many factors. Government investment, policy. Teacher quality and experience. Local culture. (as always) Money, financial investment. Access to the target language outside the classroom. Rich language environments. Stakeholder acceptance. Classroom delivery and implementation. This paper will focus on the later and will offer teachers some ideas, strategies, “ways”, to activate “immersion” in their own classrooms.

Why is language immersion important?

Language immersion is understood to be the best approach to learning a second language. It’s success is rooted in two important factors.

  1. Implicit learning. Second Language Acquisition research has shown that language is best learned by using the language and through implicit teaching and learning. Language learning is founded on procedural knowledge and not declarative knowledge. One learns a language much like one learns any skill, by doing it. If you want to learn how to ride a bike, you ride it.
  2. Learner Autonomy. The goal of language immersion is to engage students where they are at and develop their autonomy as students. Life-long learning. Immersion promotes student autonomy and thus can lead to successful language acquisition as students continue to learn language, use the target language outside the classroom environment.

The Core Features of Language Immersion

Swain and Johnson (1997) identified 8 core features of a language immersion program.

1. L2 is the medium of instruction.

2. Immersion curriculum parallels local L1 curriculum.

3. Overt support for L1.

4. The program aims for additive bilingualism.

5. Exposure to L2 largely confined to classroom.

6. Students enter with similar (and limited) levels of L2 proficiency.

7. Teachers are bilingual.

8. Classroom culture is that of the local L1 community.

These features are important to have for the success of any language immersion program. There may be different entry points into an immersion program but generally early entry is recommended (grades 1 – 3).

The additive nature of language immersion is important. Here, the target language builds on and works alongside the local, mother language. This is unlike subtractive bilingualism which happens often to immigrants to new countries – they learn the new L2 in class and gradually lose their own (especially academic) abilities in their home language. It is very often the norm in the United States.

Implementing Language Immersion (The How).

There are many ways to design a language immersion program but as mentioned, it all rests on the notion that what happens in the learning and teaching, the classroom experience, is implicit in nature. Here are some of the criteria and differences with traditional explicit (instruction based) teaching and learning

Students should be active in their learning and be using the L2 for that learning. Social language ability will develop quickly and teachers need to attend specifically to the academic language and build on that.


A teaching method is a set of practices and principles used by teachers to make the process of teaching and learning highly effective for their students. In language immersion classes, teachers should use more student centered, bottom up methods. \

These methods can be of any type of inquiry based design. Question based learning. Problem based learning. Project based learning. Task based learning.

Students learn together through inquiry, investigation, sharing and constructing knowledge, using materials and resources in the L2.

It’s key to engage students through their own world and interests and give students more choice in how and what they learn. Harness student curiosity through their present interests. Learning In Depth (Kiernan Egan) is a viable approach in this regard. Students use their interest in a topic (skateboarding, fish, dinosaurs, rockets etc …) and apply the core concepts and vocabulary learned during the year to their own topic, passion.

Blended learning is important in this day and age where there is almost universal access to technology. Some of the important learning can be done by students in a self-directed fashion, online. Either in class or at home. The “flipped classroom” is one such approach.

Content Knowledge

The syllabus will typically be a textbook or some units of knowledge to be learned that year. It’s essential for teachers to pull out the core concepts that students must understand and the core vocabulary they need to learn in the L2.

Ideally, this should not just be presented to the students. Each unit, skim through the content and have students find the core concepts and vocabulary on their own, as a way of introducing the course of study. It’s key to have students involvement in this process. List them together, add as necessary.

Instructional Strategies

Teachers in the immersion classroom can use many strategies when teaching to support student understanding of the language encountered. Here are a number of them outlined.

1. Wait Time. Students need time to process a second language. Pause after asking a question or issuing a statement or instructions. Even count to 5 so students have time to think and comprehend.

2. Comprehensible Input. Filter and adjust your language to the level of your students to help them understand and acquire the language. Use level appropriate reading material.

3. Speaking Speed. Slow down your classroom speech by pausing at length between thoughts and sentences. Don’t speak slower and use “unnatural” English and what is often referred to as “teacher talk.”

4. Non-Verbal Communication. Teachers help provide context and support the understanding of spoken English with body language, especially facial expressions. Learn more about pragmatics.

5. Writing. Support your instructions and speech with written text, either on the board or on paper. Students can refer to this during or after and it will help them to understand.

6. Student Strategies. Teach students strategies for requesting clarification or getting help when they struggle to understand classroom L2 language, for example having them take notes for review, reference a dictionary or supplemental aide, or get help from a classmate.

7. Visual Support. Whenever possible provide images and diagrams that will support the English spoken in the class.

8. Comprehension Checks. Check students often for their understanding. Don’t just ask, “Do you understand?” or “Are you with me?” Rather, get students to repeat the language they heard or summarize what was said.

9. Repetition. Use the same set phrases and language cues during instruction, so students can understand them quickly and focus on classroom language related to content.

10. Affective Factors. Keep the classroom atmosphere “light.” Laugh at mistakes, encourage risk-taking and the spontaneous use of language. Treat students well, be kind, and promote classroom atmosphere and team playing. Get students helping each other – teachers don’t have to do all the work!

Classroom Activities

Learning in the immersion classroom should be discovery based and student centered. The type of activities students do, should reflect this in the timetable. The emphasis is on student “immersion” and use of the L2, not just them being passive receptacles of language and knowledge.

  1. Grouping. Teachers should group students to work together and help each other. There is no magic formula here but teams, pairs should be consistently rotated, giving students opportunities to work with all of their classmates. Strongly L2 fluent students can be paired to help weaker students but be careful, student personality is really the driver – match students up with those who will work together well, given their learning preferences and dispositions and individuals. What’s important to note is that teachers need to “let go” and “step aside” (a term Sugata Mitra made popular), letting students drive the learning process. Eventually, even get them to teach each other. By teaching, we learn and it is the best method of learning anything – having to teach it.
  2. Reading and Writing. Students should be challenged with appropriate level extensive reading material. Reading is a very strong way to acquire language. Get students to summarize their reading using organizers or discuss it, present it. Student writing can be as simple as getting students to create their own “mini-books” of unit content. Their own drawings and labeling.
  3. Stories. We are all hard-wired to learning through narrative, stories. Use stories to illustrate concepts and investigate the TPRS methodology (Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling. Together as a class, make up stories using the concepts and vocabulary you’ve been teaching and learning.
  4. Keep It Real. Whenever possible, knock down the 4 walls of the classroom. Bring in, zoom in guests on the topic. Connect with other classrooms. Get outside. Go on excursions. Make the l2 a living language and a “real” thing to your students. This will include engaging with all stakeholders, especially the parents, making them a part of your “immersion team”. The L2 must be seen as important and students need opportunity to use, experience the target language outside of class as well.
  5. Language Rich. Immersion is “diving in” and your classroom should be “language strong”. Post up and label your classroom with English words, posters, a go-to library. Engage the students to help you design your classroom so it “looks” immersive as well as acts it!
  6. Forgiveness. Language, learning and teaching in a second language can be stressful, tiring. Exhausting! Things will go wrong. But make it a habit with your students to each start anew. End each day with the vow, “tomorrow will be better”. Forget what didn’t go quite so well and learn the power of forgiving yourself. It’s a valuable message and approach for both you and your students. Vanish the frustration which will ultimately always occur – forgiveness is how to do it.

References, Resources, Further Reading.

Immersion Education: International Perspectives Robert Keith Johnson, Merrill Swain, Modern Language Centre Merrill Swain Cambridge University Press, Jul 13, 1997 – Education

Strategies To Support English Language Learners, David Deubelbeiss, ELT Buzz Teaching Resources. 2022

Creativity : Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention. Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly.  New York :Harper Collins Publishers, 1996.

Tarheel Reader. Make your own online books.

Language Immersion Programs. Flipboard Collection.

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