August 22

Language Learning Immersion Is Not The Whole Answer


It has been shown that learning another language in an immersion environment is consistently superior to that of explicit language instruction- as in a typical classroom situation. This has been shown anecdotally, as well as in some hard nosed research which looked at the respective effects on brain function. Learning a new language in an immersion environment affected neural activity in ways that classroom teaching did not.

In fact, the type of language learning that happens in an immersion environment replicates as close as adults can come to the situation of learning our first language. At that time nearly all of us are successful, so this type of learning can, in fact, be seen as a kind of benchmark.

However, as we all know, learning a second language in an immersion environment does not guarantee success for adults, or for teenagers for that matter.  So clearly there are some differences between what happens for us as infants and what happens for us later on.

language immersionThere are of course many issues that present themselves when we look at such a comparison. There is a particular area that I would like to focus on this week and that is the kind of factors that distinguish immersion learning in the later years compared to what infants experience. Why I believe we need to look at this is that many times our beliefs about the cause of the differences between infants and adults may have been formed by us not having access to all the facts or possibly even by our wish to explain away why infants have it over us! (They consistently are successful at learning languages whereas we are not!) These beliefs can, in fact, undermine our efforts to be successful.

I have heard various reasons for these disparities like “infants are hard wired to learn languages” or “infants pick it up intuitively whereas adults have to learn it” or “infants just pick it up”. None of these explanations offers us real insights, they just push the problem under the rug, as it were.  

So let’s look at the idea that both adults AND infants, in fact, have to learn a new language, and that is there is no hard wiring or some such thing. Why in fact then do adults have so many troubles learning a second language in an immersion environment, whereas infants appear to do it effortlessly.

There are in fact a number of reasons, some key ones being:

  1. Adults have other priorities, such as financial needs, that can dominate their attention.
  2. Adults gain a personality as they get older that may impede learning.
    • We can allow our listening abilities to become subservient to the needs of our personality. For eg, we listen for information that supports our beliefs and opinions.
    • Fears and insecurities can constrain us from having a go
  3. Adults’ education and upbringing can also reduce our learning skills.
    • Some people have been taught to doubt themselves and their abilities, despite the fact that we had everything we needed cognitively to learn our mother tongue- arguably one of the most demanding learnings we will ever undertake.
    • Many people have been taught to not trust themselves, instead trust the experts (in immersion, we learn by trusting ourselves NOT the experts)
    • Some people develop certain language learning beliefs, many times from how they have been taught, that undermine their innate ability to learn. Beliefs like, language learning is hard for adults or we learn languages by doing what we are told (learn grammar, go to classes etc)
  4. Adults can always resort to alternative means to understand what is happening (bilingual dictionary, asking a friend, internet) whereas infants must rely on their own devices- they have to sort it out.
  5. It has been shown adults’ brains are just less pliable or responsive than an infant’s brain. Some people claim that this is an important factor, however, there is plenty of evidence that adults are also capable of amazing learning feats, so this reason is over-rated.

So if we could get out of our own way and not let other priorities dictate our lives, learning in an immersion environment could possibly be just as effective for us as when we were infants. For language learners who find themselves stuck, sometimes addressing the matters just referred to above may well be essential to breaking through the blocks that prevent them from learning in such environments.


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  • Richard Sparks coined the term ‘foreign language learning disability (FLLD)’ and then did the research to prove it doesn’t exist. What is wrong with this picture?

  • Could you please cite the section of the Sparks article that says infants are not better-equipped to learn a language than adults. From reading the article, all I can see him saying is that children who do well at acquiring their native language are likely to do well acquiring a second language.

    “Because there is a strong relationship between native (first) and foreign (second) language learning, a student’s native language scores on measures of oral and written language should be roughly consistent with his or her score on an FL aptitude test.”

    The purpose of Sparks’ article is to oppose the idea of a Foreign Language Learning Disability, as distinct from some other kind of learning disability. This doesn’t seem to have any relationship to the point you’re trying to make.

  • I stand corrected. I went back to the original, not the secondary source I was using and found that there is no reference. So many thanks for pointing that out. I will now go and repair the damage.

  • As for the quote you mention “Because there is a strong relationship between native (first) and foreign (second) language learning, a student’s native language scores on measures of oral and written language should be roughly consistent with his or her score on an FL aptitude test.” that is in reference to only one study. There are references to plenty of other studies in that article that make the matter much more complex.

    In my own experience I have seen students illiterate in their own language from tribal environments do better in foreign language learning than professors from prestigious universities. The complexities are there for many reasons, the chief one being there is no reference to the learning/teaching methodology used in these studies. The methodology can make all the difference to literates and illiterates alike.

    This is a critical point I make throughout this site, that the approach you use will determine, in most cases, the results you get.

  • Just to clarify one point….Sparks’ purpose in writing the article was to “contend that the research literature does not support the notion that there is
    a scientific concept of ForeignLanguageLearningDisability separate from other more neutral terms”. In other words there is no “disability”… just problems.

  • Hi Andrew
    Thanks for your support service. i find your info really helpful.

    I was just after some advice from you, if you happen to have time and inclination, as I am about to make a big decision that relates to my language learning.
    I am in Guatemala and came hear to take my Spanish to the next level and to do some volunteering and explore the country.
    The last 4-5 weeks has been spent doing all of that with some intensive Spanish classes but I have been living with English speakers the whole time which has definitely hampered by immersion/progress. this will change on Monday when I do a homestay and start to move around.
    I also began a subject in a Masters degree (public health) by distance 2 weeks ago. Very interesting and lots of intense reading. I have to decide by next week whether it is realistic to study challenging material in English while trying to immerse myself in and improve my Spanish, if these are counterproductive exercises? Do you have a view on this?

    • HI Susanne,
      A great idea to to travel where you did! As you noticed though it is easy to fall into comfortable ways! 🙂
      Anyways, hard to give you in particular advice as I don’t know you. Here are some general points about your question, that you can interpret for yourself –
      – studying in English can distract you from focussing on Spanish – depends some on where you are with your Spanish and how you manage your time AND energy
      – Full immersion can have many benefits as your brain starts to operate solely in Spanish. Some people manage to do both really quite well…namely stay in 2 languages

      Anyways..usually, the best thing is to follow your heart! 🙂 Whichever feels better!

  • Learning new language is actually useful and helpful for a person to have that they can be able to gain some new ideas on how to understand different language and apply it in their work as well.

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