Foreign Language Learning Resources - Which is Right For You? Part 1 - Total Immersion Programs


Most of you have seen the commercials touting a foreign language program using a very well known Olympic gold medalist swimmer. This popular and very polished software package, known as Rosetta Stone, is an excellent example (but not the only example) of a total immersion language program. But the commercials touting 'The Fastest Way to Learn a Language - Guaranteed', don't necessarily paint the complete picture for the prospective buyer.

What is it?

Let's start by exploring what is meant by 'total immersion'. A total immersion system is any program that thrusts you into a foreign language without any (or difficult to access) assistance in your native tongue. The basic idea is to learn by picture/video and audio reinforcement - the same way you learned your native language as a child. The concept is very simple - present a situation, dialog, or group of pictures and challenge the user to (initially) 'guess' the native word or phrase that applies to the situation. Variations on this basic theme include audio and picture only, sentence building and grammar reinforcement lessons. Other DVD based programs present common situations in video with on screen clues (sometimes pointers to what the actor is describing), eventually providing the answer with no user interaction. More extensive computer programs include voice recognition to assist you in learning the native accent. Through these methods, the student is expected to easily and quickly absorb the new language. In practice, however, it's not as simple, nor as fast as advertised.

Where it Succeeds

As you might guess, some aspects of a language are easier to convey with pictures than others. Immersion programs do the best job at teaching object vocabulary - otherwise known as nouns. It's expected that when someone sees a cat, they will eventually figure out the word that corresponds to the cat over time. A cat is a concrete easily identifiable object, and I am sure you can think of thousands more. Similarly, colors and numbers are easy, because they are easy to represent in pictures. These programs also do a good job at conveying the meanings of action verbs, particularly in the present tense. It's obvious to the student when someone is eating, drinking or walking and so on.

Immersion is also a great way to introduce a pre-teen to a foreign language. By their nature, kids are more responsive to this type of teaching and tend to soak up that material like a sponge - the younger the better.

Where it Fails.

Naturally, since these types of courses perform well with nouns, action verbs in the present tense, you will see a lot of them. Some of the cheaper programs rely exclusively on the present tense, while some of the more costly programs make attempts at past and future tenses. It's fairly difficult to represent past and future verb tense using pictures and video, and it's often done after reinforcing the concepts of 'yesterday' and 'tomorrow', which also require fairly creative pictures! Abstract verbs are also fairly difficult to represent in pictures, such as 'to have', 'to feel', 'to believe', etc... Other problems include object vs. personal pronouns. Specifically, the concept of him/her vs. he/she is almost impossible to convey in pictures.

But, perhaps the biggest issue of all concerns the adult learner. Many studies (as well as personal experience) have shown that adults learn much faster using native language cues and explanations. As adults are already versed in a native language, they can more readily relate native grammar to the differences in the new language. Total immersion programs can actually lengthen the amount of time it takes to learn a language in an adult when used as an exclusive learning tool.

In Summary

Despite these potential shortcomings (particularly for adults), don't write off total immersion entirely - just don't expect to use it as your primary language learning source. At the very least, make sure you accompany any total immersion program purchase with a good phrasebook, dictionary, or  beginner's course book - especially if you are dealing with a different alphabet or script. The presence of these native language 'helpers' will go a long way to enhance your learning experience, and quell any frustrations you might experience. For even better results, take the immersion course after taking any beginners course with English reinforcement. I will explore these other methods in coming articles, and until then, best of luck!