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Immersion Education & Bilingualism

What is Immersion?

Mike Bostwick

Language immersion is an approach to foreign language instruction in which the usual curricular activities are conducted in a foreign language. This means that the new language is the medium of instruction as well as the object of instruction. Immersion students acquire the necessary language skills to understand and communicate about the subject matter set out in the school's program of instruction. They follow the same curricula, and in some instances, use the same materials (translated into the target language) as those used in the non-immersion schools of their district.

"Immersion" has been a convenient term used freely by schools and the media for an increasingly popular form of foreign language education. Unfortunately, in most cases, the term is misused. For many, the term "immersion" seems to imply any class that is taught through the medium of a second language. However, simply teaching a content class (e.g. Math, Music, Science, etc.) in a foreign language is not immersion. The most commonly used definition of immersion comes from Fred Genesee of McGill University, one of the world's leading authorities on immersion education. On page one of his seminal book "Learning Through Two Languages: Studies in Immersion and Bilingual Education" (1987, Newbury House) he provides the following definition of immersion:

"Generally speaking, at least 50 percent of instruction during a given academic year must be provided through the second language for the program to be regarded as immersion. Programs in which one subject and language arts are taught through the second language are generally identified as enriched second language programs." (p.1)

Typically it takes more than two or three years in an immersion program before the full benefits of immersion become evident. For this reason, it is important that students stay in the program the entire elementary program in order to realize the second language advantages of immersion. Students are also encouraged to continue immersion at the secondary level in order to maintain and develop their proficiency in the language.

Immersion represents the most intensive form of content-based foreign language instruction (Snow, 1986). In an immersion program, English is not the subject of instruction, rather it is the medium through which the majority of the school's academic content is taught. Typically, in most immersion programs this includes math, science, social studies and other subject areas. For an in-depth review of the research on immersion education in North America see Lambert & Tucker (1972); Swain and Lapkin (1982); Genesee (1983, 1987, 1995); de Courcy (1993), and Baker (1996). For an overview of research on immersion in other international contexts see Artigal (1993); Artigal & Lauren (1992); Berthold (1992); Baker (1996); Johnson & Swain (1997).

Most early foreign language immersion programs are either PARTIAL with at least 50% of the student’s instructional day taught in the second language (L2) throughout elementary school or TOTAL with the first two or three years of the students' instructional day taught entirely in the L2. In total immersion programs first language (L1) literacy skills are not introduced until grade two or three. Many programs that claim to be immersion would be more accurately referred to as either: "content-enriched foreign language classes" or "language-enriched content classes" or simply the more generic "content-based foreign language class" if they do not reach this 50% threshold.

Bilinguals Outnumber Monolinguals

International surveys indicate that there are many more bilingual or multilingual individuals in the world than there are monolingual. In addition, there are many more children throughout the world who are educated through a second or foreign language, at least for some portion of their formal education, than there are children educated exclusively through the first language. In many parts of the world, bilingualism or multilingualism constitute the normal everyday experience (see, e.g., Dutcher, 1994; World Bank, 1995). The results from published, longitudinal, and critical research undertaken in varied settings throughout the world indicate clearly that the development of multiple language proficiency is possible, and indeed that it is viewed as desirable by educators, policymakers, and parents in many countries (Tucker, 1999).

Why is immersion an effective second language model?

A great deal of research has centered on foreign language acquisition in various school settings. Over the past thirty years, due in large part to the success of immersion programs, there has been a shift away from teaching language in isolation and toward integrating language and content. This shift is based on four principles:


What are the Goals of an Immersion Program?

Most language immersion schools have four immersion-related goals:


What are some of the Key Features of an Immersion Program?


What are the Documented Effects of Immersion Education?

A growing body of research on immersion education has shown that immersion students consistently meet or exceed academic expectations in the following areas:


Canada: The Birthplace of Immersion Education

Although bilingual education can be traced back to 3000 BC, the form of bilingual education called immersion education that we use at Katoh is generally accepted to have started in Quebec, Canada. In 1965, a group of English-speaking parents succeeded in initiating an experimental immersion kindergarten for their students. Their goal was to ensure that their children achieved a high level of French, as well as English, in Quebec where the French-speaking majority were asserting their rights and taking more power in the political and economic fields.

Since then, French immersion has spread across the country and is found in every province and territory (for example 7% of the total student population in Ontario is in French immersion). Over 320,000 students in Canada are in some form of immersion program. French immersion is overwhelmingly a public school program so that all students have the option of entering early immersion (starting in kindergarten or grade one), middle immersion (grade 4 or 5) or late immersion (grade 6 or 7).

Although French immersion is by far the most common form of language immersion in Canada, other programs which might qualify under the "immersion" label are offered in Russian, Arabic, Cree, Hebrew, Mandarin, Mohawk, and German.

The USA and the Rest of the World

According to a 2011 survey by the Center for Applied Linguistics (CAL), there are over 528 immersion schools in 38 US states that offer total, partial or two-way immersion programs in 22 different languages. In addition to the USA, language immersion (usually based on the Canadian model) has spread to Australia, South Korea, Finland, Hungary, Hawaii, Spain, South Africa, Hong Kong and Japan. In Australia, for example, immersion programs are offered in French, German, Chinese, Indonesian and Japanese.

Center for Applied Linguistics. (2011). Directory of foreign language immersion programs in U.S. schools. Retrieved 12/12/13, from http://www.cal.org/resources/immersion/.


References & Readings

Artigal, J. M. (1993). Catalan and Basque Immersion Programmes. In H. B. Beardsmore (ed.), European Models of Bilingual Education. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

Artigal, J. M., & Lauren, C. (1992). Immersion Programmes in Catolonia and Finland: A comparative analysis of the motives for the establishment. Rassegna Italiana di Linguistica Applicata. 3.

Baker, C. (1996). Foundations of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism. (Second Edition). Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters Ltd.

Berthold, M. (1992). An Australian Experiment in French Immersion. The Canadian Modem Language Review, 49 (l).

Bostwick, M. (2001). English Language Immersion in a Japanese School. In D. Christian & F. Genesee (eds.), Bilingual Education. Alexandra: TESOL.

Bostwick, R. M. (1995). After 30 Years: The Immersion Experiment Arrives in Japan. The Language Teacher, 19 (5).

Cummins, J. (1998). Immersion Education for the Millennium: What we Have Learned from Thirty Years of Research on Second Language Immersion. In Childs, M., Bostwick, R. M. (eds.), Learning Through Two Languages: Research and Practice. Numazu, Japan: Katoh Gakuen.

de Courcy, M. (1993). Making sense of the Australian French immersion classroom. Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural development, 14, 173-185

Dutcher, N., in collaboration with Tucker, G.R. (1994). The use of first and second languages in education: A review of educational experience. Washington, DC: World Bank, East Asia and the Pacific Region, Country Department III.

Genesee, F. (1987). Learning Through Two Languages. (First ed.). Cambridge, Mass.: Newbury House Publishers. (Harper & Row).

Genesee, F. (1983). Bilingual Education of Majority-Language Children: The Immersion Experiments in Review. Applied Psycholinguistics, 4.

Genesee, F. (1995). The Canadian Second Language immersion Program. In 0. Garcia & C. Baker (eds.), Policy and Practice in Bilingual Education. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

Genesee, F. (1994). Second Language Immersion Programs. In R. Michael Bostwick (ed.) Immersion Education International Symposium Report on Second Language Acquisition Through Content Based Study: An Introduction to Immersion Education, Numazu, Japan: Katoh Gakuen.

Hakuta, K. (1986). Mirror of language: The debate on bilingualism. New York: Basic Books.

Johnson, R. K. & Swain, M. (1997). Immersion Education: International Perspectives. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lambert, W.E., & G.R. Tucker. (1972) The Bilingual Education of Children: The St. Lambert Experiment. Rowley. MA: Newbury House.

Mimi Met. (1996) "Teaching Content through a Second Language." in Educating Second Language Children by Fred Genesee (Ed.). Cambridge University Press.

Padilla, Fairchild, Valadez (Eds.) (1990). "Combining Language and Content for Second-Language Students." Christian, Spanos, Crandall, Simich-Dudgeon, Willetts. In Bilingual Education, Sage Publications.

Snow, M. A. (1986). Innovative Second Language Education: Bilingual Immersion Programs (Report- Evaluative/Feasibility 142): UCLA. Center for Language Education and Research.

Merrill Swain. (1996). "Integrating Language and Content in Immersion Classrooms: Research Perspectives." The Canadian Modern Language Review.

Swain, M. (1996). Discovering successful second language teaching strategies and practices: From program evaluation to classroom experimentation. Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, 17, 89-104.

Swain, M., & Lapkin, S. (1982). Evaluating Bilingual Education: A Canadian Case Study. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

World Bank. (1995). Priorities and strategies for education. Washington, DC: The International Bank for Reconstruction and Development.

Katoh Gakuen English Immersion/Bilingual Program