What is Immersion? > Immersion Ed > What is Immersion?

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)

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 a 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).

In our program at Katoh Gakuen, 50-80% of the students' classes are conducted in English from kindergarten through high school. Our program is a "partial" immersion program. (Total immersion would mean 100% of the students' instructional day in the first three or four years would be in the foreign language.) 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, policy makers, 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:

  • Language is acquired most effectively when it is learned in a meaningful social context. For young learners, the school curriculum provides a natural basis for foreign language learning, offering them the opportunity to communicate about what they know and what they want to know, as well as about their feelings and attitudes.

  • Important and interesting content provides a motivating context for learning the communicative functions of the new language. Young children are not interested in learning language that serves no meaningful function.

  • First language acquisition, cognition and social awareness go hand in hand in young children. By integrating language and content, foreign language learning, too, becomes an integral part of a child's social and cognitive development.

  • Formal and functional characteristics of language change from one context to another. An integrated language and content model in an elementary school setting provides a wide variety of contexts in which to use the foreign language.


What are the Goals of an Immersion Program?
Most language immersion schools have four immersion-related goals:

  • to achieve competency in the foreign language (listening, speaking, reading, writing)
  • to acquire the same L1 language arts skills as students in regular schools
  • to master content area skills & concepts
  • to gain a greater understanding and appreciation of other cultures


What are Some of the Key Features of an Immersion Program?
  • The program parallels the curriculum of the local curriculum. At Katoh Gakuen, this means that we follow the same curriculum in math, science, social studies, PE, etc, with the same outcome expectations of the students in the regular "non-immersion" program.

  • Material taught in the immersion language is never re-taught in the students' first language. Japanese teachers do review vocabulary and help prepare students for the unit and end of the year tests that are given in Japanese. However, Japanese teachers do not to re-teach or cover the same material as the immersion teacher. If the same material is re-taught to students in Japanese, students quickly learn that if they wait, they will get instruction in Japanese and will choose to "tune out" the English portion of the instruction. Just as in regular classrooms, students don't always master a skill or concept the first time so it is not uncommon to re-teach the material (in English) for slower students.

  • The school culture mirrors that of the local community. Katoh Gakuen is not an international school nor do we impose Western values or expectations on the students or parents. Foreign teachers must adjust themselves to this "new culture."


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:

  • Foreign language skills: Immersion students by far outperform students in traditional foreign language classes. Although students usually do not become "native-like" in the foreign language, they do become functionally proficient in the immersion language and are able to communicate according to their age and grade level.

  • First language skills: In the early years of first language instruction, there may be a lag in first language reading and writing skills. By the end of elementary school, however, immersion students do as well or better than students in "first language-only" classes.

  • Content areas: Immersion students achieve in academic areas as well as students in "first language-only" programs.

  • Cultural sensitivity: Immersion students are more aware of and show positive attitudes towards other cultures.


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 2003 survey by the Center for Applied Linguistics (CAL), there are over 400 schools in 27 states that offer total, partial or two-way immersion programs in 11 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.


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.