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.