Cactus uses a so-called ‘full immersion’ method of teaching. What are the benefits of this?

What is Full Immersion?

Full immersion in language learning refers to the foreign language (the ‘target’ language) being taught in that language, with no other language being used during the teaching. It is the preferred method for Cactus’ teachers, and is also used amongst Cactus’ partner schools abroad.

We could say that it is learning a foreign language the same way we learned our native language: by ‘living’ it. The student doesn’t only study the language – they live it, in an exclusively target-language speaking environment: the classroom. A well designed, full immersion course can surround students in the language, giving them opportunities to speak and hear it and, most importantly, teach them not to depend on translation for understanding.

Where did Full Immersion originate?

Full Immersion is originally a teaching method where non-language curriculum subjects, such as history, art or science, are taught in a foreign language. The foreign language is learnt alongside the non-language subjects. The first full immersion programmes, in French, began in the USA and Canada in the 1950s and 1960s.

The approach has been found to be successful in language teaching, with students showing better progress, learning more, and more quickly.

How do teachers use the Full Immersion approach?

Good teachers are able to make themselves understood without using the students’ language, even at Beginner level. They use gestures, pictures, objects, dialogues and other means of getting the message across. And they always teach ‘in context’. Students know from the context what is likely to be said – there are only so many variations on what people say to each other in a restaurant, in a shop, at a party and so on. So students already understand what would be said in that context in their own language and are then receptive to learning the target language forms. As the level advances, simple explanation is effective in helping to get meaning across, as long as it is within the range of what the students can comprehend.

Right from the beginning, target ‘classroom language’ is used, ‘open your books’, ‘I’ll write it on the board’, ‘what’s the word for x’, and so on, and students can then generalise their understanding of much useful language in this context over to new contexts.

Teachers will move from a more controlled method of teaching to free practice during the class, so that students feel supported when they start to learn new grammar and lexis. As they become more familiar with it the teacher will give less and less reinforcement, so that by the end they are able to ‘do it alone’. Rather like riding a bicycle and taking off the training wheels, improvement is smooth and progressive.

What is the student’s role?

Sometimes it’s difficult for people who are new to the method to understand how it works – particularly with beginner learners. It’s ideal if the students are aware beforehand of what to expect. However, even if students don’t know what to expect, a good teacher will make it easy for them by teaching from Day 1 through means that make the meaning clear. Students have to work hard. It is so easy to freeze and panic and think they will never understand. A good teacher knows this and helps by encouragement and demonstration and example. Importantly, students need to go over what was covered in class immediately after the class and again the evening before the next class: this revision is essential to make it stick. And students should always ask teachers if, after putting in some effort, they still don’t understand.

Students should be prepared to speak up and take risks and not be afraid to get it wrong; students should just say whatever seems ‘right’, and keep trying: they will learn from their own and their classmates’ mistakes, along with judicious correction from the teacher.

Is learning through Full Immersion similar to how we learnt our own language?

Although there are differences between the way we learn our own language as a child, and the way we learn a second or subsequent language as an adult, there are many similarities, and immersion learning exploits these similarities. Hearing and seeing language in context, simple listening and repeating, and trying things out and receiving feedback are features common to learning our first language and learning a second language in an immersion setting.

The secret is to ‘train’ yourself to ‘think’ in the target language, and to resort to translation as little as possible. Initially, students think in their own language, translating somewhere between the thought and the spoken word, until eventually there comes a point where suddenly the thinking is happening in the new language – (and even, some say, the dreaming! )

On the other hand, translation is in fact a natural resort for students when they are trying to fully understand a word or phrase in a foreign language. If used deliberately and appropriately and in moderation by the teacher, translation can be very useful in the language learning process. It’s a question of balance.

What about learning the culture of the target language country?

Ideally, full immersion would mean full contact with the culture too, such as may be experienced in the target language country. However, students don’t have to go abroad to experience the target language culture. In a good class, the student will learn much more than just grammar, sentence structure and vocabulary, also getting a good idea of the history, culture and sociological aspects of the target culture. At Cactus we take the view that the teacher is the student’s connection with the culture, and the classroom is the world of the target language for the learner. Class time is short, so this language world needs to make the most of all the time available to surround the student in the language: to fully immerse them.

What are the advantages of Full Immersion, in a nutshell?

There are many advantages to learning in this way, but the main benefits of the Full Immersion approach are:

1.  You learn faster! Once used to the method, you should pick up pieces of vocabulary more naturally and quickly.

2.  You learn to speak more naturally. This method trains you to think in the target language, not translate word for word.

3.  You’ll have the confidence to use what you have learned. Because you are ‘living’ the language in the classroom, you will be better prepared to use it in ‘real’ scenarios.

4.  You will understand the spoken language. Because you are used to hearing the language spoken, you will be able to understand it in real-life situations.

5.  You develop good pronunciation. You get maximum exposure to the language and are encouraged you to use it, helping you to develop speech patterns and pronunciation.

6. You gain a cultural insight into the language and the people who speak it.

7.  It’s fun! You will be using the new language straight away, which is a lot more motivating, engaging and fun than studying language theory.

Cactus offers a range of part-time language courses in locations around the UK and North America. We also work with language schools all over the world to provide language courses at a range of levels, lengths and formats. For anyone interested in a more bespoke type of training course, we also offer tailor-made and corporate language training options all over the world. 

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