Immersion not always the key to second language acquisition

17th September 2018

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Researchers from the Australian National University (ANU) have found that in-country immersion is not always the best method for language learning for adult beginners, ahead of a special forum on second language acquisition to be held at ANU on 17-18 September.

Dr Yanyin Zhang from the School of Culture, History and Language says that the general belief is that immersive learning in the target language country is the ideal approach to learn a second language. However, previous research on study-abroad programs did not find convincing evidence that they helped students learn the grammar of the foreign language. These studies have also mostly focused on intermediate and advanced learners, and as such there has been little understanding of how in-country immersion applies to beginners.

To find out, Dr Zhang and Dr Bo Liu of the Australian Academy of Science conducted two longitudinal studies of beginner Chinese language learners in Australia and China over one year. The group based in China had considerably more classroom time – 24 hours per week over 18 weeks, compared with only 10 hours per week over 13 weeks for the Australia-based learners. The students in China also had natural exposure to the language in their daily lives.

However, this additional time and exposure did not equate to faster learning. While both groups attained the key Chinese sentence structures in the same sequence, the students in Australia learned much faster than those in China.

The students in Australia took 260 hours to be able to produce the most difficult structure in the study, versus the 692 hours the students based in China needed to get to the same point.

Dr Zhang argues that there are several reasons for this disparity. Firstly, absolute beginners are unable to take advantage of language immersion because what they hear around them is incomprehensible.

‘Learners must have the skill to process the speech signals they encounter, because incomprehensible input does not aid learning,’ Dr Zhang explains.

Secondly, incomprehensible input frequently occurs inside the classroom in the target language country. Due to the heterogeneous student population, lessons in a target language country may not be taught in a language that the learner is fluent in, making it difficult for them to understand the content.

Finally, beginners require a consistent emphasis on grammatical knowledge and skill to facilitate their development into fluent speakers, but teaching in a target language country may instead focus on words and expressions that help the students get by in their daily lives. While helpful in the moment, this approach does little to assist in long-term language acquisition.

Dr Zhang argues that the most sensible way to approach immersion study is to learn as much of the foreign language as possible before going to the target language country. This method enables learners to maximise the benefits of in-country learning by providing them with a solid foundation from which to build upon.

‘In order for the target language setting to have a maximum beneficial impact learners need to know some of the basics of the language first,’ Dr Zhang says.

The latest research on language teaching and learning will be explored at ANU on 17-18 September at a special forum on second language acquisition. The event will feature lectures and masterclasses from leading experts from the UK, Sweden and Germany. More information about the forum is available here.

Tags: Languages

Updated:  7 July 2017/Responsible Officer:  Director, Culture, History & Language/Page Contact:  CHL webmaster