Immersion learning?

As I'm currently working as an immersion teacher with the Korean vocabulary to tell my students to sit down, it seems like the whole issue of immersion learning is one I've had ample opportunity to consider. There are three scenarios of immersion with which I have experience, so I'll talk a bit about those.

First, as a student:

I was the recipient of an immersion education, albeit later in my educational career and actually in the target language's country. As I'd already had two years of instruction in college, immersion was not a sink-or-swim enterprise. I knew plenty of words, could work out what I didn't and could make it clear what I could and couldn't understand to my professors, most of whom spoke very little English (or at least, very little English that I didn't already know in Russian). I benefited greatly and can still consider myself an advanced, nonfluent speaker of Russian.

Currently, I live in Korea. I have never formally studied the Korean language and before I came I had the time really to only learn the alphabet. In two months my vocabularly is at about 50 words. It's easy to memorize the words -- I find uses for all 50 almost every day, whether I'm buying food, teaching or in a taxi. However, I find that it is extremely difficult to get a handle on the structure and grammar of the language without formal study, and I can't imagine sitting in a class with a teacher speaking only Korean.

As an observer:

I had a sibling experience the wonders of language immersion as an elementary school student. The school, in fact, forbade those who taught German to speak to the students in English and required that all students speak to those teachers in German, even outside of class. The program, unique in its district, drew rave reviews, record fundraising efforts from parents, and produced proficient fifth-grade speakers, every now and then even a fluent one. However, these students encountered problems in middle school. The public middle school for which the students were districted drew from a wider area and thus had to establish a special German program just for these incoming sixth graders. Additionally, a good number of fifth graders from these suburban Atlanta neighborhoods went on to private school in the sixth grade, schools that didn't teach German. My sister was one of those -- she studied Latin in the sixth grade and French in the seventh and forgot most of what she knew about German, though the early exposure to another language undoubtedly helped her.

As a teacher:

As I've mentioned, I teach several different age groups and ability levels.

Adults: These students are similar to me as a Russian immersion student. They've all received formal training from a Korean teacher in the past and understand the structure and grammar of English well enough to understand my lessons. They also have a high enough vocabularly to a) tell me what they don't understand and b) figure out with context clues the meanings of words they don't know in my speech.

Kindergartners: Kindergarten is interesting. There are three age groups at my hagwon, and I teach the oldest, kids that will enter elementary school next year. We do reading, phonics, math and reasoning (like opposites and synonyms) every week entirely in English. Don't get me wrong, the don't speak English. They can't construct a sentence or understand most of what I say. But they do know a lot of words, and because they're starting to hear the sounds so early, many will find erasing their accent as they get older easier.

Elementary: I teach one high-level class of 7 and 8-year-olds. They, I think, benefit a great deal from hearing a native speaker every day, because they have very high vocabularies, some have spent time in English-speaking countries and many have parents that speak English. They're well on their way to fluency and they are able to transfer what they hear me say grammar-wise to their own speaking and writing. I also teach TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) listening classes, but again, about half these kids are effectively fluent and the rest are advanced speakers, so while they have things to learn, they can communicate fairly easily with a native speaker.

It's the beginner classes that are the problem. I have four classes of kids who quite simply do not know enough English to be taught in English. Many have no understanding of phonics and can't read aloud, even looking to me for help pronouncing the words "a," the," and "and." They don't understand the word "homework" or even commands like "read" and "repeat". It's frustrating for them to have a teacher who speaks no Korean and a textbook with no Korean in it, it's frustrating for me and I feel like I don't get anywhere with them. Don't get me wrong, I have some great kids in those classes, smart kids, but they are not ready for immersion classes.

So, the verdict, or at least mine.

I feel that the real benefit of English kindergarten is not producing fluent six-year-olds. It's making these kids that much more receptive to the English classes they'll have in schools (and probably hagwons) for the rest of their academic lives. I like the idea of language-themed kindergarten, actually, and I like teaching it.

Immersion classes for advanced elementary students is also helpful. It improves their accents, forces them to be creative to be understood, increases their vocabularly every day and requires them to process in English to a greater extent rather than just translating in their head. The children I teach will be TOEFL students by middle school easily.

However. Immersion classes with beginners is counterproductive. I'm not saying beginners shouldn't have a native speaker as a teacher, but the difference between being taught by a native speaker and being in an immersion class is shown in the difference between my elementary class with a Korean co-teacher and the two without. The class with the co-teacher is excellent. They're coming along nicely, learning their vocabulary, already recognizing sight words, showing excellent progress with phonics and the alphabet and generally learning well and eagerly. This is because exercise directions are explained in Korean. The simple sentences we use for reading are translated and the grammar is explained in Korean. Questions are answered in Korean. Yet they still hear English pronunciation, English grammar and English intonation from me. However, in the two classes that change, with me one day and their Korean teacher the next, my class is a joke. We get through a page, maybe two a day, it involves a lot of miming and drawing poor explanations for words. Part of the problem is that the school isn't treating the kids like beginners and thus the books we use are too advanced for them. Most of the problem is that I can't explain enough for them to understand what we're doing.

Because I don't speak Korean.

So what's the difference between my immersion classes with beginners and my sister's German class? I would guess... 1) those teachers and licensed and trained, they aren't just native speakers and 2) the curriculum is likely far better. Here they don't ask us about book recommendations, or I could've said what was too hard.

But there isn't a lot I can do, aside from keep drawing pictures. We'll see how the next two months go.

No comments: