Language Learning through Grammar or Language Acquisition through Immersion – which method is best for your students?

In my previous blog post I discussed the rationale behind having children start learning their foreign language at an early age (whenever that’s possible and provided that children’s social skills are developed to a greater extent). The training that I recently attended helped me see for myself the benefit and ease with which a language can be acquired when the focus is shifted from grammar understanding to mere exposure to words, phrases, and expressions.

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If you are like me and the millions of students who have gone through a public school system with a robust and conservative method of teaching, you must have learned your second/third language through the grammar-based approach. In spite of the education’s best intentions, classroom learning represents a futile exercise in a dysfunctional laboratory. We memorize a few words, take a few tests, and when language learning is no more a requirement, we forget everything.

On a superficial level, the grammar-based approach appeared to provide a stable framework for the development of language skills. Deceived by the common trend and the way many of us have been educated, we tended to favor teaching rules and patterns as a prerequisite for understanding the second language. No matter what the foreign language is, one thing remains instrumental – the language needs to be “supplied” in a highly comprehensible way. Nevertheless, the grammar-based approach does not guarantee understanding as it is merely based on mechanical memorization and recollection of list of words without any stable foundation.

I myself have experienced how flawed this method of learning is when back in the days I attempted having conversations in English for the first time and my thoughts got literally paralyzed. My mind was preoccupied with thinking not about the topic but rather – about whether what I was going to say matched the language rules and regulations I was supposed to follow. So, in the course of my first years of manipulating the English language, I underestimated, and thus undermined, the capacity of the human brain to do its work of receiving and reproducing messages automatically (especially when it has been exposed to the same message repetitively). Isn’t it speaking, at the end of the day, a natural process of oral reproduction? Learning through (in the case of younger learners) and about (in the case of older learners) grammar complicates the whole process by placing learners in a position where they consciously or not assess and sift through language rules and sentence structures before (if, at all) uttering an expression. We all use our mother tongue without following any guidelines or being fully aware of the rules. We do it naturally as a result of being exposed to it. Why can’t we approach the act of learning a foreign language in the same manner? By naturally exposing learners to messages and letting them subconsciously reproduce them.

What is at the core of the immersion method?

In the course of the training I was introduced to GrapeSEED – an oral language acquisition curriculum tailored for young learners of English as an additional language. It is meant to lay a stable basic foundation in oral language skills and subsequently provide a bridge to reading and writing. It is designed in a way that allows learners to experience the language in a meaningful way through functions and notions. The function of language is communication for the purpose of greeting friends, asking/answering questions, apologizing, giving directions, expressing gratitude, and so on. In order to achieve these functions, we use a certain set of expressions (phrases and words) – for example, “I am sorry” communicates an apology – which can be naturally internalized through repetition.

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To help young learners acquire the language, educators need to design such activities that allow students the opportunity to practice the language in a natural way by repeating, acting out, answering and asking questions. In other words, learners need to be highly immersed in the new language primarily through exposure and practice. Children’s attention is drawn to the visually appealing artwork of the materials while the role of the teacher is to animate and breath life into the visuals through the use of gestures, facial expressions, and actions.

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What Do You See?

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Under what circumstances is the immersion method effective?

The method itself does seem promising when students are given the freedom to step outside of the framework whenever they are ready to, instead of sticking to the Teacher-Student-Teacher-Student pattern of repetition and learning. The reason being that it will allow students to carry over what they have learned to novel situations and contexts which is the ultimate affirmation of the success of the learning. The advantage of using GrapeSEED is that children get a feel of how the second language is naturally spoken and as long as they are exposed to the words, phrases, and expressions repeatedly within the right context, they will absorb and internalize them effortlessly.

This is highly applicable in the case of early aged kids who are less familiar with the concept of failure. To answer your question, if you are working with early age learners, you will highly benefit from the immersive method by taking advantage of the children’s brain plasticity learning languages effortlessly. Yet, you may wonder, “but how about youngsters who are highly anxious about the way they project themselves? How could this method be twisted in order to fit the needs of the older students – teenagers and above (especially young learners who belong to a community culture where fitting in is the norm)?” I will definitely touch upon this question in another blog post so stay tuned.

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