The Great Fallacy of Immersion Insistence

Here’s a brief example to illustrate how insisting on 100% TL (target language) use—even when there’s a shared language—ignores a most basic process in the mind:

  • __ _ato
  • __ __at
  • __ttus
  • fēl__
  • ____ Ka___
  • un ga____
  • mia g___

1) Regardless of those incomplete TL words, you looked at the Picturae picture, and on some level “cat” popped into your mind in your L1 (native language). That is, unless you thought this was a different animal, illustrating the issue of using pictures to establish meaning. Let’s say you did know it was a cat. Even if the TL words were to be filled in, you would still make a form-meaning connection between them, and your L1 word for “cat.” This is unavoidable, and also quite useful in terms of bootstrapping the TL.

2) This means that regardless of the TL, or any vocabulary task intended to establish meaning (e.g. pictures, gestures, circumlocution, etc.), the final process of the mind is always making a form-meaning connection to the L1. Again, unavoidable.

This is just to illustrate that immersion-insistent teachers might not be avoiding what they think they’re avoiding at all, mainly the L1—something activated one way or the other. Anything other than establishing meaning with the L1 delays the inevitable. Therefore, immersion-insistent teachers must recognize the role L1 plays in the process, and be prepared to evaluate what is gained (or lost) in that delay. Is it some kind of game? Cool. Are learners OK with not understanding immediately and can deal with high levels of “noise” in the input? Fine. Are you positive that an accurate form-connection is made? OK (but how, and when?). Do you have a ton of class time? Awesome. Whatever the evaluation is, be honest and critical, though, because “avoiding the L1” is a fallacy.

For some research to back up this commonsense idea, see Revised Hierarchical Model (Kroll & Stewart, 1994).

News to me this week was hearing from at least one teacher (which usually means there are more) reporting using the TL 100% of the time, but who also uses L1 to establish meaning. Clearly, this is not immersion, and what the teacher meant to say was that they never speak the L1. This accurately describes most teachers I know who don’t consider themselves immersion. It’s possible, then, that immersion-insistent teachers aren’t even 100% immersion as it’s defined! A good tip for discussions, then, might be to ask how a teacher establishes meaning, which is more helpful than potentially misused labels.


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