There’s more to immersion than relocating

11-Jul-2013

I have just come across the results of a really interesting study this week about language students’ interaction with their native culture, and how this affects their use of and fluency in the target language. If you want the full title of the study, it’s this:

“Heritage-culture images disrupt immigrants’ second-language processing through triggering first-language interference”

… What this means, for us non-sciencey folk, as the Smithsonian blog Surprising Science helped me understand, is that when a student who is learning a foreign language is exposed to images or concepts of their native language, the fluency of their target language is greatly reduced, and they tend to think in the terms of their native language, leading to overly-literal translations and less natural, more stilted fluency in conversation. What this means is that if even if a student is living in their native country of their target language, if they continue to surround themselves with “reminders of home”, they may be limiting the extent and level to which they learn that language.

The Smithsonian blog posting gives a fantastic and clear breakdown of how the study ran and the different experiments they did, along with the results, and I think it’s really interesting to consider how this could change things in the classroom, and even after a student has left.

Of course, in this day and age, if you teach in a private language school, your students are bound to come from a variety of different countries and cultures, so beyond the odd class or task where you get them to learn about each other’s heritage, you’ll probably focus on English-speaking culture and topics anyway. However, if you’re doing in-company classes or teaching at a public or state school where your classes are predominantly monolingual, you may want to learn more about this study and how continuing to focus on heritage culture might affect the students’ progress, and how their spoken fluency might be lower because they’re speaking with each other, and subconsciously slowing their speech or borrowing language structures from their native language. So how can you overcome this in a monolingual classroom?

If you are in a monolingual class, and they don’t have the opportunity to speak with native speakers, why not try and set up a sort of penpal system? You could contact teachers around the world who are teaching their students your native language, and set up each individual student with their own penpal who they could then Skype with. Or, you could use Skype in the Classroom’s penpal system and do it on a whole class basis, having a live Skype call one lesson a month, giving each other presentations and so on. This would be a really nice way of exposing students to natural, native English and would help to increase their fluency and confidence.

Another important consideration if you’re teaching a monolingual class is to Anglicize the context of your tasks as much as possible. So if you’re teaching a group of German businessmen who don’t really need to learn about British culture, you should still set any role plays, texts or listening tasks in an English context. For example, in a role play, give each student an English name, and have them meet “in England,” and working for an English company. If you want to do a reading or listening task based on a product specification, give them a British product by a British company. By consistently immersing them in British ideas and contexts, you can increase your chances of getting the most out of them.

I hope you find the study as interesting as I did, and if you have any thoughts on it, let us know in the comments below!

Becca

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