Creating an Immersion Environment

Yesterday I observed Nikki's intermediate level class at the MLC Lake St Learning Center. When I arrived many of the students who spoke the same first language were sitting together at tables. For example, the Somali speakers sat at one table and the Spanish speakers sat at a different table. Part way through the class, Nikki asked the students to pair up with someone who spoke a different first language. She instructed students who were sitting with other students who spoke their same first language to move to a different table.

In my opinion, this strategy is very successful. I think it helps students learn more because  it creates an environment where students are forced to rely on English to communicate rather than their native languages. In this way, it challenges students to be more creative and think harder about how to say what they want to say. I also think anecdotally that students who speak the same first language tend to make similar mistakes, and so switching people up may help minimize this challenge.

As a life-long language learner (Norwegian, Spanish, Mandarin), I know from my experiences with immersion  that if the other people in my environment can't speak English, I am challenged to speak more Spanish, Norwegian, etc. I am also forced to think more creatively about how I say things. For example, if I can't remember the word for ATM, I might try to get the meaning across by asking for a "caja de banco" (literal translation: bank box). Immersion situations force you to think harder and use the words that you do know to get by. This experience helps you to practice more and learn faster.

We can create this immersion experience in ESL classrooms, but it probably won't happen on its own. We need to set the tone for the classroom in order to establish an immersion environment. Nikki did this by mixing up students so that they couldn't fall back on their native languages to communicate. I'd like to hear from you. What ideas have you tried to create an immersion environment? What's working? What challenges have you encountered?

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