When I was 16, I attended high school in the French city of Rennes. Like many foreign exchange students before me, I was assigned the same classes as local French students – literature, math and science classes – all, of course, entirely taught in French. Despite my (and my parents’) hopes that I would quickly pick up French this way, through immersion, I found that my limited proficiency in French (2 yrs) was an insurmountable barrier to learning the content of these classes. In fact, I felt that it was impossible to learn the French language this way as well. It was simply over my head, and after several months of listening to lectures I couldn’t understand, I became fed up with it. I chose instead to spend my time during lessons studying lists of French vocabulary words, those that I extracted from children’s books like Le Petit Nicolas, so that I might teach myself. This unofficial arrangement was acceptable for most of my French teachers, and for those for whom it wasn’t sitting through their classes felt like a mild form of torture.
One of the most interesting parts of my week at French lycée was the last lesson on Thursdays, a special elective class simply called “International.” This was an advanced English class that had students – most of whom were effectively bilingual in French and English – learning humanities content in English. While I opted out of all of the English classes that the school had assigned me in order to focus on the French language, I elected to stay in this one. “International” provided the temporary reprieve that I needed from the monotony of memorizing word lists and listening to incomprehensible French lectures. We learned about all sorts of stuff in that class – French/American relations, the formation of the European Union, and the life and legend of William Wallace, for example – that I still remember to this day.
While I didn’t know it at the time, this kind of immersive learning design – where learners learn content in a foreign language – is called Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL), and it has become very popular in Europe (Piesche, Jonkmann, Fiege, & Keßler, 2016). The appeal is obvious; Instead of learning just a foreign language or just the content of a subject like history or economics, students can learn two for the price of one!
A recent study came to my inbox thanks to Christian Bokhove that provides some answers to many of my long-held questions about CLIL – the learning model that I unknowingly underwent in “International” during that wonderful year in France, and that I would experience again, in Spanish, as a university student at La Universidad de Cadiz. The study, titled “Learning Subject Content through a Foreign Language Should not Ignore Human Cognitive Architecture: A Cognitive Load Theory Approach (Roussel, Joulia, Tricot, & Sweller, 2017), reports the results of three experiments that tested whether total immersion in a foreign language is an effective design for learning. Depending on the experiment, French students were to read and learn from a text (on either Law or Computer Programming) that was either French-only, Foreign language-only (English or German), or Foreign language with French translation. Participants were pre- and post-tested for their knowledge of the content, as well as their proficiency in the foreign language.
The results of the experiments were quite interesting. Learning the content was best supported by reading in one’s first language (in this case, French), followed by Foreign language with native language support. Immersing students in a foreign language in order to learn content resulted in the worst gains in content learning.
Perhaps these results aren’t so surprising. It seems reasonable to assume that attempting to learn content by being instructed in a foreign language will likely result in a cognitive load penalty that is greater than if content is taught in one’s native language. Working memory limits “disappear when dealing with organized, stored information from long-term memory” (Sweller, 2015, p. 3). Rather than just retrieving the entire schema of his/her native language from LTM instantly and effortlessly – allocating room in limited WM for learning the content – immersion learning requires that the student retrieve both content-related and foreign language-related knowledge simultaneously. The fact that students learned less of the content when it was presented entirely in a foreign language makes perfect sense.
What was surprising in this study was that the immersion group – the group that read texts in a foreign language only – didn’t even outperform the other two groups when it came to learning the foreign language! The immersion group didn’t even show a significant advantage in language learning over the native language-only group, as I would have expected. Check out the summary of the results for yourself:
How can this be? Don’t we learn best through doing, through “natural” means, just like young children?
Perhaps the conclusions that I drew as a high school student, immersed in French classes that were way above my level, were not that far off*. Not only is total immersion without foreign language instructional support incredibly boring and frustrating, it also doesn’t lead to much learning – neither of the content nor of the foreign language.
– Zach Groshell @mrzachg
Piesche, N., Jonkmann, K., Fiege, C., & Keßler, J. U. (2016). CLIL for all? A randomised controlled field experiment with sixth-grade students on the effects of content and language integrated science learning. Learning and Instruction, 44, 108–116. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.learninstruc.2016.04.001
Roussel, S., Joulia, D., Tricot, A., & Sweller, J. (2017). Learning subject content through a foreign language should not ignore human cognitive architecture: A cognitive load theory approach. Learning and Instruction, 52, 69–79. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.learninstruc.2017.04.007
Sweller, J. (2015). Cognitive Load Theory. In The SAGE Encyclopedia of Educational Technology (pp. 116–117). https://doi.org/10.4135/9781483346397
*In case you’re curious, I learned to speak French really well, but I credit autodidactism, not immersion in French high school, for this achievement
5 thoughts on “Immersion Learning Fails Students In More Ways Than One”
This is an eye-opener! I have friends in Ottawa whose kids are in the immersion streams. I haven’t spoken much about this, but I assumed that it must work very well. One difference though – I think my friend’s kids were in this stream from a younger age. Perhaps that made a difference. Thank you for this interesting piece.
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I think you might be right. I haven’t read the science but I’ve seen huge differences in immersion starting in grade 1 vs grade 5 as an international school teacher. I think the explanation is that instructional procedures that work for biologically primary knowledge – immersion – start to lose their effectiveness as we grow older. Learning second languages in high school and beyond requires instructional procedures for learning biologically secondary knowledge (academic learning).