The past decade has witnessed a huge surge in popularity of so-called “total immersion” language software – i.e., software that avoids all translation and grammar drills in favor of media-heavy activities based exclusively in the target language.  (See Rosetta Stone, or French in Action.)  These expensive programs easily lend themselves to marketing buzz and sexy press releases.   Yet before we get swept up in an airport kiosk promising that we will learn our second language “just like we learned our first one,” we should be asking ourselves if these language programs really live up to their hype.

Immersion programs unjustly neglect the mother tongue.  Perhaps the most important oversight committed by designers of language immersion software is that they ignore a key tool that adult learners wield: We already know a first language.  Most of us took five years or longer to be able to speak our first language articulately.  By appropriately using our native tongue in language instruction, adults can speed up the path to understanding complex grammatical concepts rather than having to “figure them out” over dozens of iterations.

An illusion of immersion is not the same as real immersion. Koichi over at Tofugu makes a great point in his post on Rosetta Stone.  Many products claiming to use total immersion are used in environments in which the target language is not spoken predominantly (e.g., a Chinese user learning English in China, or an American user learning Spanish in the United States).  The time spent using the product may indeed be helpful, but it only constitutes a fraction of the user’s day.  Koichi says:

“At the most, you’re probably spending an hour or two doing the Rosetta Stone thing, which definitely isn’t enough if you want to take this approach. Either do it all the way, or don’t do it at all. Japanese babies don’t have 2 hours of Japanese “immersion” and then 22 hours of English. If they did, they’d all speak English, not Japanese, and that’s not the goal you’re trying to head towards here.”

Time-strapped adult learners outside the target environment might be better off using a more convenient and modular drill-based software, or joining a conversation group, than spending time pretending they are in an environment where they are not.

Adults are not children. It is generally accepted that children absorb their first language within a “critical period” during which acquisition is automatic, rapid, and complete (Siegler, DeLoache, & Eisenberg, 2005).  Adults, in contrast, do not have the same rapid capacity to memorize words, acquire native pronunciation, and use correct grammar patterns as children without a much deeper and deliberate effort (often expedited by grammatical explanations in the native tongue).  Claiming that language immersion software  “teaches a second language the way you learned your first one” is therefore misleading, as we can never truly learn languages the way we did as children.

Immersion software is inconvenient.  The complex media-heavy environments created by language immersion programs make them difficult to digest in short study sessions that can fit into our busy adult lives.  Translation and grammar drills are much more easily “chunkable” and can be smoothly integrated into web and mobile applications much more easily than an 8 GB DVD set.

When you are searching for an effective second language solution, remember that pretty boxes and illusions of immersion do not necessarily translate to the best use of your study time Convenient language acquisition programs such as Brainscape could prove to be a more convenient, practical, and effective mechanism for today’s busy adult learner.

References

Siegler, R., DeLoache, J., & Eisenberg, N. (2005). How Children Develop.     New York: Worth Publishers.