Some Doubts About Learning By Immersion
Brian D. Rude 2012
For the past few months or so I have been trying to learn Spanish. This is nothing new for me. I took one year of Spanish way back in high school. Of course I have long since forgotten most of what I learned then. But I did not leave it at that. Sometime in my middle age, I don't remember exactly when, I thought it would be a good thing to pick up again. In middle age my approach to learning Spanish was to pick up a Spanish book and study it every day for a while. I don't know how many times I started to do this, kept at it for probably a few months, and then drifted away from it. I would stick with it enough to make a little progress, but never long enough to feel I was anything but a beginner in Spanish, a low level beginner.
I also had a year of Latin in high school before I had that year of Spanish, and I took three semesters of German in college, so I have at least a little basis for knowing how to go about learning a language. Before those three semesters of German in college I had spent a year in Germany in the Army. During that time I made a concerted effort to learn German by self study. I mention these things just as a bit of back ground information. Nothing in my foreign language experience is very impressive or important, but of course all of it influences the way I see things.
A year or so ago my wife got a "Rosetta Stone" Spanish language course. Rosetta Stone is a company that produces computer language courses. She spent some time working on it. I was not interested in doing anything with it at the time. I was not convinced it was worth the price, about $200, but didn't think much more about it. However some months ago I began to hear Rosetta Stone advertisements on the radio. I didn't like these ads one bit. I can't remember just what they said but I felt they were shamelessly overpromising. I am not receptive to the idea that a language can be learned quickly and easily, as these ads promised. But overpromising in advertisements is nothing new in today's world, or yesterday's world either.
I decided to try the Rosetta Stone course. It was bought and paid for, and setting in the closet, so I might as well see what I could do with it. I did want to learn Spanish, so it made sense to at least check it out. And by doing so I figured I could collect first hand evidence that Rosetta Stone is shamelessly overpromising, for what that would be worth.
Of course Rosetta Stone was overpromising in the radio ads I heard, and I presume they still are, though I haven't heard those radio ads recently. But that is not the main point of this article. The point of this article is to question the whole idea of immersion learning. I think it is not only in language learning that it is applied. Later in this article I will connect language learning by immersion with some ideals of learning of math, reading, science, and very importantly, culture..
I completed the Rosetta Stone course in about two months. It was then that I discovered it was only Level One. I don't know how many levels they have. This was a very limited course in Spanish, more limited than I thought it would be. However it is enough for me to feel I now know something of their approach to language teaching and learning, which they call "dynamic immersion", enough to comment on it at least. I will begin with a general description of their approach.
Rosetta stone starts with a short lecture, five minutes long at most. This is purely an audio lecture. No speaker is seen. It is explained that immersion is how we learn our native language. Obviously you can't learn your native language by having it translated. Therefore, the reasoning goes, learning a foreign language by relying heavily on translation must be an artificial way to do it. Obviously learning a foreign language in the same way you learned your native language is the best way to do it.
It may sound obvious, but that is a very incomplete argument. And it is not a new argument. When I was in college in the early sixties, I thought language learning by immersion was a new idea, but later read things that led me to believe that it was not at all a new idea. I'm not sure just when it was new. I believe Berlitz language school used the idea way back in the first half of the twentieth century.
If immersion has been around for so long, and if it really is obvious, why has it not long ago taken over the field of language learning? One explanation is that learning by immersion is just another education fad, a fad that comes and goes over time, though such fads never seem to totally go away, and every time it comes again it seems like such a wonderful shiny new idea that it just can't be wrong.
But saying an idea is an educational fad doesn't prove it wrong. And saying that it seems obvious doesn't prove it right.
Rosetta Stone uses immersion primarily with images. It "immerses" you with pictures. At the very beginning they show a picture of a young boy running, and they present with this image the written words, "el nino corre" and a voice says the words. Another picture on the same screen is of a man drinking something out of a glass, with the words, "el hombre bebe" written and pronounced. A third picture is of a woman eating something, with the words displayed and pronounced, "la mujar come". And so it goes for a while. Different nouns are put with different verbs and presented with appropriate images. New words are added one or two at a time at appropriate intervals. At no point is anything translated. Rosetta Stone will not tell you that "corre" means "runs" and "bebe" means "drinks". You have to figure that out from the images, which is very easy to do. You just look at the pictures.
I don't believe Rosetta Stones explicitly says it, but I think advocates of immersion learning would caution against translating even in one's own mind. Don't tell yourself, I expect they would say, that "corre" means "runs". Once your start translating you are moving away from the ideal learning mode, which is immersion.
Learning by immersion is not supposed to be an active process. Indeed this is emphasized in Rosetta Stone's radio ads. "No tiresome memorization of vocabulary, no grammar drills, just listen and learn . . . ". Those are not Rosetta Stones exact words, but they say something like that. And the terms "active process" and "passive process" are my terms, not Rosetta Stone's, but the implication seemed pretty clear to me, both from the advertisements and from the content of the course. You don't have to work at it. Just go to the computer and let it happen. You pick up meanings by the context, and with Rosetta Stone that context means pictures. Just sit back and relax. Just let it happen.
I found, as I progressed, that the Rosetta Stone method was a little more active as we went along. At the beginning not a lot of brain power is needed. You see a boy running and the words are presented, both visually and verbally, "El Nino corre", and it is easy to make the connection. That is pretty straightforward. However as I progressed through the course I realized that I often have to look at the pictures carefully and make hypotheses about the meaning of new words and consciously look for clues in the pictures to confirm or reject these hypotheses. I'm not saying this is a bad thing. I'm just saying that it gets a little outside of the original meaning of learning by immersion, which is touted, at least implicitly, as a passive process.
As an example in one frame there are four pictures. In each picture people are eating. Presumably we already know the words "desayunando", which means eating breakfast, and "cenando", which means eating dinner. The new words being taught are "afuera", which means outside, and "adentro", which means inside. The first picture has the words, "Estamos desayunando adentro." The second picture has the words "estamos cenando afuera." The third picture has the words "Estamos desayunando afuera". The fourth picture has a blank for words, meaning the learner must speak the words, after figuring out what those words should be. Looking at the pictures carefully you can figure out that "adentro" means inside and "afuera" means outside. In the fourth picture you have to figure out that they are eating dinner, not breakfast, and that they are eating inside, not outside. On that basis you can come up with the correct response, "Estamos cenando adentro."
This works, but is it the best way to do it? Supposedly the pictures serve to "immerse" you in the situation. But if by "immersion" we mean that you get the meanings of the words without any active thinking, then it doesn't really seem to succeed. For me at least, it takes actively thinking about the pictures, about what they show and don't show. It requires actively guessing of the new words, and then confirming that guess by responding, verbally in this case, and seeing if you are right or wrong. I am not arguing that this method is unsuccessful. My argument is that it is getting away from learning by immersion if we stick to the ideal of learning by immersion being a passive process. If you just sit back and relax, it won't happen.
One might argue that immersion is never meant to be a passive process, that of course it requires active thinking, but it doesn't require translation into one's native language. That would make sense. In looking closely and the pictures, and thinking about what is presented and what is not, I did not translate. So if avoiding translation is seen as the essence of immersion then perhaps it is still learning by immersion. But I would argue that that's not what Rosetta Stones radio advertisements lead people to think. And I will also argue that translation is very often worthwhile. Learning a language requires a lot of active thinking, and one's native language is a powerful tool for that active thinking, a tool we are foolish to try to do without. I did not need to translate to figure out "adentro" and "afuera", but I see no great advantage in not doing so.
For this particular lesson one may certainly ask if getting meaning by analyzing pictures is superior to getting meaning be being directly told that "adentro" means "inside" and "afuera" means "outside." The definitions of these two words are very straightforward. Presumably we want to learn the language directly, not by translating. Being given the definitions, "inside" and "outside", we are translating, and that is to be avoided. But once again we might ask if there is really anything to be gained by avoiding translation.
It would seem the general reason for avoiding translation would be that translation is an extra mental step, and that takes both time and effort. Certainly that makes some sense. If indeed a person were to translate every thing all the time that would indeed be a waste. If you didn't know what "la casa roja" meant until you thought "the house red", or "the red house", then that is definitely not good. But why would we think that anyone would translate at every step? Perhaps the idea is that if the student has translated to do exercises then it becomes a mental habit and one will continue to translate in context, when all we want is the meaning. I heard this argument when I took Spanish in high school, and it was not too convincing then. To me it always seemed that if you know what "casa" means and you know what "roja" means, and you know how words are put together in Spanish, then the meaning of "la casa roja" is obvious. Possibly the English translation will go through your mind in some situations, but I've never been convinced that that really matters.
Even when I was taking Spanish in high school I was analytic and introspective, and I was aware than when I was reading Spanish I was mostly not translating. There could be situations in which I would translate consciously. There could be sentences in the reading in which I thought I knew what every word meant, but I would still wonder just what the sentence meant. In that situation I might consciously translate the sentence into several possible meanings, and that translation would help me form an opinion of which meaning was mostly likely. But the idea that translation might be a bad habit, translating automatically when it does no good, still doesn't seem likely. This is not to say that teachers shouldn't point out to students to be careful not to fall into the habit of wasteful translating. But it doesn't seem like a major concern to me. I am confident in saying that whenever I studied a language translation was always a valuable tool, but a tool that is put down immediately when not needed, and picked up again immediately when needed. One would do the same with a hammer or saw when doing carpentry.
Another argument for not translating is that languages are not translatable word for word. That is indeed important. That needs to be explained to beginning students in a language. I presume it normally is explained, and good explanation usually involves some translation. For example, in English we have the verb "like", as in "I like to run", or "I like apples". However in Spanish we would not say it that way. We would say "Running pleases me", or "Apples please me". In many cases such as this a literal translation is a poor translation. But I don't see that as a reason to avoid translation. Indeed it seems to me that the literal translation is valuable. It shows explicitly how meaning is put together in Spanish. It illustrates the point that languages are not translatable word for word, that there are different ways to say something, and different languages will customarily use ways that are pecular to that language.
Here is an interesting phrase I came across in a Spanish book. "Echar de casa por la ventana" is translated "to spare no expense". This phrase is presented at a place in the book where "casa" and "ventana", meaning "house" and "window", would be well known vocabulary, and "por la ventana", meaning "through the window", is easily understood. "Echar" is apparently a pretty general verb, translated as "cast", "throw", "put", "lay", or "take". So apparently it is a Spanish idiom. Apparently when a Spanish speaker says "I threw the house out the window just to make sure I had it right.", he would be understood. In English we don't have that idiom so it sounds very strange. In learning this I very much want it explained. I want the literal translation, and the information that it is Spanish idiom. It can be argued that I don't need the literal translation. I figured it out. So anyone can figure it out. So why bother to explain? The answer is that I want confirmation that I figured it out right. And I want confirmation that the words mean what I think they mean.
I can't say just how effectively Rosetta Stone's picture method works at the beginning stages of Spanish, because I did not use it for the very beginning stages of learning Spanish. For me the very beginning stages of learning Spanish took place over fifty years ago when I was in high school. But I can say that it certainly appears to work. Most of the vocabulary I have encountered in Rosetta Stone is not new to me, but some of it is. And normally the meaning of an unfamiliar word is readily apparent from the pictures presented.
I did not begin Rosetta Stone with an agenda. I did not wish for it to succeed for me or to fail. Of course I had some agenda. I wanted to find out just what their method is. I know what conventional classroom instruction in a language is like, from my one year of Spanish and one year of Latin in high school, and from three semesters of German in college. And I know what self study in a language is like. I did that very seriously when I was in Germany in the Army, and I have had bouts of Spanish self study off and on in recent decades. But perhaps Rosetta Stone will have some new and different experiences that are worth knowing about. And perhaps Rosetta Stone will give me a new perspective on my other language learning experiences.
And I also had the agenda to prove that Rosetta Stone is overpromising in their radio advertisements. But that is not very exciting. It's too easy. It's like proving the sun rises in the East. Of course they overpromise.
After a few weeks of working with Rosetta Stone for perhaps a half hour everyday I did get the feeling that yes, I was making good use of my time. I was indeed learning Spanish, at a beginning level, of course. And my general impression was this this method of learning a language works just fine. My background in Spanish, limited though it is, certainly made my experience different that it would be for someone who knew nothing of Spanish. What I did in a month or so might take three or four months for someone of my ability who knew no Spanish at all, but that is just a guess.
The thought even crossed my mind that I might want to use Rosetta Stone to learn German. That thought quickly vanished when I thought of paying over $200. No, if I want to continue my German learning, I'll do it by putting in my time with the books I already have, or with another book or two that I probably wouldn't pay over $20 for. It's the investment in time that will result in my learning German. To say that Rosetta Stone seemed to make good use of my time, is not saying too much. There are a lot of things I can do to learn a language that also make good use of my time.
There may be a case to be made that the Rosetta Stone method is more pleasant than studying out of a book. Maybe it takes considerably less willpower to stick with it. It is not easy to dutifully pull out a book everyday and apply yourself to it. Maybe it's a lot easier, takes a lot less willpower, to sit down at the computer, click a few places to start the program, and then respond to the prompts.
Indeed much of my time spent with Rosetta Stone was pleasant. It was easy to just start the program and respond to the prompts. However that pleasant state of affairs did not last throughout the course. And, as I mentioned, I did complete the course.
There is one thing that appears to be the same whether working out of a book or working with Rosetta Stone. After you leave a lesson you need to return to it and review. This is a little hard to do whether using a book or Rosetta Stone. When you return to review a lesson it is not new and exciting any more. It is much more just a task that you know you ought to do. Thus it takes more will power. Rosetta Stone does take the need for review into account. Just because you have completed a particular lesson doesn't mean you are done with it. Rosetta Stone schedules a review. Indeed it tells you about it. It tells you something like, "It is time to review this lesson. You completed it on October 4 with a score of 85%." For a while I would dutifully run through such lessons again, but toward the end of my time with Rosetta Stone I would skip over them, which Rosetta Stone enables you to do with a click. I found new material much more motivating than reviewing old material, even though I recognized the value of reviewing the old.
My experience with Rosetta Stone is certainly limited, and it was mostly pleasant. However toward the end of that experience I got the distinct impression that the honeymoon phase of that experience was rapidly drawing to a close. Continued progress in Spanish, by any means, would take a lot of hard work over a long period of time. My impression was that whether I continued with another level of Rosetta Stone, or reverted to self study with books, didn't matter much.
It became clear after a few weeks that this course by Rosetta Stone does not go very far. We were only in present tense after I got into it a little while. Then we got into present progressive tense. However no tenses were explained. Nothing about gender was explained. Nothing about singular and plural was explained. Nothing about formal and familiar was explained. The Rosetta Stone method does not include explanation. It is immersion, after all. Explanation is deemed to not be necessary. Immersion does not include explanation.
But I want explanation, and I want at least some translation. The first thing that caused me to think I want a translation, at least now and then, was the word "canoso". From the context, the previous frames in the lesson, I understood that we were learning how hair color is expressed. "Pelo" is hair, so "pelo negro" means "black hair", "pelo marron" means brown hair. They even had a picture of a guy with his hair dyed bright blue, "pelo azul". However that pattern is not universal. For a blond person, they don't say "pelo amarillo" (I suppose they would to emphasize when hair is bright yellow.) they say "es rubio" or "es rubia" which I translate to "he is a blond" or "she is a blond". That makes sense. But it took me a while to figure out what is meant by "canoso". Canoso is not a color, apparently. Context, eventually, showed that the word is used for old people with gray hair. They don't say "pelo gris", for "gray hair". So perhaps "canoso" is a color, but a color applied only to hair. Or perhaps it is not primarily a color, but just a word to imply that the person is older. This is not the most important issue in learning Spanish, of course. My point is that explanation and translation should not be dispensed with entirely. I can imagine a teacher using the general strategy of learning without translation, but still using explanation and translation when it is helpful. I would certainly appreciate a simple translation or explanation of "canoso"
In one topic in Rosetta Stone I gave the response "Encantado de conocerte" which is the polite thing to say after you have been introduced to someone. I think a literal translation would be "enchanted to learn of you". But my response was wrong. the correct response was "encantado de conocerlo". The "lo", instead of "te", was the difference. How come? This was not explained. We are supposed to learn by immersion. I don't know why "lo" was used instead of "te". The explanation is probably very simple, but Rosetta Stone does not explain.
My hypothesis is that "te" is familiar and "lo" is formal. The pictures are consistent with this explanation. But I might be wrong. The use of "te" or "lo" may have nothing to do with familiar and formal. Rosetta stone tells us nothing about familiar and formal. So how are we supposed to understand? By context? I thought about the context in which "canoso" was used a number of times when I would encounter it I eventually decided that the context was not sufficient for me to figure out just what the meaning of "canoso" is. I need a simple direct translation and explanation Trying to get meaning from context is inefficient and wasteful.
So I want an appropriate amount of both translation and explanation when learning a language.. Immersion has its limits.
How do native speakers learn about familiar and formal? Don't they have to learn by immersion? Or do they learn by explanation? Maybe they learn it totally by immersion. I'll take a wild guess that a three year old native speaker of Spanish would not properly use the familiar and formal forms, but a six year old would. if this is the case then about three years of immersion will do the job. And I'll take a guess that with explanation, probably incorporated into a series of lessons, it can be learned rather quickly, in minutes for initial understanding, and days or weeks, depending on how you figure the time, for it to become assimilated in the mind. I'll also take a guess that native speakers learn about familiar and formal with some explanation along with immersion. If I am correct that children are between the ages of three and six when they get it straightened out, then surely explanation by parents must be at least partly involved, and probably important.
Immersion is obviously a necessary method at the very beginning of learning our native language. Translation is impossible at that stage. But that is not the same as saying it is the best way to learn a language at any age. I think there is plenty of evidence that even in learning one's native language, translation, in a sense, is used extensively when translation becomes possible, that is when there is enough language ability developed in the learner's mind so that new words and concepts can be translated into the language that the child does have. In this article I will try to develop the argument that at some age, perhaps at five or six, most language learning occurs more by a process much like translation. Parents and teachers explain new words in terms of old words. Therefore immersion is not at all the best way for an adult to learn a foreign language. Indeed I will try to show that what we think of as conventional classroom instruction is hard to beat.
Consider this example. Johnny, a toddler, is perplexed, jealous, and frustrated. His sister is having a birthday party. Johnny is very young, he doesn't understand much of his world. But he does understand, at least in some way and on some level, that his sister is being favored and he isn't. He has very limited ability to express his feelings, but he can act up in some ways, and so becomes a problem to his parents. How will his parents react to this situation? Will they try to explain to Johnny what a birthday is? Will they explain about taking turns, that everyone has a birthday and gets favored treatment when their turn comes, but not before? Will they use language to convey these ideas?
I can't analyze in very great detail what goes on in these situations, as I don't have much experience with young children, but I would argue that, yes, parents will try to explain things to Johnny, explain that everyone has a birthday, that a birthday is treated as a special day for that person, and that everyone's turn for that special treatment comes around once a year, but at different times for each person. This is not easy to explain to a child who's conception of time does not encompass the concept of a year, but parents do the best they can.
Understanding birthdays is perhaps not primarily a matter of language learning, but certainly language learning enters into it. Can we say this learning occurs by immersion?
By saying that parents explain about birthdays to children, I am saying that learning about birthdays occurs by something more than immersion. So at this point we might try to pin down just what do we mean by "immersion", or "learning by immersion"?
I will use the terms "immersion" and "absorption" interchangeably. The idea of immersion is that we somehow passively learn from our environment simply by being immersed in our environment. We absorb our language simply by being exposed to it. "Environment" in this context means our social and cultural environment as well as the physical world.
As an example, consider the learning of the words "mama" and "papa", which presumably would be very early in a baby's language acquisition. Parents and other adults use the words in the presence of the baby, but obviously cannot define them for the baby. Yet somehow, over time, the baby learns the meanings of "mama" and "papa". We say it is a passive process because we can identify no discreet parts in this learning, no active processes that can be conceptually defined. There is time at which the child obviously gets no meaning whatsoever from these two words, and another time in which we can say the child obviously "knows" the words. We can say he knows the words because he uses them accurately, appropriately, and repeatedly. But between these two points in time there is nothing we can identify as steps in the learning. The child is immersed in language and culture, and he simply "absorbs" vocabulary. Also, of course, he is absorbing concepts and facts about his world. He is absorbing his culture.
So "learning by immersion", or "learning by absorption", is real. But how far does it go? Does it go on throughout life? Does it get replaced, or at least largely replaced, by other processes as time goes by?
"Incidental learning" is another term we can use for learning that comes simply by being in a situation. I have considered incidental learning, and its limits, in my article "The Case Against Incidental learning" on my website. I don't think of incidental learning and learning by immersion as identical, but they obviously are closely related. Whatever we call it, if we look closely enough we can find it at any stage of life. Such learning never totally ceases, and it can pop up unexpectedly at times, and sometimes unwelcomely. But it also seems very limited, far too limited to be a basis of learning anything important, other than at the very beginning of learning.
Jump ahead in a child's life to high school. Is he still learning by absorption? Obviously he is still immersed in his native language and in his native culture. Surely he is still absorbing things. But just as obviously he is doing a lot of learning by something other than absorption. His lessons at school include a lot of what we can call "definitional" learning. Teachers explain things. Children respond by doing what they have to do to learn what they are supposed to learn. Students are expected to listen attentively, to complete assignments, to give responses to prompts, to both give and receive feedback about what they are learning, and to explicitly demonstrate their learning on tests. This does not seem to be a process that can be described as simple absorption. The learner takes an active role in it. Explicit steps that result in this learning are easily identified, and can be named and analyzed. When a ninth grader says "I need to study tonight for the history test tomorrow", we know what she is talking about. She must do things, reading, writing, talking, thinking, that result in learning, and the test results will give a clear indication of how effectively she did these things. Learning results from the learner consciously and purposefully directing attention and efforts. Learning occurs by a lot more than passive absorption at this stage.
In one sense we might say the ninth grader is still learning by immersion. She is still immersed in her culture. But in learning by immersion, presumably we do not do textbook exercises. We don't study grammar. We don't study spelling. We don't do pencil and paper drills. We don't get together with a classmate and quiz each other. We don't do all those school things we do in learning history, or math, or science. Surely learning by absorption at this age is still going on, but it is not easy to identify, and we don't think of it as a way to prepare for a history test.
What about language learning in high school? Are students in high school still learning their native language? And are they learning it by immersion? I would certainly hesitate to say they are not, but I would certainly say it is not at all the whole story. Students take either English, or language arts, or something along that line in almost every year they are in school. And when they do so we expect them to do a lot of paper and pencil assignments. It is possible that learning by absorption is still important at this stage, but it is not obvious to me just what that learning might be and how it might be important.
Let us return for a moment to the example of parents trying to explain birthdays to a toddler. I said that parents will try to explain. But since the child is not old enough to understand much, just by being so young, could we say that learning is still by immersion? Can we say the child is just absorbing knowledge from his culture? Is this birthday learning example more like the way a baby learns the meanings of "Mama" and "Papa", or more like the learning of a fourteen year old in a ninth grade history class? Or is it approximately midway between these two poles?
I would interpret this example, a toddler learning about birthdays, as about half way in between. Could we modify this example a bit to make it more definitely toward one pole or the other? Perhaps moving it more toward immersion could be accomplished if the parents just didn't try to explain birthdays. If they took the attitude that it is impossible to explain to a child of this age, and that the child will understand soon enough when he figures it out on his own. But "figuring it out on his own" still seems a step beyond absorption.
Moving this learning more toward explicit verbal instruction, it seems to me, is not so easy. If a child cannot understand the language that his own parents would use to try to explain it, then perhaps it is impossible. Could an author of children's books make up a story in which birthdays are explained? Perhaps. That might work better than just a parent's explanation. What seems most important to me is that conscientious parents (admittedly that is not every parent) would want to explain, would want to use the language abilities the child has to help him understand as best he can. Learning by immersion, just leaving him to his own devices to figure out why his sister is being favored, would not seem a very appealing thing to do to most parents. It would seem more like neglect than nurturing.
Thus I am led to the conclusion, tentatively at least, that immersion is not the ideal of learning a language. Rather it is the method of last resort. When explanation is impossible, immersion is all we have. Explanation is impossible for a baby who has no language whatsoever, so immersion will have to do. But once explanation is possible, civilized people start explaining, and they never stop.
But maybe language is different from other learnings. Sure we explain birthdays, and we explain the sun and the moon, and we explain arithmetic, and history, and on and on and on. But maybe language is different. If so, how?
One argument that language is different is the apparent lack of explanation of words by parents and teachers. Most parents don't wake up in the morning and make up a list of 10 words they are going to teach their child that day.
However a little thought reveals that there is a lot of active instruction by parents. Parents will celebrate and reinforce language efforts of their young children. When it is obvious, or just assumed, that a baby getting a bath doesn't know the names of body parts parents will often take the initiative to teach them, just as part of their normal interaction. Parents take the initiative to teach their children colors, numbers, days of the week and probably lots of other simple concepts. The example of parents trying to explain to a toddler what birthdays are all about is an example of active instruction. Children in a healthy family situation ask a lot of questions. Parents use these questions as opportunities to give explicit instruction. Learning by instruction is not learning by absorption.
Of course I am speaking of simple explanation as instruction. It may not be instruction in the school sense, where a course of study is laid out by the teacher, learners are expected to pay attention and follow directions, and those directions involve doing a lot of practice, and where formal assessment in some form is given. But simple instruction is a long way from immersion.
Another argument that language learning is different from other learning comes from the evident quantity of learning that is required to become proficient in a language. If we assume that a child starts kindergarten with a 10,000 word vocabulary, or that a high school graduate has a 50,000 word vocabulary, then there doesn't seem to be nearly enough time to learn that from explicit instruction. 10,000 words learned between the ages of 1 and 5 would be about 7 words learned for each and every day in those four years. and a vocabulary of 40,000 words learned between the ages of 1 and 18, comes out to about the same. Most parents don't remember explaining seven words per day to their toddler. But I think that is misleading. I have two lines of argument here.
First I don't believe the vocabulary estimates I gave. If we consider 1000 words as the vocabulary of a child entering kindergarten, then the rate comes down to less than a word a day. Or if we consider 2000 words as the vocabulary of a child entering kindergarten, then the rate comes down to only about one and a half words a day.
My second line of argument has to do with time, and forgetting. There is a lot of time between ages one and four, or between ages two and five, or whatever we might consider prime time for early learning of a language.
I have already discussed vocabulary size in my previous article, "Suspicions about Language", so I will go ahead to my second argument, about time and forgetting. My argument about time is simply that we tend to forget the vast amounts of time that are involved in the lives of children. I will first describe the situation that got me to thinking about this.
I number of years ago I was giving private music lessons, mostly guitar lessons. I had students of widely varying ages. Most of them would not stick with guitar lessons for very long. Of course some of my students were children, taking guitar lessons on the initiative of their parents. But a greater number were teen agers or adults, and these students were taking lessons on their own initiative. Parents might be paying for the lessons of teen agers, but typically the teenagers were there because they wanted to play guitar, not because their parents wanted them to. Parents typically choose piano for lessons that they impose on their kids, not guitar. For these students, teenagers and adults coming on their own initiative, I was painfully aware that the minute they got discouraged, they might quit. Indeed they sometimes did so. I always had a steady stream of new students coming and old students quitting. After a new student had been working on the guitar for a few months I felt they would have to have some progress to show for their efforts. So I tended to be very aware of how much and how fast they were learning. In this setting I thought about this idea that the young learn fast.
It is commonly said in music, as well as in language, that you should start young, because you learn faster and more easily when you are young. But I had a few young guitar students, and it didn't seem to me that they learned as fast as teenagers and adults learned. And more importantly I had a few opportunities to see young guitar students of other guitar teachers, and I was not impressed. Indeed I wondered if it made any sense for parents to spend their hard earned money on guitar lessons for a five year old, or even an eight year old. Isn't that the age where you learn the fastest? Then how come they couldn't play much?
I didn't see more than a handful of such students, to be sure. But from what I did see I formed the opinion that five is ridiculously young to start learning guitar. Eight is probably a pretty good age to start learning piano, but I felt that twelve is a better age to start learning guitar. Guitar is not an easy instrument, though a lot of people think it is. My experience, limited as it was, convinced me that when it comes to playing guitar at least, the young do not learn fast.
I concluded that parents, and by extension the general public, thinks that the young learn fast because they totally lose track of time. An eight year old who can play just a little on guitar impresses people, and they are quick to exclaim that the young learn so fast. But consider an eight year old kid may have been at it for three years. Three years is a long time. I had very few older students who stuck with guitar for as long as three years. A teenager or adult who sticks with it for six months can't play much, but they typically can play much more than any eight year old I have seen. So why do we think the young learn fast?
My conclusion is that we think the young learn fast because we forget about time. The parent of an eight year old child who can play guitar just a little bit after three years of lessons does not think of three years as a long time. Time goes quickly. Kids grow up very quickly in the eyes of parents.
Time is even more misleading in a similar situation that I have seen a few times. A young kid plays guitar, and impresses everyone with his ability, but has never had any lessons. In one situation I'm thinking of two brothers played guitar and joined in the musical gatherings of family and friends. They were perhaps ages ten and twelve when I knew them, though that is just a guess. I don't think they were any younger. I didn't know them well, but I felt it was easy to imagine how they learned to play. When a family gets out their instruments for an evening of picking and singing and there are little kids are in the family, of course the little kids want to join in. And of course adults are very eager to put an instrument in their hands and try to show them a thing or two. If this starts at age five, and then we are impressed with how they can play at age ten or twelve, we are quick to marvel and how quickly kids learn. But there is five to seven years between age five and age ten or twelve. That is a lot of time. Few adults will stick with guitar lessons for that length of time, and when they do they learn quite a bit. A time or two when observing a young player of some instrument, not necessarily guitar, I would try to think critically of the ability I was witnessing. I would try to imagine an adult playing what the kid was playing and to judge the playing on that basis. And I would decide the playing is not all that impressive considering the time span in which it developed.
And I would try to imagine another way. If I see a young kid with a guitar, not really playing it, but playing with it, and I learn from the parent that this kid has been doing this with the guitar for six months, then I can compare that with many teen agers and adults who have been taking lessons for six months, and there is a world of difference. A typical teenager or adult who has been at it at six months is not just mindlessly fiddling with it like a little kid. They have learned a considerable amount. They are still beginners, to be sure, with a low level of skill in comparison to what we think of as competent guitar playing. But they are considerably advanced over what I have seen in young kids who have been playing for six months.
It can be argued that in this scenario the adults are applying themselves, while the kids are just fiddling. Certainly. That's one reason why adults learn a lot faster than kids. But what happens if you take a young kid and put him or her into serious instruction? I haven't had a whole lot of young kids, say age eight or less, in that situation, but I have had a few, and I concluded that no, the young do not learn fast. It can be argued that nobody learns music fast, except for prodigies like Mozart. Yes, that's true judging by my experience, but the young learn slower than older students do.
All this is based on subjective judgment, of course. And it is made more difficult by the tremendous range of abilities different people bring to the task. The two brothers who everyone thought could play so well probably had a lot of natural ability. They came from a musical family, after all. If they are of high natural ability, then the results of five to seven years effort is not all that impressive. That is not to say that their playing was not impressive, but my argument is that the young don't really learn faster than adults. If these two boys had not touched a guitar until they were twelve I would guess that their accomplishment by age 17 or 19, seven years later, would considerably exceed the accomplishment that I saw at age 10 or 12.
The young seem to learn fast because we overlook the vast amounts of time involved, and also because we forget. My argument is that the vast majority of what we can call explicit language instruction is in the context of informal interaction, and the vast bulk of informal everyday action is quickly forgotten.
To illustrate this I will relate a recent incident which proved important in my thinking about these things. I witnessed a bit of language learning at an unexpected time and place. It was a very mundane incident, and would not be remembered for even ten minutes had I not been thinking along these lines about language learning. My wife and I were at a zoo, and were at a goat exhibit. For a quarter zoo goers can get a handful of corn to feed the goats. A young girl, probably about ten, was feeding a goat out of her hand. I was standing probably about ten feet away, close enough that I could see the situation clearly. Another goat was looking on, rather passively as I remember. A man with the girl, probably her father, casually commented about this other goat. "That goat is feeling slighted" he said. The girl looked at the man and the other goat and asked, "What's that mean?" The man replied with a few synonyms, "He's feeling, cheated, left out . . . . ". The girl replied, "Oh . . . " and from her demeanor it appeared to me that everything made sense to her.
How does one learn the meaning of "slighted"? By the "absorption" perspective we would expect that the meaning is acquired unconsciously over time. But it seemed to me that I witnessed the learning of the meaning of this word as a conscious active process, a process that occurred at a specific time and place, and as a result of specific mental, verbal, and social actions. The girl recognized that she didn't understand the man's words, and she had the linguistic ability to ask for an explanation. The man gave an explanation. She turned it over in her mind for a second or so, and then seemed satisfied that she understood. Thus it was like we learn language in a language class in school. Certainly the girl was immersed in her culture and her language, but it didn't seem to me that she learned the meaning of "slighted" by "immersion". She learned the meaning of "slighted" by the explicit explanation by her father. She learned by translation. Her father translation "slighted" into her language.
There might be many objections to this perspective. It may be claimed that of course some meanings are learned in this active conscious way, but that the great mass of words that we acquire cannot be learned this way. There are too many words, and not nearly enough time. But I don't think there are. I think the rate of one or two new words a day is not especially fast for incidents such as these to occur. And I think it is very important that situations like these are easily forgotten. Did you talk with friends or acquaintances yesterday? And the day before? Do you remember every little conversation you had everyday for years in the past? Did a lot of these conversations include little explanations of many different things?
My argument is that a lot of everyday conversations involve a lot of mundane little explanations. You explain why you're not going to vote for so and so. You explain why you're not going to the ball game. You explain why you need to stop at the gas station. You explain where you think you lost your cap. You explain why you think your boss is a jerk. You explain why you think your child is smart. You explain on and on and on. Each little explanation may often be a sentence or so, though some explanations are much more involved. Parents and teachers explain to kids. They explain what the kids need to know, and they explain what the kids want to know.
Kids, young or not so young, want and need to know about their world, and they want and need the vocabulary needed to deal with their world. Yes, some of this vocabulary comes by immersion, by passively absorbing things, but also a lot of it comes explicitly through explanation. The girl in the zoo simply asked, "What's that mean?" and her father simply explained. This happens all the time.
When you are attuned to how people learn vocabulary these incidents of explicit learning are relatively common. The other day I was with my son, who is a developmentally delayed adult. His speech and vocabulary sound pretty normal, but are not highly developed. I was mentioning to another person that I heard on the radio that a morning freeze had caused icy roads that caused a number of accidents. I also said I wasn't sure what locality this was in, as I didn't know the location of the radio station that I was listening to. My son said "Locality . . . that means accidents?" I replied, "no, locality means place". I think that was the extent of our exchange on vocabulary. With my simple explanation "locality means place", then everything made sense.
Learning the meaning of "locality" was obviously an active process. My son did not learn the meaning of "locality" by absorption. He recognized the word didn't make sense, and he produced a hypothesis. His hypothesis was that perhaps "locality" means an accident. That made some sense. We were talking about accidents caused by bad weather conditions. He checked his hypothesis very explicitly. He said, "Locality means accidents?", and got an explicit reply, "No, locality means place". This is not to say that "locality" is permanently in his vocabulary now, of course. But whether the learning is permanent or temporary, it was an explicit active process of learning by explanation and translation. I explicitly translated the new word "locality" into an old word "place".
So why should anyone want us to do without translation?
I was with my son for three days, and there were either two or three similar incidents of language learning in that time. I can't remember what the words were, but in each case my son would ask about a word or phrase and I would tell him what it meant, just like the incident involving "locality". I was attuned to this type of vocabulary learning because I had spent so much time already writing this article. Each time this situation occurred I immediately recognized it as another useful example for this article, but the situation was not conducive for taking notes. The details slipped my mind, as I knew they would.
In everyday life we forget many details. If you ask me what I explained to someone yesterday, I wouldn't remember. But if I talked to people yesterday, I probably explained. If I didn't do any talking as either a parent or a teacher to a young person, then probably little or none of my talking taught language. But explanation is deeply embedded in everyday life, and certainly deeply embedded in everyday interaction between parents and children.
So my argument, to summarize, is that there is no great mystery or magic in language learning. We learn some language passively by immersion, but beyond this beginning at a very young age we learn most of our language by explanation. A lot of this explanation is informal and forgotten, but it is still more akin to traditional classroom instruction in a foreign language than to passive absorption by the very young.
So I think it's very hard to beat traditional classroom instruction. Immersion is not a good strategy for language learning except for the very young who have no alternatives.
"Immersion" as a description of learning is generally applied to language learning. But I think there are some parallels in other fields of learning, and these are worth giving a little thought to.
Can you learn to read by immersion? Yes, I think you can, and indeed it happens rather commonly, but that does not mean it's the best way to do it for any particular individual, and even more importantly I think it is not beneficial to promote it as a way of learning reading for everyone.
I think the term "whole language" can be considered as learning to read by immersion, or at least something very close to it. I expect there is considerable variation in just what is meant by this term, but in general it seems to mean that we don't need to explicitly teach reading. We just need to put children in a environmennt in which there are plenty of books and plenty of activities that involve reading or language, and they will somehow "pick it up".
Will they just pick it up somehow? I expect the answer is definitely yes, for some children, some times. But I think the answer is definitely no for most children most of the time. Some toddlers growing up in a home with plenty of books and plenty of talking may never remember a time when they couldn't read. Indeed they may "pick it up" and enter kindergarden with substantial reading ability even though the parents never sat down with the child with the intention of teaching him or her to read. So I think this indeed could be called learning to read by immersion. The question is how effective it is and for how many children. Obviously this is a field ripe for educational research. I don't know any details, but I think it is safe to say that few elementary teachers would argue for having no explicit reading instruction. Conventional practice, in the world I know at least, is that we expect explicit reading instruction for children throughout much of the elementary school years.
Can we learn arithmetic by immersion? On one side of the math wars, including what we might call the "math ed establishment", unfortunately, is the idea that children learn math best by projects and discovery, with a minimum of explicit systematic instruction. I am not on that side in the math wars. I am emphatically on the other side, the side of malcontents who say the idealistic ideas of non instruction simply don't work. With few exceptions children learn arithmetic only with careful, explicit, systematic instruction, best done in a classroom setting with a teacher who knows the subject well and expects children to behave and to diligently apply themselves.
But surely we can find some math that is learned through immersion. Do children learn to count by immersion? Perhaps many do, but even that simple beginning, I would think, often comes with a certain amount of verbal prompting from parents, and that goes beyond immersion.
Does anyone learn history by immersion? I can imagine a child growing up in a family in which history is a common subject of conversation. In that setting it might be argued that some history is learned by immersion. But even then I would expect there to be conversations with the child, and conversation typically includes a lot of explanation. So once again we very quickly go beyond simple immersion.
Perhaps it would make sense to say that family relationships, and human relationships in general, are learned by immersion. Perhaps ideas of fairness, ideas of cooperation and competition, ideas of civility, ideas of hierarchy, and perhaps many other ideas are learned by immersion. Yet it is easy to imagine a lot of explanation about any of these ideas being commonly given by parents and teachers.
There are features of culture that are unconsciously picked up and not visible until some situation makes them problematic. A good example of this is personal space. I believe this was first described by Edward T Hall in his book "The Silent Language". In some cultures normal conversation occurs at a close distance between the two conversants. In other cultures normal conversation occurs at a greater distance. One who grows up in a culture with a comparatively large conversational distance may feel ill at east when conversing with another whose culture expects a close conversational distance. The idea that conversational distance of one's culture is learned by immersion seems to make sense.
Deborah Tannen, in several books, analyzes conversational styles. She describes how those who grow up with a conversational style in which everyone talks at once may be greatly frustrated trying to communicate with a person who grew up with a slower and much more ordered conversational style. It seems reasonable that such conversational styles are picked up by immersion.
To say that immersion has proven to be very limited as a general strategy for learning a foreign language is not at all to say that the concept of learning by immersion is trivial. It seems to me that education as a science has hardly begun. I don't know how children learn all these things. Absorption, immersion, and incidental learning certainly play a part, as does explicit organized instruction. I think all learning is a fertle field for investigation.