The magic method?
‘What’s the best way to learn English, teacher?’ This was probably one of the most frequently asked questions I was asked as an English teacher.
All students wanted to know the answer, regardless of their ability or context, from busy bankers in Santiago, Chile, to teenagers in the language centres in Bogotá and Phnom Penh, to kids in the summer language schools in the UK. They all wanted to know if there is a particularly effective method that would magically speed up the process of learning.
The answer was not always what the students were prepared to hear: it wasn’t a set of prescribed grammar exercises they could complete, a clever mobile app they could use, or a pedagogically exceptional textbook they could work through. The answer was often met with disappointment as it was easier said than done: ‘If you want to learn a language, you have to surround yourself with it and use it,’ I’d often say. ‘Speak, listen, respond – communicate!’
I was not recommending immersive communication as a method of learning just because I was trained in it during my CELTA or researched it for my MA in Applied Linguistics. I firmly stood behind this approach because I’ve lived through it. Growing up, my first two ‘foreign’ languages were learned in the countries where they were spoken and it was not until I went to an international university where English was unavoidable that I truly mastered that language as well.
What does the research tell us?
There are numerous studies that show that students who are exposed to the language they’re learning in an immersive way, be it through a bilingual immersion programme at their school or a study-abroad experience, exhibit higher levels of fluency (e.g. Cummins 2009, Kinginger 2011, Wilkinson 1998), particularly when motivation to learn and absorb the language is high. The high motivation, in turn, is fostered by the desire to belong to or approximate the culture of the target language.
We are wired to desire emotional and social connection, and when placed in contexts where such connection is only available through a foreign language, our motivation to acquire it increases. This is why learning a language in the country where it is spoken is so effective – it offers an opportunity for complete language immersion. Lots of communicative language lessons aim to mimic such immersion through meaningful context, extensive second language (L2) input and emotional engagement.
While immersive language experiences are effective in students of all ages, they can bear remarkable results in children. In second language acquisition research, there is something called ‘the critical period hypothesis’ (CPH). It holds that all humans have a period (usually at a young age) during which it is possible to achieve full native competence when learning a language in a linguistically rich, immersive environment – something that has not been observed with adults.
CPH is not universally accepted and has been contested (e.g. Vanhove 2013). There are numerous studies that support the notion that children are known to be more open to learning a language intuitively, through communication, rather than through learning a set of strict rules, and that early language exposure sets learners up for success and confidence later in life (e.g. Abrahamsson and Hyltenstam 2009, Birdsong 2009, DeKeyser 2012).
How can we create immersive experiences?
Not everyone has the opportunity to travel or study abroad for extensive periods of time in order to brush up on their English. Luckily, we live in a world where the merge of globalisation and digitalisation has produced many opportunities for learners to be exposed to English in a variety of contexts. These include, but are not limited to:
- watching films and videos
- listening to songs
- commenting on online videos
- engaging in online discussions
- attending webinars and online courses in English
- playing video games!
This last point is something that we are exploring with English Adventures with Cambridge – our new Minecraft world. Designed specifically with young learners in mind (ages 8–11), it boasts a linguistically rich environment built using the vocabulary and structures accessible for learners at A1–A2 levels of the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR).
It provides learners with an opportunity to interact with the language that is accessible at their level in an authentic way. Misunderstood or missed something? Not a problem! Just like in real life, a misunderstanding will lead to opportunities for clarification in context, which, coupled with the emotional engagement fostered by the narrative, creates authentic learning experiences.
Immerse your child in our Minecraft world!
English Adventures with Cambridge is our exciting new world created by world-leading English assessment experts in collaboration with Minecraft. Inspire your young learners to develop their English skills beyond the classroom in a way they will never forget.
Abrahamsson, N and Hyltenstam, K (2009) Age of onset and nativelikeness in a second language: Listener perception versus linguistic scrutiny, Language Learning 59, 249–306.
Birdsong, D (2009) Age and the end state of second language acquisition, in Ritchie, W C and Bhatia, T K (Eds) The new handbook of second language acquisition, Bingley: Emerald, 401–424.
Cummins, J (2009) Bilingual and Immersion Programs, in Long, M and Doughty, C (Eds) The Handbook of Language Teaching, Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.
DeKeyser, R (2012) Age effects in second language learning, in Gass, S M and Mackey, A (Eds) The Routledge handbook of second language acquisition, London: Routledge, 442–460.
Kinginger, C (2011) Enhancing Language Learning in Study Abroad, Annual Review of Applied Linguistics 31, 58–73, doi: 10.1017/S0267190511000031.
Robson, A L (2002) Critical/Sensitive Periods, in Salkind, N J (Ed.) Child Development, Gale Virtual Reference Library, New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 101–3.
Vanhove, J (2013) The critical period hypothesis in second language acquisition: a statistical critique and a reanalysis, PLOS ONE 8 (7): e69172, doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0069172.
Wilkinson S (1998) On the Nature of Immersion During Study Abroad: Some Participant Perspectives, Frontiers: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Study Abroad 4 (2), 121–138, doi: 10.36366/frontiers.v4i1.65.