Total Immersion Or Comprehensible Input: Who Is The Winner? - Part 1
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Is Total Immersion Or Comprehensible Input The Best Method?

A short answer
Neither 'total immersion' nor 'comprehensible input' is the best method for acquiring fluency in English.

An extended answer
The best method for acquiring fluency in English is 'subconscious training language skills.' It incorporates the elements of 'total immersion' and 'comprehensible input' but goes much further by shifting from conscious learning to 'subconscious training' using 'comprehensible multimedia input.' 'Subconscious training' will be discussed in part 2 of this article.

Total Immersion

For decades 'total immersion' was considered the winner among all known methods of learning a foreign language. I dare to question this truth. We often read success stories of adults who learned a language by 'total immersion.' For example, Chris Lonsdale learned Chinese as an adult and spoke it without any accent. Chris published his book "The Third Ear: You Can Learn Any Language," in which he described in detail how he achieved his goal. However, Chris ignores the fact of his unique language abilities. The probability that his success could be duplicated by an average person is very low. So far, only a few people have duplicated Chris’s success. Think about the fact that millions of adults live in total immersion for many years and show no progress in their ability to communicate in a foreign language. 'Total immersion' without special learning efforts and professional guidance rarely result in fluency. The learner can acquire the language they can understand by connecting it to prior knowledge. A language that is not understood is just “L2 noise.”

Chinese Towns In The USA

Have you visited Chinese towns in the big cities of the USA? The young generation speaks English without an accent, but the old generation rarely speaks English at all. Adults continue thinking in their native language and therefore osmosis or absorption of English is prevented because the native language controls the language map of the brain and protects its dominance. Everything the learner hears should be made comprehensible by translating into the native language, otherwise, the target language will magically be transformed into background noise.

Total Immersion For Three Months

Is it possible through total immersion, for say, three months to become relatively fluent in a foreign language?

For a child, yes it is possible. For example, my grandson at the age of 3.5 years was signed up to a Farsi kindergarten and after three months, he would speak fluently with his peers and his dad whose native language was Farsi. For an adult, there is a low probability since it requires a professional instructor who would make comprehensible the target language. Adults can’t learn languages like children do because they have different learning mechanisms as explained in this article. Sounds of a new language in total immersion would mean nothing to the adult’s brain; to protect the brain from stress caused by this unnatural process of listening without understanding, an adult’s listening ability will be shut down after a few minutes.

Virtual Immersion

Virtual immersion is a new type of 'total immersion' that appeared lately as immersive online language tours replicating the real immersion with amazing similarity. In contrast to the real immersion considered by most linguists as impractical due to its high cost, virtual immersion language tours are inexpensive; check, for example, Fluentopia and Eduworldtours.

However, virtual language tours have a great disadvantage: usually, they last for one hour once or twice a week in a group setting. At this frequency, a virtual language tour may easily turn into more of a watching-and-listening session than real immersion practice where no other language exists. For example, if an immersive language group tour includes ten learners, the time used by each learner for the production of language is 1/10 of the total time; the remaining 9/10 is a purely listening to the broken target language by other learners which defeat the purpose of immersive language tours. Immersion may “maximize fluency” in adults who already reached the intermediate level but can’t develop fluency in beginners who have no foundation to construct it on.

Immersive Learning By Berlitz

Berlitz is the oldest language teaching company in the world that has been using immersive learning for 140 years. The company writes on its website: “Anyone has the ability to speak another language. Traditionally, the best way to learn was to move abroad and immerse yourself in a new language and culture, but that’s not always practical or affordable for many of us. Our students tell us that learning with Berlitz is the next best thing to actually moving to a new country.”

Truth has its own timeline: birth, success, and vanishing. It would be unethical not to applaud the great achievements of Berlitz in the past. However, we are aware that the Berlitz method is vanishing and could not be used for teaching 1.5 billion English learners who need new pedagogy and new technology of subconscious training language skills.

Many educators believe that it is not true anymore - “The best way to learn a foreign language is to go to a foreign country.” For example, the founder of the Antimoon Method writes:

“The example of immigrants in America reveals a truth that many language learners find quite shocking: that living in a foreign country simply does not make you speak the country’s language well. It does not force you to learn good grammar, good pronunciation, or a large vocabulary because you can do quite well without those things in everyday life. For example, you can skip all your articles when speaking English (“Give me apple”, “Watch is not good”) and still be able to shop in America or Britain without much trouble.

I agree with Marko Jukic who writes in his article: “Unfortunately, immersion is not a perfect method for deliberate learning. For one, it is eminently impracticable. Moving to a foreign country for an extended period of time is onerous. Immersion is not foolproof either. There are plenty of people who spend years of their lives, if not decades, living in foreign countries with foreign languages, without learning them to fluency, if at all. Immersion is a useful tactic, but not a perfect strategy.”

Comprehensible Input

“We acquire language in only one way: when we understand what people say and when we understand what we read,” explains Stephen Krashen, one of the most cited linguists and educational researchers in second language acquisition. Krashen claimed that the natural approach is based on the theory that language acquisition occurs only when students receive comprehensible input. In contrast to acquisition as a subconscious process, conscious learning cannot be used as a source of spontaneous language production.

Dr. Stephen Krashen defined acquisition as follows: “Language acquisition is a subconscious process; language acquirers are not usually aware of the fact that they are acquiring language, but are only aware of the fact that they are using the language for communication. The result of language acquisition, acquired competence, is also subconscious. We are generally not consciously aware of the rules of the languages we have acquired. Instead, we have a “feel” for correctness. Grammatical sentences “sound” right, or “feel” right and errors feel wrong, even if we do not consciously know what rule was violated.” Moreover, Krashen postulated that learning can never become acquisition.

Unfortunately, Krashen created this strategy back in the 80s without giving the detailed map of which routines ensure mainly acquisition and which routines end up in conscious learning. For this reason, the best-known method didn’t turn into the most widespread method of teaching.

According to Krashen, talking (output) is not practicing; speaking in the target language does not result in language acquisition! The acquisition-learning distinction is the most fundamental of all the hypotheses in Krashen's theory. Although, it is widely known among linguists and language practitioners, however, most language training is performed through learning.

In my opinion, it happens because acquisition as a subconscious process was not developed as an application for self-training. Acquisition theory, unfortunately, remained unchanged in spite of the modern technological advances which opened up a multitude of new possibilities and were not included in the updated acquisition theory.

In conclusion, I would like to state that neither 'total immersion' nor 'comprehensible input' has won teachers’ minds and hearts and they continue to keep teaching what isn't true and doesn't work. Amelia Friedman gave a very pessimistic evaluation of the quality of this work in her article America's Lacking Language Skills: “Less than one percent of American adults today are proficient in a foreign language that they studied in a U.S. classroom.”

The methods that we use to learn new languages are the problem, not the learners. There are an estimated 1.5 billion English-language learners in the world, and that number is expected to exceed 2 billion by the end of the decade. It is impractical to talk about 'total immersion' or 'comprehensible input' as the best tools for this number of learners. The modern digital learners need a new pedagogy and a new technology implemented in a smartphone that everybody has today. They need 'comprehensible multimedia input' that will be described in part 2 of this article.

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