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What is English Immersion?

By Mandi R. Hall
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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English immersion is an educational concept used to teach English language learners. Students are taught by a teacher or team of teachers who speak only English to their students. Time is spent learning and practicing English, as well as studying other subject areas such as math, science, and social studies using English. Some critics call English immersion a “sink or swim” technique, though many studies have established well-executed programs are successful.

Success varies by school and region. Not all students can grasp English — conversational or otherwise — in the same amount of time. In these programs, students are taught to speak, read, and write English. Generally, both students and teachers are only allowed to speak English in the classroom. Tests and assignments measure each student's success with the English language.

English immersion is used throughout the United States (US) and in other countries. In the US, a majority of English immersion programs are taught in areas highly populated with native speakers of languages other than English. Another program used in these circumstances is bilingual education, which involves teaching in two languages for roughly the same amount of time each. Critics have claimed bilingual education programs give students the option to favor one language over another, which is not the desired outcome.

The desired outcome of English immersion is for students to gain the confidence needed to use English fluently in all aspects of life. Students are not expected to forget their native languages. The goal of language immersion is to allow a student to overcome obstacles in learning English.

English immersion is sometimes referred to as structured English immersion. In 2009, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that structured English immersion (SEI) programs worked better than bilingual education programs. In response to this ruling, education authorities in several states have made structured English immersion, rather than bilingual education, the standard method for teaching English to non-native speakers.

An English immersion program can last months or years. Most programs take approximately one year. Depending on resource availability, students without any English background may be in a class with other students in the same boat. On the other hand, a student may be thrown into a class where all of the students already speak English, hence the "sink or swim" program moniker.

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Discussion Comments

By Lostnfound — On Jan 24, 2014

Learning English is not easy. Because of its tendency to borrow from every other language, it's not as homogeneous as some other languages.

I would say immersion probably works as well as any method, simply because it helps speakers learn conversational English, which is a big part of real communication. Anyone can learn a vocabulary by reading words from a list, but to really speak a language like the natives, a person needs to know how to use casual phrases and expressions that aren't in the textbooks. Immersion works well to help non-native speakers pick up the language and speak it with more confidence.

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