Total Immersion vs. Bi-lingual Education.
Would everyone who has studied a foreign language in an American high school or college please hold up your hand? I see a lot of hands. Now, would everyone one of you who can hold a decent conversation in the language or languages you studied please hold up your hands? That’s funny. I don’t see any hands.
Oops, I missed one. The lady over there in the corner. Can you converse in a foreign language? Oh, I understand. You studied a foreign language in college and then lived in a country where that language was spoken. Thank you.
This little test, which I often administer to audiences, never fails to prove that bi-lingual education rarely works. Only the lady who got the chance to be totally immersed in her foreign language was actually able to speak it.
When it is really, really important for our military personnel to learn to speak, read and write in a foreign language, here is how it is taught at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California: The student is thrown into an environment where only the language to be learned, the “target language,” is spoken.
For the first six weeks, the student is exposed only to the spoken language. The student is not permitted to read or even see the target language in writing. Why? Because the only way to speak like a native is to forget about the sounds of the English alphabet. For the first six weeks, the student must learn the words of the target language the same way he or she learned them as a baby – entirely by sound alone.
Nothing is permitted to be said in English or in any language other than the target language. If you need to be excused to go to the bathroom, you better figure out how to ask permission in the target language. Otherwise, you better have a very large bladder. The same goes for food, water or any of the necessities of life. No target language, no dice.
Admittedly, the first few weeks are very difficult. But then, as the student learns to understand and say more words in the target language and can parrot more and more of what the target-language-speaking instructors are saying around him or her, a miracle occurs. Instead of hearing the words in the target language and then having to translate them mentally into English to understand what they mean, the words are understood immediately in the target language without having to think of their English equivalents first.
This is called: thinking in the target language. Once the student begins to “think” in the target language, the rest is easy. From then on, it is simply a matter of learning more vocabulary, learning more verbs and absorbing how these words are expressed in whole sentences.
Constructing this sort of environment costs the military a lot of money. In effect, a slice of the target language country must be recreated and literally lived in by the students. Enormously costly efforts are made to shield the students from hearing or seeing anything not having to do with their target language and their target country.
And now, we come to the point: If one truly wants those who come to this country to learn English so they can succeed, they need to be totally immersed in an English-speaking environment. Guess what? We don’t need to replicate the expensive facilities of the Defense Language Institute. They are already in place and paid for. All we have to do is be smart enough to ashcan the totally counterproductive idea of bi-lingual education. Of course, if you want these newcomers to be English-handicapped for the rest of their lives in this country, then force bi-lingual education upon them.
Now, please go back to the questions I asked at the beginning of this column. If you answered them truthfully, you know bi-lingual education failed to teach you a foreign language. It fails our newcomers just as it did you.
William Hamilton, a nationally syndicated columnist and featured commentator for USA Today, mastered German in nine months at the Army Language School (now the Defense Language Institute).
©2002. William Hamilton.