Why immersion teaching works

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 22 June, 1994, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 22 June, 1994, 12:00am

AS a Canadian immersion teacher, I was enthused to see the letter from John Whelpton about the Canadian immersion experience (South China Morning Post, June 11).

I would like to take this opportunity to expand upon and challenge some of his views.

I agree that the Canadian immersion and bilingual schools have been successful in producing functionally bilingual students.

In the province of Manitoba, there are French, Ukrainian, and German immersion schools; Hebrew bilingual schools; and a school for native Indian students.

English immersion programmes are popular for students from the province of Quebec as well as from countries such as Libya and Japan.

However, Mr Whelpton's suggested condition that teachers in these schools must be fully bilingual may be unnecessary.

For example, primary teachers can and do function with a smaller vocabulary than secondary teachers.

Secondly, it is doubtful that students will use English because they ''understand and accept the objective of making English the language of the classroom'' which is a rather sterile motive.

One reason that Canadian immersion programmes work is because of the commitment to Whole Language Learning, that is, children learn a language, first or second, by using it to transmit or receive meaningful messages that are interesting, real and important.

They want to make their needs and desires known and to understand the world around them. Immersion programmes integrate language and content in an activity-based, child-centred manner so that the child is motivated to use the second language as a tool to transmit and receive messages related to social and academic interests.

In addition the second language is modelled throughout the school, is encouraged and rewarded, and thus becomes the language of choice.

It is not necessary to ''abandon'' Cantonese; an immersion programme should provide some daily instruction in the first language.

Mr Whelpton's third argument that all the students in one class need to be at approximately the same level of English proficiency when they switch to English is unrealistic and unprofitable. How does a teacher group children who have a huge vocabulary but poor grammar skills and others who have correct grammar but a poor vocabulary? Also, suppose the students have similar language abilities but different learning styles! The odds are that a teacher, at any point in time, will be teaching at a level that is too difficult for one-third, too easy for one-third and appropriate for the final one-third of the students. Hence the concept of Co-operative learning: students in heterogeneous groups with a mixture of personalities, talents and weaknesses (a more realistic reflection of life) learn better as they co-operate, instead of compete, and depend on each other for support and information.

This type of learning environment frees the teacher from the traditional lecturing mode in favour of circulating, monitoring and challenging the students to make use of their different experiences to expand their knowledge and skills.

I support immersion programmes not simply so that Hong Kong remains ''competitive as an international business centre'', but because children who learn a second language partake in an educational experience that expands their horizons in addition to their cognitive, social and affective capabilities; important goals of education indeed.