Rich, Real, and (self-) Regulated: Maximizing the Value of Immersion

Richard D. Brecht, The University of Maryland at College Park and The National Foreign Language Center

For years, immersion training, whether abroad or in the US, has been integral, even crucial, to the language learning programs of the academy and the federal government, primarily because program heads and learners rely on the testimony of teachers and students concerning its usefulness. Russian in particular relies on immersion. Proficiency in Russian, one of the "Truly Foreign Languages," (Jorden and Walton, 1986) is held to be nearly impossible to attain without long-term, in country residence. Russian programs throughout the world traditionally use in-country immersion as the capstone in their language training programs. To date, rigorous, replicable methods of program design and evaluation for immersion have been lacking. The current paper details the Immersion Training Evaluation Kit (ITEK), a comprehensive evaluation system for immersion programs, detailing the characteristics of immersion language learning environments, the types of immersion programs, and the benefits expected from each type, based on research and development conducted by the National Foreign Language Center and the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center.

Three basic qualities can be used to characterize the natural immersion environment and, accordingly, the learning which it influences: immersion is rich, it is real, and it is self-regulated. Immersion is rich in that learning is based exclusively on exposure to the target language and culture, which provides constant and often overly abundant input. Immersion is real in that learning is inseparable from the actual process of living; and, therefore, all communication has real consequences (Perelman, 1992; Blender, 1997). Immersion is self-regulated in that learning is in the hands of the learner (Pellegrino, 1994, 1998; Robinson, 1996). Each of these qualities has a positive as well as a negative impact on language learning. The ITEK details the types of immersion in terms of these characteristics and the actual immersion environment--study abroad programs, summer intensive- immersions environments (Thompson, 1996; Liskin-Gasparro, Wunnava, and Henry, 1991), short-term immersions, and experiential (i.e., heritage community-based) immersions, based on ethnographies of all types of immersion environments, performed by the National Foreign Language Center and ACTR. The ITEK then relates the types of immersion to the effects of immersion: changes in interlanguage (Brecht, Davidson, and Ginsberg, 1993), changes in learning behaviors, changes in affective behaviors, and changes in language use behaviors (Frank, 1996; Blender 1997). This paper presents a template for the design and evaluation of immersion programs, giving characteristics and expected outcomes of each type of immersion.