Sink or swim

My dad has always had his own ideas about our education. When he decided to teach me to ski, he took me to the largest ski slope in the area, we got uphill and … I found myself going down with the speed of a sky rocket. Aaaaaa!!!! It took me ten years to put the skis back on my feet. When he decided I should brush up on my English, he sent me to Hastings, England, where I stayed with an English host family for 3 weeks. I was 14, my English very basic, I found myself abroad alone for the first time in my life. It was not so terrible after all, but this method of total submersion is called the „sink or swim” approach for a reason.

Educators distinguish between submersion and immersion as a method of teaching a second language. Language immersion uses the L2 language as a teaching tool, surrounding or “immersing” students in the second language. Total immersion is rare, usually it is done in some percentage of classes, e.g. 50% of classes are conducted in L1 and 50% in L2. Submersion is a situation in which students whose proficiency in L2 is limited are placed in ordinary classrooms in which L2 is the language of instruction. They are given no special program to help them overcome their language problems, and their native language is not used in the classroom. The most common situation here is, obviously, the case of immigrants, let’s say, for instance, an English family in Italy.

Total submersion, especially in young kids, whose native tongue proficiency is not fully developed, may trigger a process of loosing the native tongue skills in favor of the majority language of the new country. It is the parents’ role then to show their kids that their native tongue is still important and necessary in their everyday life, even though they live in Italy now. They need to come up with valid reasons, because if kids decide that English is not necessary, they will stop making progress.

How to overcome the dangers of submersion

The native tongue should not be considered redundant or socially worse in any way. Still, real life can verify idealistic beliefs, so parents should never give their offspring an impression that they might feel unwelcome or inferior in the new social circle because of their native tongue. They should not create distinctions: ‘us’ repressed and ‘them’ more privileged, as is the case of many immigrant families during the first transitional months. Children should not have to choose between their English and Italian friends or English and Italian classes. They need to know all are equally important.

In order to avoid deterioration of L1 proficiency due to submersion, kids need constant input of English; they need to develop their vocabulary, writing and reading skills, spelling, etc., even if it seems double work. They should be able to study and discuss any subject – math, geography, biology, history, in English as well as in Italian. Parents can either study with kids at home or have them enrolled in some English-speaking school in the vicinity, where they could participate in classes e.g. once a week.

Some more tips for parents:

Writing: Have your kids write letters back home to their friends or grandparents, describing everyday life,

school, local dishes, local customs, so that they keep practicing writing skills and improve their vocabulary.

Vocabulary: When helping them with their homework have them explain the concepts in English, if they miss a word for e.g. “birch tree” or “fraction”, help them with the English equivalent, do not accept code-switching.

Reading: Have the kids read in their native tongue, have them narrate stories to you. They should read their home country literature classics.

Speaking and listening: Find a group where they could interact with other children from their home country.

Sounds like a lot of work, but it is all worth it! Just make sure your kids have fun in the process. Simple rule: if I enjoy it, I put more effort in it.

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