Progressive immersion is a language learning strategy based on the the natural approach to communication that bilingual people really use. First, let's see how people communicate, then see how people learn, and finally, see how these fit together beautifully to create a better strategy for faster, more enjoyable, and more effective language learning.
One day, my wife (a native speaker of Chinese) and I were having a conversation about health care in the various countries in which we've lived. While our conversation was initially in English, when she got excited about what she was saying, she started speaking like this:
"Ni qu yi yuan, tong chang ni make reservation, like, ok, you have a number danshi usually for very popular doctors ni qu ni keneng very common you have to wait for one to one and a half hour. Dan wo juede nei xie wo zai taiwan I expected. Keshi zuotien na ge telephone de ren shuo I don't have to make a reservation but I go there I have to wait for two hours."
This way of communicating -- switching back and forth between languages without thinking about it -- is not limited to my wife, nor is it limited to conversation between native speakers of Chinese and native speakers of English.
In college, for example, I frequently overheard the graduate students from China speaking in mostly Chinese sentences, but throwing in English words wherever they pleased. Most typically, these were the words related to the classes they were taking or research they were doing.
And, it is not limited to Chinese speakers in English speaking countries, either. In Taipei one day, I overheard a television advertisement in which a spokesperson said: "wo juede feichang de confused". And it is not specific to English -- my mother in-law switches back and forth between Mandarin and her local dialect in much the same way when talking to my wife.
The point? Language is a vehicle for communication. There is no natural rule that a whole conversation, or even a whole sentence, must all come out in the same language. If it suits the whims of the speaker and can be understood by the listener, the natural tendency is for people to mix languages to their liking.
A lot of research has been published about how people learn languages, and we can't cover it all here. But there are two very obvious issues: languages have an enormous number of words, and people need to use a language often to become comfortable with it.
Let's see why this creates problems for normal language learning strategies. To follow a conversation comfortably, listeners typically need to know about 98% of the vocabulary of the conversation. That should give enough context to guess the remaining 2 to 3 words per minute that the listener didn't already know. Depending on language and topic, it takes a vocabulary of 2,000 to 4,000 or more words to understand only 95% of a typical conversation. For learners who memorize 50 words a week, which is a typical rate for an intensive, 20 to 40 hour per week, language course, it would take over one year before being able to feel comfortable understanding a typical conversation. For people who have a job or other responsibilities, achieving this level can take many years.
So how are people supposed to get the practice to retain new vocabulary words each week in the years before they are able to follow a conversation? And how can they maintain motivation and enthusiasm? The conventional answer that most language programs take, is to create contrived scenarios that allow practice with a small vocabulary. In the first lesson, practice introducing yourself, in the second, practice asking the price of something you want to buy, by the 14th lesson practice ordering from a restaurant, etc.
The difficulty with this approach is that, for many people, the contrived scenarios are uninteresting and the act of role-playing itself can, in fact, be uncomfortable. Comfort, interest, and enthusiasm are important factors in the effectiveness of human memory -- so this approach may thwart the learner's ability to memorize the new words. Furthermore, if the language learning process is not enjoyable, the learner may give up.
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Unit One, License to use
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