Immersion programs vs language programs

When you want your child to acquire a new language such as Mandarin, what will you do?

Some parents may go for a traditional language class. However language program alone isn’t enough as it doesn’t develop children’s holistic development, as well as problem solving and critical thinking skills in the target language.

We will explain below why an immersion program is the best way to acquire languages.


What’s the difference between an immersion and a pure language program?

  • An immersion program is to learn by being with native (and nonnative) speakers and absorbing the language that surrounds them, without any translation. It focuses on how to use a new language to learn rather than just practicing the language. The target language becomes the medium of instruction for learning areas and academic content, hence language acquisition and content studies occur at the same time. From an immersion program, a child learns holistically from a cognitive aspect, the cultural and context understanding, social benefits, and acquiring problem solving and critical thinking skills in the target language; not limiting to the technicalities of a language such as vocabulary, pronunciations, grammars etc.

  • This is in contrast to any language classes, where language is studied by focusing on technicalities such as sentence structure and grammar, focusing on repetition before becoming fluent in listening and speaking. Most often language schools uses translation to achieve faster result by translating to/from another primary language such as English.  

Why Immersion is the best way to learn a new language? 

  • Jessica Ye Trainor, founder and principal at Mulberry House Mandarin Immersion school explains: the simple answer is because language can’t be learnt alone without context, it is as if swimming can’t be learnt by practicing on the land without going into the water. By living life in the immersion language, learners embrace it just as they learn their first language.

  • The leading brain researcher the Public Library of Science (PLOS Org) published a study which found that those who had learned a new language with the immersion method had brain waves similar to those of native speakers of a language when speaking that language. Those who trained with the traditional language class also became more native-like in their brain processing, but only the immersion group showed full native-like processing of the grammar.

Ways to create immersion environment 

  • Ideally learning a new language in the most natural way possible is in practice, is visiting and immersing in a city that speaks the target language. This is also known as in-country immersion. 

  • However, it’s not always possible to travel to or live in another country, but there are other ways to immerse yourself or your child in another language. The best way is to study in a Mandarin Immersion school! Regular classes in an immersion school will make your child studying more efficient and motivating. Taking language classes for fluency, literacy, culture as well as subject classes such as Math, Arts, Science, Drama etc.  

How do we learn in an Immersion school? 

  •  Children will be completely surrounded by the language they are learning. Full immersion means that the child sees and hears only the target language, such as Mandarin, and the child is interacting with people only in this target language. By repeating daily routines and learning about the world in Mandarin, learners have the opportunity to hear the same words and phrases repeated in the context of natural communication, and fluency comes naturally.

  • The best practice is to group children together with mixed language ability so that no single group of kids feels they are in the minority, but also that there is no majority of less fluent children who may tend to communicate in their first tongue.

  • As children are learning about the world, the fluent children will take away advanced vocabulary and knowledge, such as how friction works, while the less fluent children will learn more basic vocabulary but still learn about the world around them.

What if the Child doesn’t understand anything?

  • Some parents may have concerns that their Children don’t understand anything and feel left out. Actually, it is very normal for children to take a little time to get used to any new environment at the beginning. They may not understand everything at first, but as they get engaged in the class and motivated by their new friends, they will gradually pick up the tone, facial expressions, body languages of teachers and other children, providing context for the listening child. 

  • As they acquire more vocabulary, together with understanding, they will become more confident to speak. Observation has shown that students in language immersion programs develop "big dreams" for their future, increased confidence, pride and self-efficacy, perseverance and cognitive flexibility. 

  • Given the opportunity, immersion is the best way to learn a language such as Mandarin rather than through language lessons. In the right learning environment, children have the ability to naturally inquire about the world using different languages without breaking a sweat. So Essentially, a school should create a mini-Beijing for the children to experience like in Mulberry House.