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BYU Study Suggests Improvements for K–12 Language Immersion Programs

New research from Professor Blair Bateman and Assistant Professor Michael Child shines light on effectively teaching a foreign language to children.

For the past few decades, K–12 schools in Utah have been experimenting with an “immersion language arts curriculum.” In these schools, students learn subjects like science and math in a foreign language. Their goal is to help students not only learn these subjects but also become fluent in the foreign language they learned them in.

Photo of Professor Blair Bateman


Professor Blair Bateman and Assistant Professor Michael Child, who both teach in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese, published research on the effectiveness of these programs in the August 2020 issue of the Journal of Immersion and Content-Based Language Education, the nation's leading journal on the topic.

Bateman explained the history of this practice. “Immersion education started in Canada in the 1950s with French immersion. The assumption was if the students were taught academic content in French, pretty soon they would soak up the language.” He continued, “It soon became clear that the students were soaking up a lot of French, but they could not produce it very accurately.”

Previous research has established the limits of traditional immersion learning. Upon graduating, students have proficient skills in listening and reading in the foreign language, but their speaking and writing skills “fall far short of those of native speakers.”

This is where the new research comes in. Bateman said, “If we are going to invest in kids' education for twelve years, we want to get the best outcome we can. We want them to use the language in college and in their career.”

To produce that outcome, they examined a teaching style that brings attention to the linguistic concepts the students use as they study math, science and other subjects. For example, the teacher will take time to explain the grammatical concepts they are using as they learn about the parts of an animal in science class.

The study finds that if the students have a conscious awareness of the language they’re learning, they prove much more proficient in speaking and writing by the end of the year. Bateman suggests a departure from the idea that students will “soak up” the language without specifically paying attention to it. Rather, the curriculum should be adjusted to focus more on the language itself for the best outcome.