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4 Reasons Why German Immersion Courses Do Not Work

Language Immersion ProgramsWhen you start learning you will notice there is a lot of discussion around German immersion courses. Mostly they are offered by language schools abroad, locally in classroom settings as well as through home study courses. Now what does language immersion actually mean? Language immersion proponents claim that you can learn a second language the way children do. You get exposed to the German language as much as possible. In this setting, translation to and from English is being totally left out.
A lot of people think this is actually the best way to learn any second language. Is it really?

Let’s take a step back and look at how young children actually learn:

Young children don’t feel anxiety when learning languages. They are not afraid of making mistakes. I have a 5 year old who speaks three languages fluent, and he doesn’t care whether it is grammatically correct or not. He just talks all day long…Over time his brain incorporates the corrections.
Children learn by experiencing the language in use, rather than by having the rules explained or by consciously deducing the rules. When you look at a child of 5 or 6 years, they speak their language fluently without knowing grammar rules or any other rules actually.
And by the way young children do not need motivation to learn language-they just pick it up by copying their environment. That’s why we sometimes say that they are like sponges.

Why can’t adults learn this way?

• As adults we learn language by deductive reasoning i.e., we know the rule or reason and derive the answer from that. So, this is the exact opposite of how children learn. Therefore German immersion courses normally would not work for a German beginner because they use examples and pictures without explaining the rule for its use.
German Immersion Courses

• Can you imagine I took you from your home and dropped you off in some place in Mexico or Spain? This is a scary thought. Now you have to find your way around without speaking German at all. I am sure that you would somehow learn German over time. But it would be a long and painful process.
Let me give you an example out of my own life: I am native German and moved here 8 years ago. At that point my English was proficient. But my biggest challenge was to follow conversations and to be able to respond when asked questions. I still had to translate every word in my mind before speaking. After 33 years of thinking in German I just wasn’t able to turn the switch to suddenly think in English. How frustrating! This is essentially what German language immersion courses do. After all these years thinking in English you are supposed to think in German.

• For us adults there is nothing more embarrassing than making mistakes in speaking e.g., using wrong words, expressions or bad grammar. I had one of those moments when I had just moved from Germany to the States. I had heard the word “knucklehead” and thought it would mean something like “daredevil”. So while our neighbor kids were playing I used the wrong word for my neighbor’s kid. You certainly can imagine my neighbor’s reaction. Language immersion isn’t precise enough to teach us the subtle nuances. German immersion courses also don’t teach you the proper use of grammar rules and differences to English.

• When you start learning German, you would like to see results fairly soon, right? Children need 7-8 years minimum to master their native tongue very well. Do you have that much patience? This is what German immersion courses will set you up for since it is a slow language acquisition process.

German immersion courses do have their place in language learning. Once you have become proficient in German, they offer a great way to expand your language knowledge. You will have to think in German which will give you a great deep-dive into the language and excel your conversational skills.

So what works better for beginners than German immersion courses?

Having learned three languages in my adulthood I have a pretty good idea of what it takes. First, you should opt for a German tutor. Your tutor will teach you the right basics including correct pronunciation, grammar and subtle nuances. For daily practice you should get yourself a quality online German course that offers interactivity, plenty of exercises and a MP3 or CD option for on-the-go.

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  • Tony Tramonte April 27, 2010, 7:53 AM

    Thanks for the article, I found the comments interesting. I would be interested on your thoughts on how to approach learning German in terms of the four skills of listening, reading, speaking, and writing. My main resource to help me learn German is the Deutsche Welle website.

    I’d also be interested in your thoughts on what you found easier or harder in the particular languages you learned.


  • Cleo Geraldo May 6, 2010, 10:24 PM

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    • German Coach May 6, 2010, 10:33 PM

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  • L. F. Armorer August 1, 2010, 1:02 PM

    Thank you for sharing your insight and experiences regarding German immersion courses. The challenge with 2nd and 3rd language learning is that “one methodology does not suit all–as we are all different” and our cognitive reasoning and development varies.
    I don’t know if the teachers who taught you were “language teachers” or merely “languge speakers.” There are millions of native speakers who can not now nor shall they ever be teachers. Language teaching involves a GREAT DEAL of scaffolding and lowering the affective filter (good teachers try to do this, GREAT TEACHERS actually succeed). I applaud the fact that you have learned more than one (1) language. This shows that you are a real winner! However, I am not so certain that the deductive reasoning given is applicable to everyone. Yes, it is true, adults need more translation than children. However, part of learning a languge involves being bold, embarrassed, confused, depressed, angry, overwhelmed and overjoyed. Those who are persistent prevail. Those who don’t wail. This is why you learned the true meaning of the word “knucklehead,” and have lived to tell the tale. Please keep learning, teaching and writing. However, immersion whether lived/experienced abroad (in the L2 or L3 country), or correctly taught in a classroom, be the student 9 or 90 works! Trust me! milaninternationalschool.wordpress.com

  • Mohamed Ballantyne January 2, 2011, 7:53 PM

    To Learn German Online for free: A good interactive program is needed as it enables you to get the correct German pronunciation. One’s study method should be emphasized more on speaking than reading. One can buy audio tapes by native German speakers in order to learn German fast, or one can listen to interactive German online audio materials available in Mumbai and thereby learn German free of cost.

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  • Jatu68 February 23, 2013, 7:59 AM

    Thank you for this article. I am German. My husband moved here a couple of years ago trying to learn German. My sister and my sister are both teachers and are totally convinced that immersion is THE way to learn this language. It is not! Most language schools here in Germany work with immersion including the Goethe Institut. It is good to finally have an explanation why immersion does not work.

  • German Melbourne December 1, 2014, 8:54 PM

    I couldn’t agree with you more! I’ve had quite a few students that came to us (teaching German in Melbourne) after taking immersion beginner classes in Germany where they got completely lost. There was no one to explain topics like accusative and dative, concepts that just don’t exist in many languages. Understanding those concepts might be even harder when you’re uncertain about grammar rules in your own native tongue. I also agree with you that the more you progress, the more you should step away from your native tongue when learning your target language. Thank you for this awesome article!

  • Peter Chase March 22, 2015, 1:07 PM

    “Immersion” can mean different things. The University of Maine had a 15-day German immersion program each May, a program I took part in four times. It included a full day of classwork in the mornings and activities in the afternoons and evenings. Participants signed a pledge to use German only. As someone who has lived a total of four years in Germany and Austria, I can say that I would learn more during a 15-day May Term than in any 15-day span in Germany/Austria. And I was the type of language learner who liked to surround himself with German speakers only.