By Sonja Burrows

At Middlebury, we ask language learners to speak, live, and even dream in their chosen language. Students immerse themselves in their new tongue so as to create and be a part of an environment that continually reinforces their learning. As part of the language immersion experience, at Middlebury we ask students to make a personal commitment by pledging to communicate only in their second language through the duration of their program.

Language immersion works, but it is stressful – particularly for novice-level language learners who may be at the outset wholly unable to communicate in their chosen language. Yet several factors beyond proficiency level are at play in the challenges of language immersion; among them, personality type. If you have studied a second language, you will likely remember that there were some people in your class or learning experience who inexplicably seemed to just “get it” while others simply did not. Often, this ability to “get it” has nothing to do with effort or lack thereof. How can we explain this phenomenon?

Within the past several decades, the field of applied linguistics has begun to examine the notion of ego permeability and its influence on second language learning. Ego permeability refers to the ease with which new experiences, cultural features or perceptions of other people may pass the defenses of one’s personality. The language ego permeability hypothesis argues that some people have difficulty learning new languages because they are reluctant to give up control over self-presentation.

In other words, for some it is important to retain control over how they communicate their identity to others – which is a very understandable impulse. After all, when you ask someone to take the leap from speaking in perfect paragraphs to grunting and pointing, you are asking that person to eat a big slice of humble pie. Not every learner is ready for this experience.

What can we do to serve this type of language learner? How can we make the experience of language immersion work for learners who are reluctant to give up control over self-presentation? That’s where pre-immersion comes in. Pre-immersion refers to the time of focused preparation leading up to a learner’s language immersion experience. It is a time of study, preparation, and readiness-training. When students enter the language immersion experience with preparation, knowledge, and realistic expectations, it reduces their stress and helps them to make the most of their learning because it lowers their affective filter.

Pre-immersion materials like the ones we in digital learning at Middlebury are creating for language learners strive to prepare students for their upcoming language-immersion experience. Our hope is that by providing students with the opportunity to learn key target language and cultural practices, understand the Language Pledge, and connect with fellow learners before their arrival, these pre-immersion projects will allow students to jump-start their learning by preparing ahead of time for their immersive experience. Our intention, in partnership with language directors, is to help to better-serve all language learners by giving students a chance to prepare as successfully as possible for the challenges of language immersion.


This piece appears on Middlebury’s Office of Digital Learning and Inquiry

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