Learning Language in a Non-school Environment: The Case of the Language Immersion Village


Language immersion has become a popular model for second and foreign language acquisition in U.S. elementary and secondary schools, and to a limited extent at the university level as well. The language serves as a vehicle for learning of content subjects. Research has shown that such programs have been successful at providing participants a higher level of fluency in and facility with the language than traditional programs which focus more on teaching the language as an end in itself. Nonetheless, there has emerged an awareness that such programs may suffer from a potential excess of teacher control, a more limited range of functions and vocabulary than is typically experienced outside the classroom, infrequent opportunities for extended student output, students resorting to their native language out of earshot of the teacher, and an overemphasis on academic versus social language development.

For this reason, there has been over the last decade of immersion schooling a growing interest among administrators to supplement these programs with exchange opportunities both within the community and abroad and to encourage key pals and the development of other Internet-supported relationships (see, for example, issues of the ACIE Newsletter, published by CARLA). These programmatic innovations have prompted researchers to take a closer look at alternate, often more informal approaches to enhancing language development both to discover the dynamics that produce language learning results and then to explore ways in which these dynamics might be applicable to programs of instruction in more formal language learning contexts (see E. Tarone & M. Swain, (1995). A sociolinguistic perspective on second language use in immersion classrooms. The Modern Language Journal, 79, (2), 166-178.)

One such alternate approach to enhancing language learning is the language camp or "village" experience. The rationale for promoting such programs is that they may be uniquely structured to allow for the development of different kinds of language because they provide more than classrooms in the woods. Rather, they are intended to offer a residential, mini-village experience in an alternative setting/context, as well as putting emphasis on alternative instructional practices. The issue for research, then, is to explore the similarities and differences between such language villages and an immersion school experience, and ideally to identify what is unique about the language village setting as a language/culture learning program.

The research that is being envisioned would identify one language camp program that has a strong track record for providing language skills for learners, and proceed to conduct a rigorous study intended to identify what contributes to language acquisition. The ultimate goal would be to apply insights from studying this special environment to teacher education and to further enhancing current language classroom situations.


Research Questions:

  1. How might the target language use patterns of counselors and villagers at a language village be characterized? The concern is to identify ways in which these relationships may inform current approaches to content-based instruction in school classrooms (e.g., by suggesting ways of handling language material more indirectly). Specifically:



    How do the counselors use the target language with villagers?


    How do they use the target language with other counselors in the presence of campers?


    What factors determine the extent to which villagers use the target language with the counselors?


    What factors determine the extent to which villagers use the target language with each other? Among factors under consideration would include whether the villagers' language use is while participating in a teacher-led or a counselor-led activity, whether in non-directed time there is a teacher or counselor in the immediate vicinity, and time of day.

  2. To what extent can unstaged, spontaneous language that villagers speak with other villagers and with counselors provide insights into language acquisition in a village environment?

  3. What factors may lead to successful acquisition of language structures explicitly taught within the communicative context of an immersion village?


Research Design:

The research will be conducted at two of the more commonly taught language villages, the German and the French Village, and at a less commonly taught language village, Russian, within the Concordia Language Villages. The intended site for the research has have been providing experiences in language and cultural learning to thousands of students for 38 years. The sample of villagers will include villagers in the credit course at the German Village, participants in the French Voyageur Program (a wilderness adventure), and non-credit villagers at the Russian Village.

A quasi-experiment will be set up in order to investigate research question #3 regarding the factors that may lead to successful acquisition of language structures explicitly taught within thecommunicative context of an immersion village. The teacher and a subgroup of 8-10 of the credit-course villagers will be videotaped in several lessons which while communicative in nature also focus on certain selected forms that the villagers will not be expected to have control over (e.g., prepositions in German). These lessons will be typical of that village and not contrived for the experiment. Attention will be given to the conventional and perhaps unconventional ways in which the teacher conveys the material (e.g., slang, village humor, etc.). The teacher will view the videotaped sessions and be asked to retrospect as to how the rationale they used in designing the lessons and the strategies they used in presenting them.

The structures presented in the lessons will then be reinforced in a village activity, namely, setting the table. Then the 4-week villagers will be called upon to teach in the village language the activity of setting the table to a lower-language-level peer group of villagers (ideally younger 2-week villagers) either alone or as team-teachers. Presumably the language they use in their instruction will reveal the extent to which their control of the structures improved by virtue of the communicative focus on form plus village activities. Control of the structures will be assessed by a specially designed set of measures on a pre-post basis. In addition the villagers will view the video tapes and retrospect as to their awareness of these structures and the strategies they may have employed in their use.

The following are the instruments to be used in answering questions #1-3:



Questionnaire:  A questionnaire has been constructed that taps language use patterns by teachers, counselors, and villagers. Specifically, questions probe into how counselors use the target language with villagers, how they use the target language with other counselors in the presence of campers, the factors determining the extent to which villagers use the target language with the counselors, and the factors determining the extent to which villagers use the target language with each other. Efforts will be made to capture "frame-shifting" activities, wherein teachers do not act like teachers, and those in which villagers may take on the teacher role. Emphasis will be given to a range of situations from those led by staff to those involving staff but undirected, to those where staff are not present over the span of the entire village day and evening.


Observation:  To get at issues relating to networks and relationships (as outlined in question 1 above), systematic observation of a subset of villagers, counselors, and teachers will be conducted. This information will be supplemented by interviews and interviews.


Videotaped recordings:  With regard to question #2, the intent will be to capture on a hand-held camcorder episodes of verbal interaction between villagers and counselors and among villagers. As concerns question #3, videotaping would be used to record villagers engaged in the learning of language structure, in task reinforcement, and then in teaching the task to villagers in the two-week program.


Verbal report interviews:  Retrospective self-observation will be obtained from villagers, teachers, and counselors (while viewing videotapes), to help interpret the data collected with regard to both questions #2 and #3, e.g., their rationale for or effectiveness of using a particular language at a given time: what they meant to say, what they said, what they thought about it in terms of the language used/not used and why or why not. Verbal report could be an important conduit for gleaning information from counselors and villagers regarding their language teaching and learning, and language use strategies.


Language structure measures:  In responding to question #3, a set of language structure measures, both oral and written, will be constructed that assesses the credit-course villagersÕ control over certain grammatical structures (e.g., prepositions). The measures will elicit control of the structures in communicative tasks.


Expected Outcomes:

The findings are expected to help reveal what is special or even magical about a language village experience that is lacking from a classroom. Needless to say, there are bound to be manysimilarities since many classroom activities perhaps fashion themselves after more "fun" kinds of activities that go on at a language village. On the other hand, it may be possible to capture some of the magic that takes place when two counselors are having a heated discussion in French and villagers and sitting nearby, glued to every word. Likewise, it may also be able to capture those moments of genuine interaction between villagers in the language of the village. In addition, if it is possible to document the acquisition of form in a communicative context such as a summer village, this may well be a first in second language acquisition research.

Returning to the rationale for the study, the effort will be to identify strategies from village activities that may serve to enhance language learning in the schools. This aim is to be accomplished by looking at a learning community that is quite different from school programs in terms of the student-adult ratio - looking at the variety of language learning opportunities whether physical or mental, whether focused on language or focused away from language, whether through adult teachers or peer teaching, and whether or not physical activities are employed as reinforcements to classroom learning.

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