One major problem with common implementations of the immersion method in foreign language education is that teachers continue to explain rather than exemplify.
Let me first address reasonable justifications for immersion:
2 major dangers in using the source language in a foreign language classroom are:
1.) Over-use, by both teachers and students, so that the amount of practice actually listening and speaking the target language becomes unjustifiably diminished.
2.) Over-identification of target vocabulary and patterns with source conceptions, such that the student remains uninformed of the way in which target items may slice up conceptions (or syntax) in ways quite different than their source language.
Banning source language in the classroom resolves the first issue, except in so far as some students may then simply not say anything. The question I wish to address is whether it resolves the second issue.
When a teacher hopes to explain A by saying “A means B” in the target language, then this definition is certainly no better than the students’ understanding of B. If the students’ understanding of B is a direct translation into the source language, then the problem of over-identification has certainly not been resolved.
Without dismissing the great challenge of freeing our minds’ from our mother tongues’ assumptions, I would like to suggest that a plethora of examples is a more suitable way to utilize the immersion method to free the student from over-identification.
Concise, comprehensive examples populated with maximally simple (relative to the students’ level) partner vocabulary can help a student identify both syntax and semantics, as well as offering phonetic repetition. Concise simple examples insure the students comprehension. Comprehensive examples should allow the students to recognize where their source identifications may be in error.
Explanations may describe proper social context but are only as good as the students’ familiarity with those contexts (as implied above). Furthermore, they typically fail to demonstrate permissible syntactic contexts and rarely advance auditory familiarity.
Thus, I argue that examples more than explanations provide the benefit that immersion intends to offer.
Finally, regarding the immersion method in general, I would claim that absolutes are for the simple-minded. Black and white demands are primarily justified when one can not trust others to strike an appropriate balance. However, when one’s mind is focused clearly on the goals on maximum target usage and maximum target comprehension, then why wouldn’t one use all available resources to these ends? Thus, I would argue that source language has justifiable usage in the foreign language classroom.