ESL Immersion vs. Submersion: Models & Approaches

Instructor: Ralica Rangelova

Rali has taught Public Speaking to college students and English as a Second Language; She has a master's degree in communication.

This lesson describes immersion and submersion as models for teaching English as a second language. It compares and contrasts the key concepts and characteristics of each approach.

Immersion or Submersion?

Would you rather walk into a lion's den with bare hands or well-equipped with a whip and chair? If you chose to have a whip and chair, you would be immersing yourself in the lion's space; just like immersion language models let ESL students immerse themselves in English language and culture with some support. If you chose to walk in the lion's den with no supporting materials, it would be like trying to conquer the space with no plan or support. In language learning this approach is submersion.


Immersion promotes bilingualism with the goal of developing native-like competence in English without losing fluency in a student's first language. The method resembles the way children acquire their first language. Learners are provided with an environment where they can pick up English with little to no explanation. They interact with native speakers and constantly develop proficiency by adding new vocabulary and contexts to their comprehension and assimilation.

Unlike other methods, immersion allows some use of the first language in the classroom, although instruction is in English. Your purpose is to facilitate the learning process by increasing comprehension. If Maria from Mexico has trouble understanding a concept, it will be okay to clarify it in Spanish. Your goal is also to prevent adding English at the expense of the first language, Spanish in Maria's case. In the end Maria should confidently and fluently discuss any topic equally well in English and Spanish.

With immersion, learners have access to authentic English because they are exposed to native speakers and various contexts, which help them to detect sociocultural differences. Rather than focusing solely on language instruction, such programs incorporate content instruction, such as math classes, history, etc. This allows students to experience English in different natural contexts.

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