Why are the English so bad at Languages?

By Sam Owen

Might one type of ‘immersion’ be an answer?

Immersion dictionaries

Somehow it always seems to come up at drinks parties. Why are English students so bad at languages? As a Spanish teacher I feel the burden of responsibility, and the need to defend my profession. I want to say that language teaching has come on hugely, that the training and research is excellent, that it is by far the hardest subject to teach, and that there are some extraordinary people out there doing it brilliantly. But it’s hard to forget that even Dutch service station attendants all speak English better than we do, or that everyone inBorgen speaks English (and probably 3 other languages) fluently. “Why are we so bad?” the person holding the glass of wine muses, and I look at my shoes, weighed down by the shame of our collective failings as language teachers.

There are many answers, but I am convinced that one of them is to do with immersion. Or CLIL (Content and Language Integrated Learning) as it is known by the cognoscenti. It is described as “teaching of non-language subjects through a foreign language, with both subject matter and language learning as goals.”[i] The Dutch, (along with the Welsh, Catalans, Canadians and others) have schools where they study some of their subjects in another language. The language surrounds them on the radio and television; they need it; and they do the business of learning through it.

 Immersion 1

The research says that if your brain believes something is important it will retain it better.[ii]The same goes for when the information is couched in a memorable or interesting context.[iii] One of the greatest motivations to speak to other people is to share one’s thoughts and opinions[iv]. And that’s the challenge language teachers face. How do you make La plume de ma tante important; contextually relevant; and something about which students can share their thoughts?

If you teach them Geography or Biology in another language, however, all of that changes. They want to understand how the world works, so the language is necessary and important. They remember the words because they are tied to the world they know, to pictures, and concepts. They want to speak – because they have an opinion about what the solution or cause of something might be. The research on CLIL says that motivation, language retention, achievement, and desire to speak should all go up.[v]

So we wanted to see if all that could really be true for us as well, and came up with the format of ‘Immersion Trips’. One to France, and one to Spain. Languages, Geography, and Biology working together in a place where we could expose the students to as much of the language day to day as possible. To make it tie in with our other principles we included some Harkness discussion, and tried to bring the subjects together by focussing the learning and research on the central question: ‘How sustainable is human activity in the Regional Park we are staying in?’ Finally to include a physical challenge we incorporated Bronze DofE.

It was a fantastic experience. It is enriching working with colleagues in other departments and learning from them (even if virtually impossible to timetable). There is also a fantastic sense of collaboration when involving students in the enquiry. Their feedback was extremely valuable, and led to us making some immediate changes and adaptations, and the sense of teamwork and partnership which arose from this was phenomenal.

Immersion interview

Research Questions

To go about testing the efficacy of the trip we roughly followed the NTEN (National Teacher Enquiry Network) Lesson Study Model. These were the main questions we wanted to answer:

  1. Are students more confident speaking as a result of CLIL?
  2. Do they find the lesson more engaging/ motivating/ enjoyable when it focusses on content from other subjects?
  3. Does their retention of new language and vocabulary improve?
  4.  Does the quality of their language production (speaking and writing) improve?
  5. Does learning the Geography and Biology content in a foreign language have a negative impact on understanding/ retention of subject matter? If so, how much? Conversely are there advantages?
  1. Does the incorporation of Harkness discussions lead to greater speaking, and better language?


In order to provide some objective measurements we marked the levels of the students’ final presentation (using MYP levels for Spanish, Geography, and Biology), and compared them to assessments done before the trip. Students were also given a surprise vocabulary test before and after the trip.

In order to gauge levels of confidence, and the students’ perception of their learning we conducted two questionnaires – one before and one after the trip. The questionnaire involved a mixture of Likert Scale questions and descriptive answers.

As part of the lesson study we also followed three students throughout the trip – trying to assess their reactions to the teaching, and conducting three filmed interviews during the trip with each student.

Due to the logistics of getting it all off the ground some of the baseline data is patchy, but when combined with the students’ descriptive comments gave us some very strong indicators of progress.


Immersion river study

The findings were extremely encouraging. They were more confident speaking (+30%), and said things like: “I found it much more interesting actually speaking to Spanish people, as this provided a much more legitimate experience than you would find within a classroom,” “Learning it like this was more useful because you had to understand and be able to speak the language to get anything done”, or “Last night I had a dream in Spanish… I’m really enjoying hearing it around being spoken.. it’s around all the time.” As it happens their confidence went up in all 4 skills (speaking, reading, writing, and listening).

They also enjoyed the style of learning a great deal, and were 45% more positive than about normal lessons.

Their retention of vocabulary also went up. In a specific vocab test their marks went up 14%, and they could freely recall more than twice the number of words from the trip compared before.

The quality of their language production improved by 10%, and they were 36% more positive about their improvement than normal.

Surprisingly their Geography and Biology assessment marks also went up. However the baseline data was patchy, and the nature of the group work may have meant that many piggy-backed on the most able. My general impression is that there were significant gaps in the understanding of some. However I would hope that with some more practice, and perhaps some support after the trip in English, we might get to the point where we feel confident they are learning Biology and Geography as well as in normal lessons.

The Harkness discussions needed some adjustments out there and challenged the students. However 75% felt they spoke more using Harkness than in traditional speaking activities, and I think that with some more time incorporated for feedback and corrections, we can improve the quality of their language here further.

It was hard work, but extremely rewarding – working together with staff from other departments to find out what works and what doesn’t is not only stimulating, but it also makes for an atmosphere of undefendedness as you learn alongside your colleagues and students. Paradoxically this is very empowering. And who knows – perhaps, just perhaps, it might be part of the answer as to how we can catch up with the Dutch.

The full report is here:


[i] Montet, M. and Morgan, C. (2001). Teaching geography through a foreign language: How to make text accessible to learners at different levels. Language Learning Journal, 24, 4-11

[ii] Ellis, R. (2005). Task-based language learning and teaching. Oxford: OUP, p21

[iii] Coyle, D. (1999). Supporting students in content and language integrated contexts: planning for effective classrooms. In Masih, J. (Ed.) Learning through a foreign language: models, methods and outcomes (p46-62). Lancaster: CILT, especially p49-50.

[iv] Prabhu (1987) – cited in Do Coyle (1999)

[v] See for instance:

  1. Bennett, N. and Dunne, E. (1990). Talking and learning in groups. Routledge.
  2. Burden, R and Williams M. (1977). Psychology for language teachers. Cambridge University Press.