The Language Teacher
September 2000

Living the Language: The value of short - term overseas English language immersion programs

Peter Bodycott & Vernon Crew

Hong Kong Institute of Education

What have I gained from the immersion program? Hmmm. . . This is a good question, there's so much. I have become more mature, independent, and confident, not only with language but with life. . . I guess you call it life skills. As I had never left my home or Hong Kong before, it really made me nervous when I first arrived in England. I would have to mix with English speakers, live with them, and cope with life in an English speaking environment. I was worried that my language wouldn't be good enough. Looking back it's hard to see why I was nervous, the differences are not so great, but living the language was my greatest challenge. (Semmi, age 20)

For me, I loved being able to observe different teaching methods and it gave me lots of ideas for my teaching in Hong Kong. The gains from the school visits are the most useful for my future career. I watched children learning English in different ways. This made the whole trip worthwhile, and valuable for me. (Christy, age 21 )

The above are student comments recorded in reflective journals following six week overseas English language immersion programmes conducted in various countries. The students involved were at the time all full-time undergraduates studying English as a second language (ESL) in a 2-year Certificate of Education course at the Hong Kong Institute of Education (HKlEd). Every year for the past nine years HKlEd, with the assistance of the British Council and other donor organizations, has financed a six-week English immersion program conducted by centres in the United Kingdom. In 1998, in the post-colonial context of the Special Administrative Region (SAR) of China, the program was extended to include Queensland University of Technology, Southern Cross University, Australia, and York University, Toronto, Canada.

Since the return of Hong Kong sovereignty to China, the SAR government has made a concerted effort through a newly created language policy to deal with language issues arising from Hong Kong's proximity to China, and from inherent colonial influence. The Government's aim is to create a population which is biliterate (Chinese and English) and trilingual (Cantonese, Putonghua, and English). Accordingly, the HKlEd has elected to send undergraduate students both to Mainland China and to English speaking countries to improve their Putonghua (Chinese Mandarin) and their English language proficiency.

This paper will focus on the design of English language immersion programs, and on the analysis of student data accumulated before departure, during, and following the programs. Our findings challenge traditional conceptions of funding agencies that gains in language proficiency cannot be achieved from short- term language immersion in residence abroad programs. We argue, as one student puts it, "the gains are not short-term but long- term," and that the enhanced personal skills and attitudes, and the professional knowledge gained more than justify involvement in overseas ESL immersion programs of this nature. Unfortunately, while there is a substantial body of literature concerning residence abroad (e.g. Coleman, 1997) or coping with life and study in a foreign country (e.g. Renshaw & Volet, 1995; Volet & Ang, 1998) much of this research concerns long-term immersion or study. Of the few studies that have been conducted into short-term language immersion, Geis and Chitsuko's (1997) study of Japanese students during a credit bearing intensive English program demonstrates clearly the difficulties that can arise. For example, they found that length of stay has an effect on student attitudes and understanding of the host culture, and their ability to develop contacts outside their group. Drake (1997), in another study of Japanese students studying abroad, found difficulties in locating language tests "sensitive enough to measure [changes in language that arise from] six weeks of language learning." Despite this research, the practice of sending higher education students overseas on short-term language immersion programs remains a relatively unexplored area. It is our aim to set in motion further discussion of this important topic. We begin by exploring the HKIEd-required components of the short-term immersion programs. This is followed by a discussion of the factors affecting language proficiency during the immersion experience, the value of homestay accommodation, and the enhanced professional understandings that are gained from immersion experiences. Throughout the paper extensive use is made of student quotes to support and explicate discussion points.

Program Expectations, Objectives and Design Components

From involvement in an English language immersion program, HKIEd expects that students will have gained in confidence, fluency, and accuracy in using English. It is also expected that they will have gained cross-cultural insights of life in an English speaking culture, the education systems, and the methodologies used to facilitate learning. In addition, since some of the student teachers had not left Hong Kong or their families before, it is hoped that they will have developed life-long learning skills, and that the composite learning from the varied experiences will be of use in their future studies and teaching. These expectations form the basis of the program objectives, design, and assessment instruments used.

The objectives that guide the program are:

a) To strengthen students' English language skills, in particular their spoken English and listening comprehension, by means of formal and informal immersion in a native-speaker cultural context;

b) To provide students with the focused experience of living and using English within a native speaker cultural environment.

c) To provide opportunities for students to visit schools operating within another culture and to collect and process spoken and written materials of use to them and their pupils in their future teaching in Hong Kong;

d) To reflect purposefully and explicitly on pedagogical experiences encountered during all stages of the program.

As shown in Figure 1 there are three essential components of the HKlEd six-week overseas immersion program: Academic Experiences, Sociocultural Experiences and Homestay Experiences. The specific content and methodology used in the academic experience component varies between various contracting centres in the countries to which groups of students are sent. In all centres, experienced second language teachers present content that ranges from individualized language development work and cross-cultural comparisons of societal beliefs and practices to integrated language studies linked to the sociocultural component (see A in Figure 1). The methodology used also varies, with some, but not all, centres electing to develop language and cultural understandings through some combination of integrated children's literature, drama and poetry lessons, and mini-action research type activities. Centres take every opportunity to design activities that get students out and about in their local communities. This has seen HKlEd students scripting and performing plays for the general public with local school children; creating videos involving interviews with local identities and/or homestay members (see B in Figure 1), and writing reports for local newspapers on their experiences living within the community. Recently, one centre established a "buddy system" with local students studying in the second year of a three-year BEd degree program; thus HKlEd students attended classes on Australian-Asian cultural studies with their buddies. While HKIEd does not require direct instruction in subject matter or pedagogical knowledge, involvement in such classes provided unique opportunities for students to interact in meaningful contexts. Centres are moving toward offering students an escalating range of alternative contexts in which to use and develop their language proficiency; for example, the development of language through an outdoor education module. Before selection, and during the program, successful contractors must demonstrate the scope of each component and articulate how each of the components interrelates (see A, B, C in Figure 1) to achieve the program's overall aims and objectives (See D in Figure 1).

Sociocultural experiences require students to participate actively in planned activities aimed at increasing student knowledge and understanding of English speaking cultures. Centres prepare students in classes for these sociocultural activities prior to involvement and allow opportunities for students to reflect on their involvement and developing cultural understandings following each activity. (see A & B in Figure 1). The range of activities includes visits to theme parks and places or events of cultural significance in and around the local community, e.g., a visit to the Australian War Memorial in Canberra; participation in a community "rainforest cleanup." Students also attend plays and dances such as discos. On free weekends, homestay providers generally take the opportunity to involve students in family outings and events such as barbecues, picnics, and shopping excursions. Often these events coincide with planned centre-based sociocultural experiences (see C in Figure 1) and assist to develop student understandings and increase opportunities for meaningful language use. On average, contracting centres in 1999 involved homestay families in 40% of their respective sociocultural activities.

The homestay component is central to the design of HKIEd's short-term immersion program. While students study at the centres during the working week, where they undertake a range of language development and cultural awareness activities, they live with host families, which maximizes cultural exposure and opportunities for language immersion. In recent years, more by accident than design, students have increasingly shared homestay accommodation with students from other countries or provinces who are also attending ESL or immersion programs. This sharing has in itself led to significant changes in individual HKlEd student perceptions of the benefits gained from their program. The HKlEd requires homestay accommodation which is as close to the university as possible, is within easy reach of regular public transport, and is in areas in which it is safe for unaccompanied women to return home at night. The homestay family provides their student -- only one HKlEd student per family -- with three meals a day and a private bedroom, which contains, as a minimum, a bed, wardrobe, desk, chair and light. Communication between homestay families begins well before the program starts. Students begin the process by writing letters introducing themselves, which is always followed by further mail or E-mail and/or telephone exchanges. HKIEd students and their respective families become quite attached and it is not unusual for the bonds created during immersion to continue for years after the initial immersion experience. Research (Bodycott & Crew, 2000) indicates that the homestay experience is a most influential component of the immersion program design. Interviews with 45 homestay families between 1997-1999 indicate that in 85% of cases, the homestay families actively engage their students in discussions and activities relating to the development of language. Such activities range from pronunciation correction with explanation to exploration of idiom and slang. Such engagement, according to student survey and interview data, contributes much toward the overall achievement of program objectives (see D in Figure 1).

The program objectives are assessed according to: a) progress made by the student teachers during the program in the host country; b) the student teachers' views of the value of the program as a whole and of its various components; and c) the HKIEd staff monitor's views of the value of the program in relation to the stated aims of the program and the progress made by the student teachers. This final evaluation component is achieved by direct observation of the program during implementation and follow-up assessment of centre reports and student portfolios. These student portfolios contain:

The HKlEd's program is funded largely on the basis of perceived benefits in language proficiency that accrues as a result of the immersion experience. However, as experienced second language teacher educators, we recognize that accurate measurement of language proficiency changes over such a short period of time is extremely difficult and problematic. Additionally, previous studies of 2-year Certificate in Education students (e.g. Crew, 1994) have shown that proficiency gains tend to fall away in the short term and the factors that affect this are discussed in the following section. The longer term outlook however is more positive, as attitudinal gains have been found to be more profound (Crew, 1996; MacLennan & Tse, 1995). The difficulty of demonstrating significant English language proficiency gains has led to questions by individuals and funding bodies about the viability and relevance of the relatively short-term overseas immersion programs.

Factors Affecting Language Proficiency

Altogether 234 students participated in the 1998/1999 immersion programs, all of whom were monitored and evaluated for the purposes of this study. Although HKIEd staff monitored all centres to ensure the programs offered adhered to program objectives, naturally there was a wide variation in the nature of the programs offered. Because variations in program and individual student characteristics have the potential to affect changes in language proficiency, the more stable factors that students bring to second language learning were investigated. These checks were conducted before departure, during and on return from the immersion experience.

Confidence and Attitude

Pre-departure and post immersion English language proficiency tests, developed and refined by HKlEd over the nine years of immersion experience indicate relatively small improvement in student language proficiency over the duration of the programs. However, the students themselves indicate and profess a new found confidence in their ability to use English and a positive change in attitude toward the language. Learning a second or foreign language requires vast reserves of this confidence, and while no one likes to make a fool of themselves, to learn a language one has to be brave, take risks, and expect to make mistakes. This however is a quality that schools in Hong Kong have not previously encouraged, as can be seen from the following student comments:

Before I came to the UK I seldom used English. In my English lessons I rarely talked to the teacher and I used Cantonese to talk to my classmates, even in English lessons. My attitude [has] changed. Here I need to use English all the time, no matter in the college, in my host family, in the street. My oral skills are therefore much improved. Through conversation with native speakers I have improved my intonation, rhythm and pronunciation.

I [have] overcome my nervousness of using English. I bargained the price of goods and bought a ticket to go to France. I never imagined that I would be able to speak English so convincingly and with such fluency. So now I feel free to express myself in English now that I have come back. .

When speaking they [Australians] do not seem to bother too much with accurate grammar. In Hong Kong we are always focusing on grammar. This understanding may help me in my future teaching.

I made friends with many people, they came from Spain, Japan, France, Canada, Taiwan and Italy. My concept of why I need to learn English has changed now. Before I came to Canada I thought that learning English was mainly useful for teaching. Now I see it as a tool to communicate with the many people who do not speak Cantonese.

Colleagues at the HKIEd have commented on the noticeable changes in immersion student confidence and attitude in subsequent ESL classes. As such, there has been an increase in the overt rewarding of students for using English in class. While Confucian societies respect the hard work ethic, there is little positive reinforcement, verbal or otherwise, for the effort put into learning. As a consequence of immersion, interest in the psychological effects of rewarding effort in second language learning -- a practice largely uncommon in traditional ESL classrooms in Hong Kong -- has been kindled in students who have been involved in immersion programs.

Anxiety and Coping Strategies

Anxiety has the potential to significantly influence the success and effectiveness of language immersion. This is particularly true in respect of second or foreign language proficiency gains (Ehrman & Oxford, 1995). As a support for students, intensive preparatory sessions are held before departure involving native speaking staff and ex-immersion students. However, no amount of planning or preparation can hope to eliminate individual student anxiety entirely. What we hope to do is to minimize anxiety by providing information and reassurance that strategies are in place to support them throughout their immersion experience.

Homestay anxiety, perhaps understandable for young people far from home for the first time, is the most prevalent concern of students before departure and during the initial stages of immersion. Similarly, concern about travel, public speaking, racial discrimination, climate, food, and eating habits all lead to varying degrees of anxiety.

The most successful coping strategies used by students include communication, having a positive attitude, and thorough preparation. We note that language-based strategies form the largest proportion of reported successful strategies. Thus communication in English, practicing English language skills, listening carefully, trying to think in English, use of and exposure to English media are all examples of English language strategies students reported applying successfully to the resolution of problems encountered during their immersion experiences.

Group and individual peer support is another useful strategy cited. Much of this came about on free weekends when students would, distance permitting, travel and meet up with friends studying at other centres. Access to e-mail also proves a popular tool for assisting students to cope with anxieties associated with isolation.

The debriefing sessions held by HKlEd and individual centres throughout the program are reported as having helped minimize many of the anxieties participants were experiencing, especially on arrival. Similarly, homestay families are crucial in helping students cope with culture shock (Furnham, 1993). As indicated, homestay families spent considerable amounts of time discussing aspects of English language and culture with their HKlEd student.

The Value of Homestay

A crucial aspect of the six-week program is the homestay experience. Students are placed in separate accommodation so that they are forced to speak English. Sometimes there is another foreign student staying with the family, but the lingua franca is English. Living with foreigners was the greatest concern of students before departure. However on return it emerges as one of the highlights of the entire immersion experience.

This was my first chance to stay with strangers. At first I was very frightened because I had no confidence to speak to them with my poor accent. But now I can bravely and happily talk to them. I knew I couldn't keep silent for six weeks.

Living with a host family was the most effective way to improve my English. I learnt a lot of Australian slang and was able to speak fluently in English. Now I have confidence to speak to foreigners.

By living with my host family I have many chances for practicing my English through daily natural communication. I was able to learn some special terms that are not taught in books. For example, now I know the meaning of 'sleep tight', which my host Mum said to me each night when I went to bed.

Interviews with experienced homestay providers suggest that the standard of Hong Kong student language was generally above that of other Asian students that they had had staying with them. Where Hong Kong students tended to fall below their Asian counterparts was in what homestay providers described as being "streetwise," that is, the ability to assimilate everyday behaviors. According to homestay providers and student diaries, it was the fear of making mistakes that concerned Hong Kong students most.

Living and communication with Japanese and other overseas students was wonderful. We were able to use English for discussion and decision making which gave us great confidence especially as my Japanese friend's level of English was not so good.

While in their care, most students referred to their hosts as "host Mum" or "host Dad". There seemed to be a genuine need for the role of substitute parents. Staying in homestay for the entire language immersion experience facilitates the development of personal and social relationships, and avoids problems experienced by Japanese students during a similar length immersion program (Drake, 1997). There is no doubt that the homestay experience was invaluable in all three countries, as evidenced by the number of students who continue to keep in touch with the families on their return to Hong Kong.

Enhanced Professional Understanding

The activities arranged by the centres focused on different aspects of language learning and the teaching experiences were different on a day to day basis. While many of these experiences would have resembled classes in Hong Kong, others enhanced students' exposure to the teaching of ESL through activities involving drama, Internet investigations and communication, and action research-based language experience projects. For students who have limited exposure to ESL, and who have been taught English largely through program books using traditional methods, these experiences proved a revelation.

The ways of teaching were new and sometimes extraordinary. I found the most useful teaching methods were "earning through songs, "using authentic materials," and "writing poems." These can be useful for teaching English and other subjects like Chinese.

Our tutors encouraged us to think. There were many group work activities and presentations. They developed my co-operative skills. My group members and I solved problems, interviewed people, researched, and presented together. I now have more confidence speaking English in front of people. This is very important for me in my future career as an English teacher.

The language awareness part was very good. The tutors used newspaper articles to give us real examples of the use of tenses. It really helped me to know about the writer's attitude. I was interested in the activity and my knowledge of tenses and my comprehension improved.

It was interesting and encouraging for us as teacher educators to discover evidence that some students were using immersion experiences to reflect on their future role as teachers of ESL.

In the classes we were not only learning the academic study, but by observation and experience. We learned how to teach English effectively. Pupils love interesting activities. If they enjoy the lesson they will learn a lot from it. I shall remember this when I am a teacher.

As our students are all going to become teachers, it is considered essential that they should visit schools in the host country. This is so that they can become aware of the importance of comparing the way that different countries and cultures educate their children. Students are encouraged to integrate with the children and teachers to get as broad a perspective as possible. Much of the preparation for school visits is done in Hong Kong prior to departure. Our experience indicates a tendency for Hong Kong participants, when visiting schools during their immersion programs, to view the teaching and classrooms observed as those of desirable "best practice." Therefore, the focus of school visit preparation sessions is on developing participant understanding of the nature of the whole experience as one of exposure to be subsequently reflected on with an open mind, rather than something that is of automatic relevance to the Hong Kong context. For the most part students appreciated greatly the in-school experiences and were surprised by the more relaxed atmosphere in most of the schools they visited, and the range of teaching practices used in the classrooms. Each group of students also prepared a presentation on an aspect of Hong Kong life to take into the schools to share with the classes they visited. The outcome was that that it gave them a tremendous confidence boost because they realized that their level of English was good enough to communicate adequately with native speaking children.

We were shown around the school by two year six children. They seemed very talkative and professional as they introduced everything to us, even the toilets! I like the way the students and teachers were allowed to sit freely, even on the floor for learning. A warm and friendly atmosphere was created for the children. The students seemed to be creative and active in class. They were not afraid to make mistakes during class because of the supportive atmosphere. Students seemed to have the ability to control themselves and were well behaved even though the teaching was child centred. Students were not forced to learn but were led to learn new things through participation in activities.

After the teacher asked questions you could see hands being raised everywhere in the class. When I was at school in Hong Kong if a student answered a question actively or spoke English in class he was thought to be showing off. This thinking flashed into my mind in England. I found I had a responsibility to train my students differently in the future. One thing I must do is to create a good atmosphere in my lessons.


It is our experience that the value of short-term overseas English language immersion programs does not necessarily lie in quantifiable language proficiency gains. Such statistics provide little indication of the increased confidence in using English, developments in self-esteem and life-long learning skills, or improvements in motivation and enthusiasm for further ESL study. Our students return from studying overseas as changed individuals. They view ESL language learning and teaching through new eyes. They have a new appreciation and understanding both of the English language and of English speaking cultures, plus acquired knowledge, experiences, and positive attitudes that will shape and inform their future practice as ESL teachers in Hong Kong. Confident informed, resourceful, positive thinking ESL teachers -- what greater long-term value could we ask from a six-week overseas language immersion program?


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MacLennan, C., & Tse, T.Y.W. (December, 1995). Teachers' perceptions of the effects of participation in an overseas immersion programme. Paper presented at the International Language in Education Conference, University of Hong Kong.

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Peter Bodycott has taught in schools and higher education in Australia, Singapore and Hong Kong. His main areas of teaching and research interest include teacher thinking literacy learning and teaching, bilingualism, and teacher education. Currently, he is a Principal Lecturer in the Department of English at the Hong Kong Institute of Education. <>

Vernon Crew has many years of experience in education in a variety of cultural and societal contexts. He has interests in the effects of culture, attitude and · motivation on language learning. He is currently Head of the Department of English, Hong Kong Institute of Education. <>

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