What does an English immersion course really offer?

Let me be frank from the outset: I think immersion courses are a great value and, more importantly, a lot of fun. During the 10 years that I taught English at university I lost count of the number of times that I walked into the classroom, usually on a lovely sunny morning, and thought … “Wait a minute! There must be a better way!” Somehow, we have all accepted the classroom as the “normal” place to learn a language. I would argue that the classroom is probably one of the worst places to learn a language for most people. First of all, it doesn’t strike me as a very “natural” setting for interaction when students all sit at desks on one side of the room and face a teacher. How many of your typical day-to-day interactions are held under similar circumstances? Not many, I’m sure. In fact, so much of our “normal” interaction is often banal and occurs at places like at the dinner table, the bus stop, on the phone or over a cup of coffee at the office. How many English students get to practice “normal” interaction at the dinner table while in a classroom? See my point?

Let me tell you a story that might bring this into focus a little better. I had a student that worked for an American multinational in Brazil. This student was one of the best students I’d ever taught. An excellent student, in fact. One day at work he was given the task of receiving a visiting manager from the US. This student’s English was excellent, so he seemed the logical choice for the job. He was asked to pick up the American at the airport and take him to his hotel in São Paulo. Simple enough… The problem was my student was entirely unprepared for the kind of normal interaction that was expected on a drive into town with a complete stranger. In other words, my student wasn’t prepared for small talk. You know, chit-chat… introducing oneself, asking polite questions, commenting on the weather, asking about the flight, commenting on the traffic and so on. He knew all about grammar and word formation and syntax, but he wasn’t prepared for a two-hour idle chat with a stranger. Why? I think it’s because his knowledge of English came from a classroom, and despite the best efforts of his teachers, he had never had the opportunity to just “shoot the breeze” in English. Here’s where immersion comes in.

One of the undeniable advantages of an immersion course is the sheer number of hours you have to practice your English in an English-speaking environment. If we subtract 10 hours a day for sleep and downtime, an immersion weekend still comes to 28 hours of interaction, and all in English! How many weeks would you spend in an English course to reach 28 hours? Let’s see, 2 hours a week at the language school times how many weeks? I think you get my point. Then there is the kind of interaction you get in an immersion course. None, or very little, of the interaction is in an artificial environment. Rather, all the interaction is typical of real-life encounters. At meal times you sit at the table and get to practice saying things like “what’s for lunch today?” and “pass he salt” and all while shooting the breeze with your new friends around the table. This is the kind of everyday fluency that my student lacked when he was stuck in the car for two hours with the visiting American. Of course, immersion courses are more than just shooting the breeze. Usually there are structured activities, sports and even workshops where participants can learn a new skill or just use an old one. Which brings me to the next really cool thing about immersion courses …. the fun factor!

Receba aqui um prêmio que vai ajudar você a falar inglês!

Clique aqui e acesse!

Immersion courses are fun! Rather than sitting in a classroom you get to go out on a hike, learn how to cook, visit a park or museum, play soccer or volleyball, play charades or tell jokes over a beer at the end of the day. An immersion course is designed around activities that promote social interaction. It’s all about meeting new people and doing fun things. Some immersion courses go even further and offer thematic weekends where students can learn to ride a horse, go mountain biking or hiking or, in the case of my immersion course, learn how to sail on the ocean. Believe me, it’s a lot more fun than sitting in a classroom on a sunny morning!

The final point I want to make is about value. Students are often unsure of the value of an immersion course: “Is it really going to improve my English?” “Am I going to learn something new?” In an immersion course you get the chance to really put your language skills to use. It’s a chance to practice and consolidate what you have already studied more than learn new things. Of course you will learn new things during the immersion course, but that’s not the point. Immersion courses are a chance to practice what you know and develop fluency. It’s hard to describe the value of an immersion course to someone who has never taken one. I remember a student called Sergio that took a weekend immersion course with us. He was so shy on the first day that getting him to speak English was like pulling teeth. Incredibly, by the end of the weekend he wouldn’t shut up! What happened, in fact, was that Sergio just needed a little time listening to English spoken around him so his brain could switch into “English mode”. When it finally switched, there was no turning it off!


Há quanto tempo você estuda inglês? Já passou por sua cabeça que você pode estar estudando de uma forma que dá pouco ou quase nenhum resultado? Que tal fazer um intensivo de inglês de 180 dias e recuperar o tempo perdido? Em 6 meses você pode elevar o seu inglês a um novo nível. Clique aqui e saiba como.


Mark Nash

Mark G. Nash, canadense, reside no Brasil há quatorze anos. Formado em Teoria da Comunicação pela McGill University e Antropologia e Semiótica pela Trent University. Autor de 10 livros na área de linguística aplicada pelas editoras Melhoramentos (Michaelis) e Disal.

15 comentários

  • 24/11/11  
    Carlos Rocha diz: 1

    That’s just awsome. I really want to take a immersion course someday.

    When you told about your student that couldn’t speak with the American visitor, I felt so uncomfortable for him and also was very afraid this could happen to me. That’s one of the things I fear the most: doing an English course for years and still don’t be prepared for casual conversations.

    But I won’t let this fear take over me. I’ll keep on studying, trying to improve my English skill every single day.

  • 24/11/11  
    Luiz Gustavo diz: 2

    I agree. I’m a English student (Inter3) and one of my problems is practice. My brother speak too but we can’t talk about all (still lack words) and also, it’s difficult because the “portuguese” is around us. I want to do an immersion but now is financially impossible.
    Anyway, great ideas.

  • 25/11/11  
    mark nash diz: 3

    Luiz and Carlos, I’ve lost count of the number of students who complain they have nowhere to practice their English. It’s really a problem for Brazilian learners. Unless you live in a tourist town, you can’t just go out and find someone to speak English with. I admire your determination. There are a few pubs in São Paulo where people only speak English. When I get back from Ubatuba on Monday I’ll prepare a list (or perhaps someone here will beat me to it). Other opportunities to practice your English are “day” immersions (organized English-speaking trips to museums, dinners, pub nights etc.). Immersion courses are another great opportunity to practice your English. Of course, spending some time abroad in an English-speaking country is always the best solution, but not everyone can do this.



    • 28/11/11  
      Andréia diz:

      Moro em salvador (BA) e aqui pode ser fácil praticar por imersão, já que é uma cidade turística. Há uma entidade chamada ACOPElÔ que trabalho com esse tipo de estudo.
      Obrigada, Mark, pela dica!!!

  • 25/11/11  
    Fabio Duran diz: 4

    O problema é a palavra fruits que não deve ter S.

  • 26/11/11  
    Victor diz: 5

    Olá pessoal, td bem ?

    gostaria de parabenizar o Mark pela matéria me pareceu bem interessante, e gostaria de perguntar tbm, se vcs conhecem algum curso de imersão em algum pais que fale inglês, e que os custos sejam relativamente baixos ??

    o que vcs me sugerem ?

    até mais


  • 26/11/11  
    Iza Oliver diz: 6

    Hey hey!I loved this topic!See,I live in Natal/RN,wich is a touristic city.I do have english classes only on saturdays,and I’m lucky to learn with an american teacher.I wish I could practice a lil more with americans,and sucks so much that I can’t..I mean,would sound so weird if I went to,for example,to Ponta Negra beach and try to find some american to speak english with.They would probably think that I’m looking for something else.If you know what I mean,especially guys!So..it’s not that easy to bond with americans here!I understand and speak english,but I don’t think I would feel that comfy in the airport guy’s ‘skin’.Can I say that??haha..Sorry If I wrote anything wrong,I needo to practice!Big time!lol


  • 27/11/11  
    João B. L. Ghizoni diz: 7

    Mark, sorry for the delay in commenting on the great text you’ve written about immersion courses. I wish I were able to take part in it. And I’m sure it was (or will be) a great experience for those who are able to attend. Maybe you can give us (EE readers) some feedback on this experience in Ubatuba. I think it’d be great to read about it. Don’t you?

    All the very best to you! Thanks for you participation in this blog. Your presence here (especially with this great text in English!) is awesome for us, readers.

  • 28/11/11  
    Alex Mostard diz: 8

    Dear Mark, maybe he wasn’t prepared because the teacher didn’t provide the immersion opportunity in his classroom. You said that his knowledge of English came from a classroom, yeah, ok but this chit-chat should be provide in classroom… I use to provide to my students… I’m not saying that classroom is the best way to learn english, it is not, but it is what courses and schools have and they have to learn how to use it in a creative way. Provide a little tale where an American visits Brazil and our students have to pick him up at the airport is a possibility. Why not?


    • 04/12/11  
      Flavia Magalhaes diz:

      Eu concondo com as palavras do Alex e, apesar de o Mark explicar bem o fato de que os programas de imersao servem mais para vivencia do que para aprendizado, senti um certo “menosprezo” em relacao ao “artificial English” ensinado nas salas de aula e que podem sim ser suficientes para preparar um aluno para situacoes do dia-a-dia. Estranho é ver um professor elogiando um aluno e em seguida dizer que o mesmo nao estava preparado para situacoes como as citadas – quite controversial, uh?

  • 29/11/11  
    mark nash diz: 9

    Hi Alex,

    You’ve got a good point about exploring different aspects of communication through role-playing in the classroom, but I would still maintain that it doesn’t go beyond “simulation”… a far cry from the real thing.

  • 02/12/11  
    Wesley diz: 10


    This kind of learning is very cool, but in my city is difficult to have some course like this. Maybe a small talk in English with my friends can help. :)

    Thanks for the post!

  • 05/12/11  
    mark nash diz: 11

    Hi Flávia,

    Just to clear up a few things. First, while I don’t think the classroom is an “ideal” place to learn a language, I realize that a lot can be achieved there. It’s a necessary evil, so to speak. I’m sure you won’t argue with me for affirming that six months or so spent abroad in an English-speaking country will give you more results than years of English classes. I see immersion courses as lying somewhere in between these two, offering an affordable alternative to going abroad. I don’t want to labour the point, so we’ll just have to “agree to disagree”, as they say.

    Flávia, one of the problems with simulating social interaction in the classroom is that you often end up reading a “script”, which may or may not reflect the direction or outcome of real interaction. Sure, you can have your students study dialogues which reflect what people “typically” say in social situations and then practice using this language in simulations. This is exactly my area of research in applied linguistics and the subject of two of my books, so I do believe it has value. This is a very effective way of looking at high-frequency and “predictable” language, but don’t be too confident that this prepares you for real communication. It’s a bit like those travel phrasebooks that prepare you for “typical” interactions in hotels and restaurants. Everything works great as long as the interaction sticks to the script, but real-life interaction is often very unpredictable, isn’t it?

    Finally, there is nothing “controversial” about praising my student and then saying he wasn’t prepared for the situation he found himself in when he picked up the American at the airport. We all have new things to learn and areas to improve, as he discovered that day. At any rate, I was his professor of applied linguistics at university and not his English teacher.


  • 06/12/11  
    Alex Mostard diz: 12

    I agree with you, Mark. This kind of situation in a classroom is simulation. But… is that a problem? I really don’t think so. You’ve said these role-playing may end up in a reading activity. Yeah, it can, but it is rather teacher’s fault. The activity porposed must be a clear one, saying in a linguistic term “atividade livre”, not a “atividade controlada” where students just read scripts.

    P.S.: My gosh! An academic in letras that cannot have a day-a-day chat? I think there is something wrong in there.

  • 15/12/11  
    CARLOS FELIPE diz: 13

    Great post!!!

    I was always afraid about immersion courses, but this post clarify my all questions about the theme.
    I think in Brasil this courses could be more accessible and abundant!
    Someone know similar course in Brasília or around?