The Language Demands of Immersion Teaching from the Teacher's Perspective in German-Speaking Switzerland

Master's Thesis, 2012

90 Pages, Grade: A












APPENDIX 1: Description of English immersion assistant role
APPENDIX 2: List for evaluating questions in interviews by Ulrich (1999) in Flick (2006)
APPENDIX 3: Interview guide
APPENDIX 4: Teacher briefing
APPENDIX 5: Interview documentation sheet
APPENDIX 6: Sample feedback from lesson observations
APPENDIX 7: Teachers' language background before starting to teach immersively
APPENDIX 8: Attendance of other courses
APPENDIX 9: Most beneficial preparation
APPENDIX 10: Pressure during lesson
APPENDIX 11: Main concerns at start
APPENDIX 12: Teachers' reputations
APPENDIX 13: Biggest language challenges
APPENDIX 14: Actions to maintain or advance language level
APPENDIX 15: Dealing with native/near-native students
APPENDIX 16: Teachers' recommendations for addressing language demands


First and foremost, I would like to thank my wife for her continuous support and encouragement through the entire writing process. Not only did she willingly listen when I wanted to share my ideas but was thankfully very understanding of the time I needed to invest in my work. I would also like to thank my baby son whose impending birth towards the end of the writing process provided a great incentive to complete my work both diligently and efficiently.

In addition, I am indebted to my supervisor Dr John Gray, who helped to sharpen my thinking from the outset. I was extremely grateful that I could learn from his extensive research experience and apply it accordingly. I very much appreciated his availability for discussion and his patience in reading through my drafts.

Lastly, I would like to thank the teachers who formed the focal part of my research in that without their openness to relate their thoughts and desire to improve the programme, this study would have been impossible. I especially appreciate them allowing me to impose on their already busy schedules and for this, they have my utmost respect.


The English immersion programme in the German-speaking part of Switzerland sees various school subjects being taught at upper secondary school level through the medium of English. Due to the high language demands placed on the predominantly Swiss teachers in the programme, the educational authorities set loose guidelines concerning the level of English required by immersion teachers in order to attract enough teachers.

The aim of this study was to ascertain how the language needs of teachers are currently being met, what language problems teachers have and how future teachers could become more proficient before starting to teach immersively. A qualitative action research study in the form of lesson observations and semi-structured interviews with eight purposefully selected immersion teachers from four different schools produced the following results. Teachers were more or less compelled to decide for themselves what action was required to advance their level and stressed the inadequacy of the Cambridge Proficiency Exam when it came to improving subject-specific and classroom English. The most common language problems cited by immersion teachers encompassed speaking spontaneously and using classroom English. Even though these experienced teachers were now comfortable with their language level, they stressed the need for the following in order to improve teachers' language proficiency before joining the programme: language support not only at the start but also throughout the programme, shadow-teaching opportunities in the Anglosphere, attending specific courses on classroom English, and going on their own immersive language stay extending over several months. Thus, I propose that the educational authorities should adopt a more structured evaluation, testing both general and classroom English and provide consequent training recommendations. In addition, teachers should have access to an English teacher or assistant whom they can contact primarily for proofreading and receiving feedback on lessons.


Strategically placed at the heart of Europe and with four national languages of its own, Switzerland has an impressive history of learning other languages. However, only after World War II did the importance of English in Switzerland start to increase as a result of it becoming widely used for: international communication in business, finance, science and technology, international relations, diplomacy and military missions, higher education and research, sport, design and fashion, all forms of mass media, the entertainment industry, and travel and tourism. (Mackenzie 2009: 223)

In turn, the global spread and commodification of English has not gone unnoticed by the Swiss educational authorities who introduced an English immersion programme in 2001 comprising content-based learning at Swiss upper secondary schools. According to Jansen (2007: 13):

[i]mmersion lessons are lessons in which English is not taught as a subject in its own right but where English is used solely as a medium to deliver the subject. The main focus lies on the teaching of the subject competence and not the language competence; the lessons are orientated towards meeting the learning goals of the subject, which is partially taught and developed through English. (My translation)

In my role as an English immersion assistant and programme coordinator at several such schools in the German-speaking part of Switzerland, I have close contact to the mostly Swiss immersion teachers on the programme, with the purpose of providing extensive language feedback and support. In addition to providing language feedback on their observed lessons, I proofread all their self-written material before distribution to the students. An extensive list of the other forms of language support the role encompasses, together with my coordinating responsibilities, appears in appendix 1.

The language demands of immersion teaching for these subject teachers cannot be taken lightly and therefore it is in my interest to ensure that they acquire a proficient level of English before starting to teach immersively. The quality of the teachers' language is of paramount importance to the programme itself (Elmiger 2008) but finding teachers who have this level of competence can be problematic. To fill these posts and as a result of the quick introduction of the programme, the educational authorities pragmatically only set loose guidelines describing the level of English that teachers should possess to join it. This generally equated to C2 level of the Common European Framework[1] but depending on the canton (autonomous federal state), teachers were also accepted without this level. Due to the fact that the programme in Switzerland has only undergone massive development in recent years, it is not widely documented (Elmiger 2008) and what research there is tends to focus on the students (i.e. their language and subject knowledge, the effect on the mother tongue etc.). As a consequence of this research gap, in this study I investigate the language demands of immersion teaching from the teacher's perspective. The qualitative action research study comprises the collation of data from lesson observations and in-depth interviews with eight immersion teachers from four different schools. Therefore, my goal is to establish how the language needs of teachers are currently being met, what language problems teachers have, how future teachers could become more proficient before starting to teach immersively, and then to make proposals as to how this issue could be better addressed. It is my belief that the teachers themselves are in the ideal position to illuminate these issues as I attempt to define the best practice for future teachers.

The remaining chapters of the dissertation are structured as follows. Firstly, following this introduction, I lay the foundations of my study in the literature review in chapter 2, where I provide background information and definitions of immersion, discuss approaches to teaching in immersion settings, address the challenges of immersion teaching, and lastly confirm my research questions. Secondly, in chapter 3 I describe the design of the study and how the data were collected and analysed. Then, I document the main findings from my research in chapter 4, before discussing the results in chapter 5, with a particular focus on addressing my research questions. Finally, I bring the dissertation to a close with summarising thoughts and recommendations as to how the language proficiency of future immersion teachers could be managed more effectively.


Second language education around the world is practised in various guises but one model that continues to attract increasing attention is the one in which a second language is used as the medium of instruction in schools (Day and Shapson 1996; Johnson and Swain 1997). The term immersion education (immersion hereafter) was adopted in the 1960s to describe some programmes where English-speaking children were being taught predominantly through the medium of French in schools in Quebec, Canada. In this chapter, I lay the foundations for my study by providing background information and definitions necessary for any discussion of immersion. Next, I document the approaches to teaching in immersion settings, as well as the evidence espousing their success. Lastly, I address the problems of immersion teaching with particular references to teacher education and the language demands placed on immersion teachers.


In this section, after defining the term immersion, especially when compared to Content Language and Integrated Learning (CLIL hereafter), I discuss the pioneer immersion programmes in Canada in more detail. Then, I address how immersion has evolved into various forms which have spread around the world, with a focus on the country at the heart of this dissertation, Switzerland.


If anyone interested in immersion reads the relevant literature, it will not take them long to realise that the plethora of terms adopted can make for complex reading. However, despite this intricacy, a clear definition of what immersion entails is not only judicious but necessary for further discussion. According to Vollmer (2005), immersion is an exemplary way of improving foreign language competence. Not only is the concept of immersion internationally recognised but it also presents itself as a viable addition to traditional foreign language teaching.

Marsh (2002) and Mehisto et al. (2008), somewhat controversially describe the fact that CLIL is the umbrella term covering a wide variety of educational approaches, including the likes of: bilingual education, bilingual instruction, content-based language teaching, immersion, languages across the curriculum, language-enriched content instruction, language shower, multilingual education, and teaching through a foreign language programmes. This is only a fraction of the overwhelming myriad of terms but what does become clear is that the basic concept of bilingual learning is interpreted in different ways. Despite these multifarious interpretations, it is really the term CLIL that has stood the test of time and is seen to do some justice to the diversity inherent in the various concepts. The Eurydice report defines this as follows:

The acronym CLIL is used as a generic term to describe all types of provision in which a second language (a foreign, regional or minority language and/or another official state language) is used to teach certain subjects in the curriculum other than the language lessons themselves. (2006: 8)

However, it would be dangerously naive to label all immersion programmes as CLIL, despite the apparent links between the two concepts. In fact, Lasagabaster and Sierra (2010: 367) explain that these terms “are often used indiscriminately, although in reality there are more differences than similarities between the two”. Baker (2001: 192) argues that the distinction between these disparate concepts of bilingual education is “a difference between a classroom where formal instruction is to foster bilingualism, and a classroom where bilingual children are present, but bilingualism is not fostered in the curriculum”. CLIL differs from immersion in which instruction as a whole is often carried out in a foreign language without assuring the development of the students' foreign language competence. Foreign language instruction is not effectuated in immersion classes per se. Contrarily, CLIL instruction is accompanied by normal or even partially expanded foreign language instruction, meaning that CLIL instruction is an integrated form of language and subject instruction. However, the diverse nature of CLIL throughout the world and the fact that some CLIL teachers may be inexperienced speakers of the foreign language (Pistorio 2009) dictate that this approach may not always be seen in practice. On the other hand, immersion sees a focus on content, meaning and communication instead of the alleged focus on form in CLIL (Vollmer 2003). Le Pape Racine defines immersion as follows:

As a rule, immersion is understood as one of the methods with which students can acquire functional and balanced bilingualism. […] Immersion involves the teaching of various subjects such as geography, mathematics, history or physical education in a foreign language. […] In the corresponding subject, its goal is not the language or its structure but the content of the subject. (2000: 20)

Understanding this difference is imperative to any discussion of immersion and is therefore pertinent to this dissertation. As mentioned above, the historical origins of immersion can be traced back to the French immersion programmes in Canada, which receive further comment in the following section.


Despite the Canadian ancestry of immersion, there is nothing new about using a second or foreign language as a medium of instruction. In fact, the practice of providing educational instruction in a language different from that which the students normally use can be traced back as far as 3000 BC (Genesee 1987, 2002; Salomone 1992) and is seen more as a norm throughout the history of education rather than an exception. Johnson and Swain remind us that:

[u]ntil the rise of nationalism, few languages other than those of the great empires, religions, and civilizations were considered competent or worthy enough to carry the content of a formal curriculum. (1997: 1)

A prime example is Latin which remained the medium of education in Europe for one thousand years after the fall of the Roman Empire. A further example is classical Arabic which is still widely adopted as the medium of instruction in Muslim countries where a variety of vernaculars are spoken. The main Western imperial powers of England, France, Spain and Portugal each imposed its own language upon the colonized but these languages are still widely used as media of instruction irrespective of the demise of the colonial era. It is as a result of the ability of one social group to impose its language on others that many second language programmes exist today. By contrast, immersion has largely been affiliated to linguistic choice and cultural pluralism, as was the case in Canada.

Despite the above, it was not until 1965, however, when a group of Canadian parents instigated the St. Lambert experiment with a French immersion class in Quebec, that immersion became “the most successful language teaching program ever recorded in the professional language teaching literature” (Krashen, 1985: 57). This experiment was the brainchild of some English-speaking parents who shared grave concerns about the low levels of competence in French of their children, despite years of schooling (Day and Shapson 1996; Genesee 1987). The parents were acutely aware of the ever-growing importance of bilingualism and the alleged ineffectiveness of traditional instructional methods in French, and therefore sought alternatives. These were presented to their school board and were then further developed by Wallace Lambert and Wilder Penfield at the University of Montreal (Swain and Lapkin 2002). The efficaciously simple idea entailed the adoption of French as the language of instruction in as many subjects as possible, thereby promoting additive bilingualism, which is when the first language continues to be developed but sees the second language being added (Cummins 2000). This postulated method of instruction effectively resulted in what we know today as immersion education. It was not long before the programme's successes spread through the media and academic journals, and correspondingly saw French immersion spread to other parts of Canada during the late 1970s and early 1980s. It was at this stage that due to parental and administrative concerns, variations in format were implemented, which I consider in the following section.


The rapid spread of immersion across Canada led to the formation of many other hybrids of the initial early total immersion programmes adopted in St. Lambert. The actual programme selected is dependent on the particular context and intended purpose of each institution. In the Canadian context, immersion programmes are regarded as giving the majority group in society, namely, the English-speaking Canadian children, the bilingual proficiency to maintain their socioeconomic dominance in Canada by enhancing their minority language French skills (Baker 2001). However, immersion can also be used to describe various situations where a switch between the home language and the school language has occurred for a variety of reasons or purposes (Johnson and Swain 1997). Amongst others, these comprise immersion for language revival (e.g. Catalan, Irish and Hawaiian) and immersion in a language of power to enable English-medium education (e.g. Cantonese speakers in Hong Kong). Johnson and Swain (1997) summarise the various forms that have developed within these contexts as follows:

- Early immersion: from pre-primary or grade 1
- Mid-immersion: from grade 4 or 5
- Late immersion: from grade 6 or 7
- Total immersion: all school subjects are taught in the target language but after two to three years, the number of immersively taught subjects is reduced, so that subject lessons in the mother tongue can begin.
- Partial immersion: only some of the subjects will be taught in the target language while the rest are taught in the mother tongue, which in grades 4 to 6 equates to 50% of immersion lessons.

These variations of the same theme are complexified further in that they are frequently accompanied by the descriptors one-way and two-way. According to Williams Fortune and Tedick (2008: 5), one-way refers to a “linguistically homogeneous student group” who are moving together in one direction towards proficiency of the target language (e.g. French immersion in Canada or Japanese immersion in the USA). By contrast, two-way programmes serve a “linguistically heterogeneous group” (ibid: 6) where students speak one of the two languages of instruction and are in the process of acquiring the other (e.g. English-speaking children learning Spanish alongside Spanish-speaking children learning English).

Moreover, the most accurate description of the Swiss variant at the centre of this dissertation would be referred to as one-way, partial, late immersion. The descriptor one-way references the linguistic background of the Swiss German-speaking student audience in that the students are moving together in one direction towards increased proficiency in the target language, English. Le Pape Racine (2000) explains that if only one third or one half of the lessons are taught in language two (L2), this is referred to as partial immersion. In addition, if the programme is introduced after the seventh class (age fourteen and above), this is described as late immersion (ibid). Hence, any further references to immersion in Switzerland will refer to one-way, partial, late immersion.

Lastly, in order to complete what constitutes a prototypical immersion programme, Johnson and Swain's (1997: 6) widely cited (e.g. Cummins 1998, Walker and Tedick 1999) list of defining characteristics of an immersion programme, which they add is best seen as a continuum, is as follows:

1. The L2 is a medium of instruction
2. The immersion curriculum parallels the local L1 curriculum
3. Overt support exists for the L1
4. The programme aims for additive bilingualism
5. Exposure to the L2 is largely confined to the classroom
6. Students enter with similar (and limited) levels of L2 proficiency
7. The teachers are bilingual
8. The classroom culture is that of the local L1 community

They point out that each of these features must be present to some degree in order for a programme to be considered an immersion programme. How such immersion programmes have found their way into Switzerland is documented in the following section.


As news of French immersion initiated in Quebec continued to spread, so did its rapid advance into other parts of Canada (de Courcy 2002; Genesee 1985; Johnson and Swain 1997). In fact, Johnson and Swain (1997: 3) attributed the extensive and meteoric spread of immersion in Canada during the late 1970s and early 1980s to several factors:

- The success of the original St. Lambert programme.
- The research and evaluation results, which were widely disseminated (e.g. Lambert and Tucker 1972).
- A strong perception, particularly among influential English-speaking groups in Canada, of the potential economic, political, and social value of a high level of proficiency in French.

This euphoric rise soon extended beyond North American shores into Asia, Europe and beyond. Tedick et al. add that even today: immersion programs are proliferating as more communities embrace the promise they hold for developing a bi/multilingual and bi/multicultural citizenry and for revitalising and/or maintaining autochthonous and indigenous languages. (2011: 5)

It did not take long before Swiss borders were breached and experienced the arrival of numerous German/French immersion programmes, especially in the officially bilingual cantons of Fribourg, Berne and Valais. In addition, in 1989 a German/Italian bilingual Matura (school diploma) was offered by the Liceo Artistico, an upper secondary school in Canton Zurich and drew much attention from Switzerland's most populated canton[2]. In 2000 the Freie Gymnasium, a private school in Zurich, requested permission from the educational authorities for implementing a German/English bilingual Matura (Bürgi 2011). This move acted as a catalyst for the state schools who were reluctant to allow the private sector to be the sole source of such an attractive project. Leading on from this, nine state schools swiftly designed and submitted their immersion programmes for approval. As a result, these nine state schools together with the private school were allowed to launch their pilot programmes simultaneously in August 2001 (Bürgi 2011). The pilot project was strictly monitored and eventually ran until 2008 by which time the programme was being offered in thirteen upper secondary schools. After two external and extensive evaluations (Hollenweger et al. 2005, 2008), the executive power in Canton Zurich approved the definitive introduction of the programme at all its upper secondary schools in 2009. According to the Ministry of Education website of Canton Zurich[3], currently, fifteen out of twenty-one upper secondary schools in the canton offer German/English immersion programmes, which speaks volumes for the inroads that immersion has made. The actual structure of the programme varies between schools but quintessentially includes one or two classes per year being taught subjects in English and German. It typically lasts for a period of four years and concludes with the students being examined in at least two subjects in English and the remainder in German. What should be added is that the students still receive regular English lessons throughout the programme. For a programme to be officially recognised, over 800 lessons (typically lasting 45 minutes each) of immersion instruction must take place during the students' time at the school. The immersion timetables represent two schools in the German-speaking part, from which it can be seen that both are offering in excess of 1000 lessons. Such a situation would be typical for the vast majority of schools who offer immersion in that the stipulated minimum number of lessons is commonly exceeded.

As evidenced above, the immersion programme in Switzerland offered at the upper secondary school level is extremely popular but is by way of comparison, not widely documented. Elmiger (2008) explains that this has to do with the fact that the programme itself has only undergone massive development in recent years, meaning that the research can only react with somewhat of a delay to what is taking place. As a result, it means that finding accurate figures for the total number of German/English immersion programmes is somewhat problematic. However, what is known is that in early 2007, eighteen out of twenty-six cantons in Switzerland offered some form of immersion in at least one of their upper secondary schools (Elmiger 2008). Also noteworthy here is that especially in the German-speaking part of Switzerland, German/English immersion is the most frequent programme being offered (ibid). In fact, in Elmiger's report of 2008, thirty-six out of forty-three schools (over 80%) in the German-speaking part had opted for German-English immersion.


In this section, I identify the core features of immersion teaching after which I examine the research and corresponding literature that voices support for this approach to teaching.


In reference to immersion teaching, Butzkamm and Caldwell state that:

[t]he most potent, true and non-deceptive language is the spontaneous one which arises when we are completely involved in something other than language. [...] This is a means of widening both the scope and quantity of language input and reflects the drive to break through the restrictive, often unstimulating boundaries of the language classroom. (2009: 40)

This rationale behind immersion teaching sees a manifest shift from language orientation to content orientation, that is, from medium-orientated communication to message-orientated communication, which is tantamount to a focus on message as opposed to a focus on form. Day and Shapson (1996) and Genesee (1987) both describe the Canadian immersion programmes as a major pedagogical innovation in that they reflect what are judged to be the essential conditions for first language acquisition, that is, communicative use of the target language in meaningful, interactive situations. These situations result from the use of a foreign language to teach regular school subjects from the natural, human and social sciences. Therefore, immersion programmes claim to create a desire in the students to learn the language in order to engage in meaningful and interesting communication, and solve academic tasks (Genesee 2002). In other words, foreign language learning in this context is construed as amalgamated with the process of learning cognitive skills and acquiring knowledge.

In addition to the provision of comprehensible L2 input required above, immersion teachers are expected to introduce redundancy into their lessons in that this is seen as one of the most important principles of immersion teaching (Jansen O'Dwyer 2007). O'Dwyer (ibid: 56) adds that such redundancy affords: the students practice at listening, understanding and retaining. To do this repeating, paragraphing, restating and using synonymy gives the students many chances to understand the language. (My translation)

A further feature of immersion teaching involves the issue of codeswitching, not only by the students but also by the teachers. Teachers should be aware of the omnipresent preconceptions of this phenomenon. Cook reminds us that:

[i]n a sense, codeswitching is natural in the classroom if the teacher and students share the same languages: the classroom is an L2 user situation with two or more languages always present, and it is a pretence that it is a monolingual L2 situation; at best one of the two languages is invisible. (2008: 179)

A final core feature of immersion teaching concerns the domain of non-punishing tests and exams. According to Bürgi:

it is understood that the subject teachers who teach through English are to assess the quality of the learners' knowledge of the subject and not their English, and that it is the English teacher who is responsible for assessing the students' command of the language. (2011: 239)

The important point here is that in the Swiss case, there are no official language goals when using English as the medium through which the subjects are taught. English knowledge is not intrinsically assessed during immersion lessons because it is not actually being taught. Essentially, subject teachers are not language teachers and have no time to be giving language lessons during the immersion lessons (Jansen O'Dwyer 2007). That is to say, immersion teachers are instructed to test the way they teach, that is, with a view to a focus on content and not on form.


The above-mentioned methods have certainly played an influential role in the rapid spread of immersion teaching that was discussed in section 2.1.4. However, what cannot be ignored when considering this impressive growth is the contribution made by the strong research base that has consistently extolled the benefits of immersion. According to extensive research (Cummins 1996, 2000; de Courcy 2002; Genesee 1985; Lapkin et al. 1990; Netten and Spain 1989; Tedick et al. 2011), these benefits include the development of functional proficiency in the language of instruction at no expense to the learners' first language (L1), and academic achievement and majority language development at levels that equal or surpass those of non-immersion students. For decades, research studies have consistently evinced that the receptive skills (listening and reading) of immersion students in the target language are near native (e.g. Day and Shapson 1996; Genesee 1987, 2004; Harley 1987; Howard et al. 2004; Lyster 1987; Swain 2000). Butzkamm and Caldwell further endorse the success of immersion by stating that:

[t]he evidence is in: The extra time for language learning has its expected effect. “Sections bilingues” in France, “bilinguale Zweige” in Germany, immersion schools in Canada, etc. attest to the effectiveness of this idea. In Hong Kong, 25% of secondary schools teach for the most part through the medium of English. These schools have immense popularity with parents. (2009: 40)

They add that it is really the change of focus from language orientation to content orientation that has proved to be successful because of an increased amount of contact time with the foreign language. As a result, teaching content subjects through the foreign language does not replace conventional language classes and systematic language instruction but is importantly added on. Tedick et al. (2011) emphasise that it is really the academic achievement that is touted as one of the consistently demonstrated benefits of immersion. Research has also shown that students from a range of socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds as well as students with some learning disabilities are successful in one-way, two-way and indigenous immersion programmes (e.g. Genesee 2007; Holobow et al. 1991; Lindholm-Leary 2001). Swain concisely expresses the general consensus emanating from the large body of research as follows:

From [the] exciting, heady days of envisioning, implementing and researching early French immersion programs back in the 1960s, who would have thought the ideas generated and outcomes produced would have had such far-reaching effects? Goals set then of bilingualism, biliteracy and high academic achievement, which many educators and parents at that time considered impossible to attain, have been reached over and over again across programs and languages and countries. (2011: xvii)

A further factor that has played a crucial role in the success of the programme around the world is the involvement of parents and teachers in its design and implementation. As mentioned in section 2.1.2, it was the parents who initiated the whole concept in Quebec back in the 1960s and therefore ensured that it was a bottom-up process. Such a process tends to experience much more success as opposed to an educational reform being dictated from above. In the Swiss context, Bürgi (2011) affirms that in the three schools where she conducted her study, the programmes were primarily developed and introduced by the staff themselves and certainly contributed to their great success. Swiss-based research (Bürgi 2007, 2011; Elmiger 2008; Elmiger et al. 2010, Jansen O'Dwyer 2007; Hollenweger et al. 2005, 2008; Stebler and Maag Merki 2010) has conclusively emulated the results in their respective studies of the successes of English immersion programmes. They confirm that all the immersively taught students benefit greatly from the more intensive exposure to the English language. After three to four years of immersion their level of English reaches a standard of C1 according to the Common European Framework (CEF)[4]. This is in contrast to the English level attained by the regular learners which is typically closer to B2. The above research also confirms that there is no detrimental effect on the students' first language, German or on their subject knowledge when compared to students in regular classes. Of course, the caveat here is that immersion classes tend to attract the more gifted and motivated students in the first place meaning that the true academic success is somewhat difficult to measure. Nevertheless, the research also states that the majority of programmes on offer are hugely successful and that most of them are oversubscribed year after year. Of course, this in itself could lead to other problems, which I address in the following section.


Despite the above glowing research in favour of immersion, in this section, I address several of the challenges that have accompanied the programme to some extent from its inception. First, I document some of the key issues arising from research, then I focus on one of these in particular in that it lies at the centre of this dissertation, that is, what research says about the language demands placed on immersion teachers. Finally, I bring the literature review to a close with summarising comments and clarification of my research questions.


Analogous to the research conducted on the successes of immersion, the challenges facing such programmes have been well documented. Research on one-way immersion states that language majority students do not acquire native-like levels of proficiency in the productive skills (i.e. speaking and writing) in the language of instruction (Genesee 1987, 2004). Students' language is said to lack grammatical accuracy and lexical specificity, is less complex and is sociolinguistically less appropriate when compared with the language of native speakers (Harley et al. 1990; Mougeon et al. 2010). The reason being according to Fortune (2001) and Potowski (2007) is that the students' use of L1 during the programme increases as they progress through the grade levels in both one-way and two-way programmes. Therefore, students tend to code mix rather frequently in the upper elementary grades and struggle to produce extended discourse, often resulting in only sentence-level utterances even after six years of immersion. However, what should be borne in mind with such findings is the multifarious immersion programmes in existence (section 2.1.3). That is, the type of programme and its actual goals should be ascertained first before considering the relevance of such research. However, what can be applied to most cases is the following:

The target bilingual proficiency of the students is “additive”, with normal L1 development a requirement, and a high level of L2 proficiency expected. L2 proficiency, however, is not fully equivalent to the proficiency of a native speaker either in its grammatical features or in its functional range. (Johnson and Swain 1997: 15)


A further important challenge for immersion programmes concerns the scarcity of teachers who have sufficient language proficiency in order to be able to teach their subject effectively through a foreign language. Naturally, this issue is unlikely to be as great a hurdle in countries where the immersion language has official status (e.g. Canada, Finland, Ireland etc.) but is a sizeable problem for indigenous immersion programmes (in which teachers are often non-native speakers of the immersion language) and for programmes in the likes of the United States where monolingualism remains ubiquitous (Williams Fortune and Tedick 2008). Consequently, a major challenge facing US immersion programme administrators is teacher recruitment and retention. Such acute shortages could lead to compromises being made on teacher language proficiency which could undermine the goals of the programme.

As far as English immersion in Switzerland is concerned, the lack of immersion teachers is no less challenging in that English is not an official language. Therefore, English immersion programmes naturally experience more problems finding teachers than would be the case with the German, French or Italian immersion programmes. Of special note here is that only one percent[5] of the resident population of Switzerland (7.8 million at the end of 2010[6] ) see English as their mother tongue. In other words, the English immersion programme is almost entirely reliant on the Swiss being able to satisfy the large demand for this form of instruction. Despite the fact that no country-wide official figures exist, an investigation by Hollenweger et al. (2005) at ten Swiss schools offering the English immersion programme, registers that 89% of the teachers have German as their first language. I would surmise that this figure is somewhat indicative of the situation nationwide. Bürgi (2011: 240) confirms that “[t]he number of well-qualified subject teachers who can teach successfully in English is still limited”.


The immersion teacher qualification and certification requirements vary widely from country to country, and even within a country. According to Lapkin et al. (1990), teacher education consists of pre-service and in-service training, teacher qualification and certification. Diverse teacher training programmes are provided to trainee and practising teachers to help them enhance and improve language abilities, pedagogical skills, and cultural knowledge (Song and Cheng 2011). Previous research describes the essential components of effective teacher training programmes in immersion. For example, Moeller’s (1989) study investigating French immersion teachers’ professional training and experience concurred with the proposal of a national French second language teacher examination to include three components: language achievement or proficiency, teacher competencies such as use of second language techniques and strategies, and internship (Song and Cheng 2011). However, such pre-service training for immersion is not a requirement for teacher certification in the United States (Met and Lorenz 1997) whereas in Canada, trainee immersion teachers have to complete teacher training programmes specialising in French, before obtaining teacher certification through the College of Teachers. Nevertheless, wide variation from one province to another still exists (Moeller 1989) and seems indicative of the situation the world over. This is exemplified in China where teacher training specialising in English is not required for immersion teaching (Song and Cheng 2011).

In Switzerland, such variation in immersion teacher training can be witnessed across the cantons. Needless to say, all teachers are required to possess the relevant tertiary level qualifications for teaching their subject at upper secondary school level. More applicable, however, to this dissertation is the case of training English immersion teachers, most of whom are not native speakers. Even within the German-speaking part, courses specialising in the didactical approaches to immersion teaching as described below have been somewhat sparse. However, the educational authorities in Canton Zurich, who would typically be seen as the forerunners when it comes to English immersion (Elmiger et al. 2010) and a viable model to other cantons, stipulate that teachers there are obliged to attend such a course offered by the university and involves attending twelve half-day sessions over two terms. During the course teachers discuss subject-specific articles and case studies, cover immersion didactics such as comprehensible input, redundancy, codeswitching and non-punishing tests, create lesson material, engage in micro and tandem teaching, visit immersion schools, and are expected to complete a personal portfolio documenting their experiences throughout the course[7]. However, what is not covered in the course is the language itself even though the course is held in English. In fact, participants have to meet a language requirement of C2 (CEF) in order to be accepted on the course. This means that no aspects of classroom English or subject-specific English are explicitly addressed. Hence, teachers are required to address their language proficiency independently by attending certificate courses at home and abroad. In addition to this, some teachers partake in language stays in English-speaking countries and at the same time, shadow-teaching where they have the opportunity to see their subject being taught by a native speaker (Stebler and Maag Merki 2010).


Coming back to Johnson and Swain's defining characteristics of an immersion programme in section 2.1.3, point seven mentions that teachers are bilingual. They explain that:

[p]rototypical immersion teachers are bilingual in the students' L1 and the L2 medium of instruction. Students can therefore communicate with the teacher in their L1 as and when necessary, while the teacher has the language proficiency necessary to maintain the L2 as medium of instruction and to support and motivate the use of the L2 by the students. (1997: 8)

In the Swiss case, as mentioned previously, the majority of English immersion teachers are non-native speakers, meaning that the set language requirements are crucially important. Therefore, the educational authorities have to strike a delicate balance between setting higher language requirements but concomitantly finding enough teachers who can and are willing to teach their subject in English (as discussed in section 2.3.2). Hollenweger et al. (2005, 2008), Stebler and Maag Merki (2010) and Wider et al. (2009) all aver the language requirements as follows:

Teachers who wish to teach immersively should possess at least a tertiary-level qualification in English as a secondary subject or be able to demonstrate equivalent knowledge of the English language. The school management will decide on what level is deemed equivalent. (My translation)

Teachers who possess a tertiary level qualification in English do exist but are in the minority (Elmiger 2008) as all Swiss teachers are obligated to study two subjects meaning that a language-science combination is less likely, say in contrast to a history-English one. Teachers who have such a tertiary level qualification in English would therefore experience fewer language problems than someone who has not (ibid). Jansen O'Dwyer (2007) advises that teachers should typically possess C1 to C2 level but with C2 being desired by the end of immersion teacher training. Therefore, despite the above language requirements, research (Elmiger 2008) shows that due to the problems of finding suitable teachers, they are only treated as language guidelines in Canton Zurich and beyond. Elmiger (2008: 12) adds that:

[i]t is only seldom that immersion teachers are asked for a particular language qualification: as a rule, a good knowledge of the language, a language stay in an English-speaking country, or a language certificate are sufficient. (My translation)

Basically, the final decision as to whether the English of an immersion teacher is deemed suitable or not lies with the teacher and the school management (Wider et al. 2009). Therefore, the general guideline given is that they should be above C1 level, meaning that the majority of immersion teachers are understood to have a language level between C1 and C2. Of course, this does not mean that all teachers are meeting these guidelines in that schools are under pressure to deliver such programmes sooner rather than later and therefore frequently have to make use of staff they already have (Hollenweger et al. 2008). Nevertheless, teachers with a lower level than C1 would be in the minority and therefore do not form part of my dissertation, especially because they are likely to experience extensive language problems in delivering their subject effectively (Browne 2009).


The onerous language demands placed on immersion teachers cannot be underestimated. In order to be able to teach a subject such as biology or geography in a foreign language, teachers need to work hard to improve their language skills (Butzkamm and Caldwell 2009). Leimer (Peter and Leimer 2009: 19) adds:

The demands on subject teachers who teach their subject immersively are high: in addition to their subject qualifications, a high level of language competence (spoken and written) close to native speaker or C2 level is indispensable. (My translation)

Elmiger et al. (2010) talk about many immersion teachers being pushed to the limits of their linguistic competence, already having to deal with spontaneous digressions, humour and disciplinary problems. According to Moate (2011: 343), “[l]anguage in the classroom is the vehicle for both the expression and realisation of teaching and learning”. If the immersion language is also a foreign language for the teacher as well as the students, a certain vulnerability exists. Fundamentally, this could be a limiting factor and not only to the spontaneity and relaxed nature of the lesson but also as a trade-off with the idiomaticity and cultural authenticity, which ends up making the whole thing a somewhat artificial exercise (Elmiger and Näf 2009). Jansen O'Dwyer (2007: 24) states:

Teachers should feel secure enough in the language so that they do not need much time to think about what they want to say. This does not mean that they have to be able to speak without errors; they should, however, be able to speak the language more or less fluently in order to present the subject content in a clear manner. (My translation)

Thus, teachers are expected to have an almost perfect proficiency, especially because the students themselves have a notably high level of English (section 2.2.2). If this is not the case, immersion teachers run the risk of inhibiting both content and language learning, which is obviously counteracting the good intentions of the programme and potentially having a damaging effect on both a school's reputation and the programme itself. The quality of the immersion lessons is measured by the quality of the language used by the immersion teachers (Oberholzer 2009). The report from Hollenweger et al. (2005) involving ten schools with nineteen immersion classes, details the importance for the students in the study that immersion teachers should possess a good language qualification. Their research adds that whether the current qualifications are sufficient or not is widely disputed. Correspondingly, a strict control of the language competence of the immersion teachers is absolutely necessary in order to secure the long-term quality of the immersion programme. Therefore, whether immersion teachers like it or not, very high levels of competence are being sought by their students, even though most subject teachers do not see themselves as language teachers (Browne 2009).

By way of comparison, it appears that such language demands on English immersion teachers would be similar in any countries where English has no official status or a large pool of native-speaker teachers from which to gain staff. In relation to the problems of attracting, training, and retaining immersion teachers with a high level of proficiency in Hungary, Duff (1997) confirms that the level of concern and dissatisfaction among students, parents, and teachers has been high, at least in some schools. Importantly and equally relevant outside Hungary, he adds:

Hungarian science teachers frequently have had limited exposure to English as a foreign language (EFL) and their English may be heavily accented or otherwise problematic. This factor sometimes diminishes teachers' comprehensibility as well as their credibility in classes with critical adolescents whose command of English and confidence may be greater, owing to their intensive EFL studies. (1997: 28)

Hence, in order to secure the long-term future of the programme in Switzerland, research (Bürgi 2007, 2011; Elmiger 2008, Elmiger et al. 2010; Hollenweger et al. 2005, 2008; Jansen O'Dwyer 2007; Stebler and Maag Merki 2010) highlights the importance of language proficiency for teachers and postulates that due attention be paid to the current language guidelines that are presented to teachers and schools. Until now, however, this issue is very much under-researched, which is in part due to the relatively short timescales involved since the programme's inception. This therefore leads to the confirmation of my research questions in the following section.


This literature review examined the following topics in relation to immersion: the background and definitions of immersion including how it spread into Switzerland; approaches to teaching in an immersion setting together with the core features of immersion and research supporting its merits; the challenges of immersion teaching, the language requirements teachers have to meet, and the language demands being placed on them. In this regard, my study seeks to acquire answers to the research questions below.

RQ1: How are the language needs of the English immersion teachers in German-speaking Switzerland currently being met?
RQ2: What language problems do immersion teachers experience when delivering the immersion lessons?
RQ3: How could future immersion teachers improve their language proficiency before starting to teach immersively?


The review of the literature in the previous chapter demonstrates that there is a need to investigate the language demands of immersion teaching from the teacher's perspective. This chapter details how such a study was conducted and includes references to related literature on methodology. It is in fact these references which emphasise the underlying principles and corresponding framework of this study. Further, I address the purposive sampling adopted in selecting teachers whom I observed teaching and subsequently interviewed, applying a semi-structured interview approach. The chapter also explains why these methods were chosen, before concluding with a description of the data analysis process.



After consulting relevant literature (Bloor 1997; Denzin and Lincoln 1994; Flick 2004, 2006) on the merits of qualitative research, I decided that this approach would be best suited to attaining the most comprehensive responses to my research questions. Flick responds to the question of what “constitutes the particular attractiveness and relevance of qualitative research” by stating:

In its approach to the phenomena under investigation it is frequently more open and thereby “more involved” than other research strategies that work with large quantities and strictly standardized, and therefore more objective methods and normative concepts. (2004: 5)

Moreover, Stringer (1996: xv) describes the ideology behind action research, the framework being used in this study, as a “tradition that links processes of inquiry to the lives of people as they come to grips with the problems and stresses that beset them in their day-to-day lives”. According to Sax and Fisher (2001), an important feature embodied in this approach lies in the relationship between those conducting the research and those being researched. In other words, the so-called subjects become associates in the research process, and share responsibility for identifying explicit problems and applying local, action-orientated strategies (Denzin and Lincoln 1994). Further, this form of research “sees human beings as co-creating their reality through participation, experience, and action” (ibid: 206). In fact, Hamilton (1994: 67) describes action research as the “pursuit of democratic forms of communication that, in their turn, prefigure planned social change”. Essentially, action research addresses relationships, communication, participation, and inclusion, and potentially leads to benefits for all stakeholders involved in the process (Stringer 1996). Therefore, by adopting such an approach here, I can collect the perspectives of teachers currently involved in the programme with a view to making recommendations as to how the language demands of immersion teaching could be addressed in the future. The actual methods adopted to collect the afore-mentioned data are described next.


In order to be able to incorporate some questions for teachers apropos an actual immersion lesson, I deemed it necessary to include some form of lesson observation in my study. The purpose being was that I could then discuss how teachers felt about their language during that particular lesson and whether they were under undue pressure as a result. In turn, I could see first hand how the teachers were currently coping with the language demands of immersion teaching and whether the particular subject being taught would have an influence on these. In other words, these observations would specifically address two of my research questions, namely:

RQ2: What language problems do immersion teachers experience when delivering the immersion lessons?
RQ3: How could future immersion teachers improve their language proficiency before starting to teach immersively?

However, in designing my study, I was acutely aware of the problematic nature of including lesson observations. In this regard, I concur with Elmiger et al. (2010: 84) who comment that:

[s]chool lessons represent a highly complex system that can only be superficially described through labour-intensive methods of investigation. Much of what takes place in the lesson, for both the outsider and those involved in the lesson, is a matter of interpretation and besides, irrespective of what actually takes place in the lesson, many other factors are decisive for the lesson: the individual and collective previous knowledge, actual topics already covered in each subject, the relationships between the protagonists or simply how everyone feels on the day. (My translation)

A further issue of concern is the fact that the act of observation can influence the observed (Flick 2006). Consequently, I felt that the lesson observations would be better suited to complementing the data collected from interviews rather than forming a core part of my study. Details of the principal method applied in my study are provided in the following section.


The primary data source in my study was compiled by adopting a semi-structured interview format. According to Flick (2004: 204), this is where “researchers orient themselves according to an interview guide, but one that gives plenty of movement in the formulation of questions, follow-up strategies and sequencing”. I considered this method to be the most effective way of gaining access to teachers' cognition in that question probes could then seek more precise details and thus address my research questions. Flick adds:

In such interviews, the main purpose is to reconstruct subjective theories where the term reflective theory refers to the fact that the interviewees have a complex stock of knowledge about the topic under study. This knowledge includes assumptions that are explicit and immediate and which interviewees can express spontaneously in answering an open question. These are complemented by implicit assumptions. (2006: 155)

It is here that the interviewees require the support of methodological aids in the form of different types of questions, in order that these implicit assumptions can be expressed. Moreover, they are used to reconstruct the interviewee's subjective theory about the issue under study (ibid). Hence, in addition to standard closed questions, a variety of open, theory-driven and even confrontational questions were adopted. Flick (2006: 155) elucidates that the latter questions “respond to the theories and relations the interviewee has presented up to that point in order to critically re-examine these notions in the light of competing alternatives”. Principally, the goal of such interviews is to extract existing knowledge in a way that can be expressed in the form of responses and so become accessible to interpretation.

Before conducting my interviews, I examined the way in which I had constructed my interview guide by using a list initially posited by Ulrich (1999) (appendix 3) for evaluating questions in interviews. These considerations resulted in the interview guide as found in appendix 4. In summary, the breakdown of questions related to specific topics was as follows:

Section A – Language experience
Section B – Observed lesson
Section C – Language requirements for teaching immersively
Section D – Language support towards the start of the programme
Section E – Present day support and training
Section F – Current language demands
Section G – Recommendations

The data collected from these interviews would make a valuable contribution to all of my research questions. That is, I would be able to establish how the language needs of the teachers are currently being met (RQ1), what language problems the teachers have when delivering the lessons (RQ2), and how future immersion teachers could improve their language proficiency before starting to teach immersively (RQ3).


[1] Council of Europe

[2] Federal Statistical Office (a)

[3] Mittelschul- und Berufsbildungsamt des Kantons Zürich

[4] Council of Europe

[5] Federal Statistical Office (b)

[6] Federal Statistical Office (a)

[7] Universität Zürich

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The Language Demands of Immersion Teaching from the Teacher's Perspective in German-Speaking Switzerland
University of London  (Institute of Education)
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language, demands, immersion, teaching, teacher, perspective, german-speaking, switzerland
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Colin Browne (Author), 2012, The Language Demands of Immersion Teaching from the Teacher's Perspective in German-Speaking Switzerland, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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