Dual immersion not the only way to learn languages, experts say

Foreign Language Student Residence participants eat together at their daily required dinner. The Foreign Language Student Residence program is one method for BYU students to work on their language skills.
(Universe archive)

Editor’s note: This story pairs with “Parents, teachers praise Utah’s dual language immersion”


Utah’s dual language immersion programs have received praise from teachers, parents and students since they began in 2008. But it’s not the only way to acquire a second language, according to Kirk Belnap, a BYU professor and director of BYU’s STARTALK Arabic language camp.

“Just because your mom and dad didn’t enroll you in Chinese as a kindergartner doesn’t mean you can’t make up for lost time, if you get started soon enough,” Belnap said.

Some local language acquisition resources include STARTALK, the Foreign Language Student Residence, and university-level classes.


The National Security Agency funds STARTALK, a program with the mission of increasing the number of U.S. citizens who can speak and teach languages the federal government has deemed as critical.

BYU hosts Arabic and Chinese STARTALK camps for school children every year.

“It’s been a pretty interesting experiment,” Belnap said.

Campers come from all over the country and spend three weeks in intensive language study, according to Belnap.

Belnap described himself as “a huge fan of dual immersion” but also said dual language immersion programs “are sometimes billed as the only way to get kids to higher-level proficiency.”

However, Belnap has seen STARTALK participants who continue their study achieve similar levels of proficiency as missionaries who learned a foreign language and children who completed dual language immersion programs.

BYU’s STARTALK programs have previously accepted applications in the spring, with the camp being held in the end of June, although the 2018 dates have not yet been determined.

Foreign Language Student Residence

Full-time BYU students can apply for the Foreign Language Student Residence program.

Residents live in apartments organized by target language. Each language house includes all the apartments with the same target language.

For example, students in the program who want to learn Russian live in apartments with other Russian-learning students. All the apartments of Russian-learning students make up the Russian language house.

Residents are required to speak the target language while in the apartment and eat dinner with their fellow language house students Monday through Thursday from 6 to 7 p.m.

Residents also enroll in a language course on campus and attend Sunday School in the target language.

Tony Brown, program director of BYU’s Foreign Language Student Residence, said immersion experiences such as the program facilitate “a certain level of fluidity of speech that is almost next to impossible to achieve in the classroom alone.”

Several BYU faculty members have researched the effects of living in the Foreign Language Student Residence, and preliminary findings based on oral proficiency data suggest “measurable gain” in language learning among program residents, Brown said.

It’s hard to truly isolate the cause — for example, the increase in learning could also be attributed to the language classes residents take.

But Brown said generally, “it’s safe to say that there is an added value linguistically to living there.”

“When you’re living in that environment, you’re using the target language all the time,” Brown said.

University classes

BYU also offers language classes in more than 80 languages, according to the Center for Language Studies.

“If we’re talking about someone already in adolescence or looking to go to college, I think there is something to be said for enrolling in a beginning language course and learning the structure associated with the language,” Brown said.

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