Contribution by Tachini Pete, NLCC TTA Director

Learning language through Immersion works. Our first language is acquired through passive immersion. Immersed in the language of our mother, family, and community we become proficient fluent speakers. We are constantly immersed in our first language throughout our life, acquiring new vocabulary far into adulthood. This is the natural way we acquire language. We go through our lives obtaining and providing information through our language. The interactions necessary to function in our community require we speak the language of our community. This creates a strong incentive to speak and understand effectively. Passive immersion works well for individuals with the time to do it. A child is developmentally fluent in their first language at around age 4 or 5. It would be great if a language were intact enough to be able to invest 5 years passively learning. To have one’s language spoken by the community is the dream of language revival. However, immersion needs to be compressed into 1-2 years to make it realistically attainable.

Passive immersion is used as a complement in many second language acquisition programs. Many foreign language programs incorporate or recommend passive immersion to round out their learning. This often involves spending some time in the target language community. This passively forces one to interact and communication in the target language in a natural setting. Students of French often live and work in France to round out their learning. My father lived periodically in Austria for about 20 years. During all those years he picked up German. He was able to communicate and interact in the communities he lived. It took him about 15 years of passive immersion before he felt he was able to communicate in the language. It would be amazing if we were able to spend 15 years in our communities and pick up our indigenous languages.

The state of most indigenous languages requires strategic prioritization to build a capacity to be able to bring the language back to the community level. The whole picture must be considered with any approach. Look at the hard facts and realities of your community’s current capacity. In most cases investing in immersion programs for children is not a natural first step. Consider the length of time in child-centric revival strategy. If a child enters an immersion program at age 4, it will be 14 years before that child will be age-ready for higher learning to enter some career. It is generally the intention that some of these children will be the next language teachers. It will take a least an additional 4 years of learning to become an entry-level teacher. That puts the child at 18 years before s/he will be ready to effectively teach the language. This assumes the child will want to be a teacher of the language. Realistically, it will take 20 years of investment in children before they could potentially be highly effective language teachers. Does your community have speakers that will be around in 20 years? Do you have teachers with the skill and capacity to engage children for 14 years?

A 20-year window for language revival is not feasible in most cases. This time frame needs to be much shorter to achieve forward momentum to revival. If a community desires an immersion school for their children, they must first build the capacity to produce language teachers in a short amount of time. The first step to language revival is the ability to create adult speakers of the language in as short a time as possible. The reality is that adult language speakers drive language revival. They are the teachers and those that learn become the bridge from the elders to the youth. Language programs are structures created to impart a set of language to learners. A teacher or team of teachers creates a sequence of learning and conducts the class or classes. Pair the structure of sequenced learning with immersion and you get structured immersion.

Structured immersion offers a focused intentional sequence of scaffolded learning assisting both teachers and learners. Structured immersion follows a learning path informed by the language’s worldview, words, and features. Structured immersion can be very effective and efficient. Developing an ideal learning path is a core concept of structured immersion. This method attempts to continuously refine and shorten the learning path leading to a determined level of fluency. Structured immersion uses grammar features and vocabulary to create a scaffolding learning path. This requires an in-depth knowledge of how the language works. The designers determine what the sequence of learning will be based on their experience of learning and teaching. A highly refined learning path can be short enough to make learning a realistic opportunity for a greater amount of the community. Through a deliberate refinement process, a structured immersion learning path can be highly efficient.

A structured immersion program requires developing a guided sequence to aid the speaker and motivate the learner. Providing the learner with a roadmap to their destination highly incentivizes the learning. It gives the student a tangible record of how far they have gone and how far they need to go. Too often, language learning programs are nebulous and do not offer the learner much guidance on what will be learned and a way to track progress. This leads to attrition from the program of learners and at times, teachers. Teachers can get frustrated with the progress of their students. This can create hopelessness that it is impossible for anyone to learn the language. This can lead to discord in the community that investing in language does not pay off, especially with established programs. Without success in creating speakers, the faith in a learning program can wane and lead to lost community support or buy-in.

Structured immersion has intention and design in bringing the student to a determined level of fluency. Passive immersion is a natural method to acquire a language. It has no determined learning path or time frame required to learn. It takes longer to acquire a language through passive immersion as opposed to a well-structured immersion learning path. Where does one begin in setting up a structured immersion learning path?

On a high level, setting up a structured immersion learning path is a matter of determining an end goal or outcome and working backward from there. There are two main questions to ask: 1) how many words/concepts are necessary to be a speaker? and 2) how many words can a learner retain in an hour of learning? For example, let’s say that an advanced speaker has a vocabulary of 10,000 words. We want our learners to reach the advanced speaker level. The next step is to determine an ideal learning rate. A learning rate is the number of words that can be learned in an hour of instruction. A word is learned when it can be recalled, understood, and used in 2 days, 2 weeks, and 2 months after the instruction. Let’s say that an ideal learning rate is 10 words per hour. With this information, a learning course framework can be organized with a 1,000-hour (10,000 words/10 words per hour = 1,000 hours) learning course. For the sake of breaking up the learning into units, I would have four 250-hour units. In each unit, the teachers will facilitate the acquiring of 2,500 words. If it takes 250 hours the structure of a class would be 32 days of 8 hours of instruction or 64 days of 4 hours of instruction. At 8 hours per day, it will take about 7 weeks and 14 weeks at 4 hours per day. If you only have 5 hours per week, then it would take 200 weeks or nearly 4 years to learn the 10,000 words.

10,000 wordsAdvanced fluency level
10 words/hourLearning rate
1,000 hoursNumber of hours of direct instruction
Possible schedules
40 hours/week = 8 hours/day80 words/day
400 words/week
25 weeks to 10,000 words
20 hours/week = 4 hours/day40 words/day
200 words/week
50 weeks to 10,000 words
5 hours/week = 1 hour/day10 words/day
500 words/week
200 weeks to 10,000 words

Language revival can happen with a strategy focused on building a capacity to produce effective language teachers. Creating a structured immersion learning path for adults is a step in the direction of building sufficient capacity to start a highly effective and efficient immersion school for the community’s children.


ACTFL. “General Preface to the ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines 2012.” February 2012. ACTFL. 2021.

Colker, Laura L. “The World Gap: The Early Years Make the Difference.” February/March 2014. National Association for the Education of Young Children. 2021.

Council of Europe. “Global Scale – Table 1 (CEFR 3.3): Common Reference Levels.” n.d. Common European Framework of Reference for Language (CEFR). February 2021.

Fortune, Tara Williams. “What the Research Says about Immersion.” 9 April 2019. Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition – University of Minnesota. February 2021.

H., Sara. “How many hours do I need to prepare for my [CEFR] exam?” CGuided Learning Hours: Cambridge Assessment English. December 2020.

Lewis, Benny. “The CIA is Wrong: It Doesn’t Take 1,000 Hours to Learn a Language.” n.d. Fluent in 3 Months. February 2021.

OptiLingo Blog. How Many Words Do You Need to be Fluent? [Answered].. n.d. Blog. February 2021.

Transparent Language. How Much Vocabulary is Enough When Learning a Foreign Langauge? n.d. Blog. February 2021.

The Calculations:

How many words to advanced fluency? 10,000 words

What is an ideal rate of learning? 10 words per hour

10,000 words ÷ 10 words/hour = 1,000 hours

1,000 hours ÷ 4 units = 250 hours/unit

Structuring the number of classes or hours per week per unit

40 hours per week = 8 hours/day

250 hours ÷ 40 hours/week = 6.25 weeks or 7 weeks
20 hours per week = 4 hours/day

250 hours ÷ 20 hours/week = 13 weeks
5 hours per week = 1 hour/day

250 hours ÷ 5 hours/week = 50 weeks
If you can devote 5 hours per week to a learning path, then it will take nearly 4 years to achieve 10,000 words.