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What Is Language Immersion?

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What Is Language Immersion?

By Amanda Holmes

What is language immersion?

Over the many years of Indigenous and endangered language revitalization efforts globally, language immersion has been found to be one of the most effective methods of language reclamation. Immersion simply means programs where people are immersed in the language – surrounded by the language being learned, hearing only or mostly that language, with as little presence of other/dominant languages as possible. 

There are many kinds of immersion: Indigenous language immersion methods and programs are as widely varied as the contexts where they are located.

Some widely known and researched language immersion methods: 

  • Language nests for babies and young children, which include early childhood programs (which may or may not be referred to as ‘nests’)
  • The Master-Apprentice / Mentor-Apprentice model
  • In-home language acquisition/immersion;
  • Language camps
  • Immersion in schools, such as immersion schools for grades K-12, immersion classes in schools, and even immersion in higher education, as has been put in place for Māori and Hawaiian
  • Adult language learning programs like weekend or weeklong workshops, immersion camps, gatherings, etc.  that accommodate the schedules of working adults who are also heavily invested in learning and teaching their language in their homes, with their children and grandchildren, and in their communities.

It should also be noted that language immersion programs are not always “full immersion” programs, depending on the context – they might try to stay in the language as much as possible, but full immersion may not be possible. Rather than seeing this as a ‘deficit’ or problem, it is important to keep in mind that any attempt at immersion is a critical step, and that partial-immersion can be built on as programs and communities make their way toward greater capacity and building fluency over time.

All these immersion methods that focus on language learners being immersed in their language and culture have multiple positive and radiating impacts for the learner and the community, including enhanced personal and collective self-esteem and identity. Research on immersion asserts that the benefits of immersion also include “academic achievement, language and literacy development in two or more languages, and cognitive skills” (Williams Fortune, Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition). 

While there is no way to describe all the various methods, strategies, and programs in this brief explainer, please see the list of References and Resources below for more information.  You can also find more information on Indigenous and endangered-language immersion programs and resources at the Resources and Bibliography section of the ELP Helpdesk Language Revitalization Library on this website. If you need more assistance with an immersion program, you can ask a question or make an appointment with a revitalization coach.

If you wish to have your Language Immersion program included in the Language Revitalization Resources/Bibliography, or to participate in the ELP Language Revitalization Survey, please feel welcome to fill out the short ELP Revitalization Directory Survey, or the longer Survey of Revitalization Efforts, or reach out to us at

Examples of Language Immersion Programs:


Gaelscoileanna is an Irish national organization promoting Irish immersion education. They publish a newsletter (in Irish) three times each year, host an annual conference, and provide a network among Irish immersion schools. Irish-medium schools follow an immersion model of education to support children’s fluency in Irish Gaelic. These schools are State-funded and provide the full curriculum as is students get through schools where English is the medium of instruction.


Since 2017, Iḷisaqativut has held three 2-week long Iñupiaq language intensives, where adult language learners spend two dedicated weeks to learning Iñupiaq, moving beyond words and gaining speaking ability. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the Iḷisaqativut Institute was not held in 2020 or 2021, but we are hoping to see it return in 2022. We are providing our curriculum here free of charge, and you are welcome to use it to hold your own Iḷisaqativut Institute.

Resources for learning more about language immersion:

National Indian Education Association, Native Language Immersion Program Resources 

“NIEA has developed Native Language Immersion Program resources to support schools’ capacity to build Native Language programs. Our goal is to increase awareness about the benefits of language immersion programs, increase understanding regarding the state of existence of Native languages and their programs, and provide general support for language immersion schools and programs. NIEA anticipates increased fluency in reading and writing skills among Native youth. Additional benefits that will result from the program includes increased retention and engagement of students in school, higher achievement rates, increased awareness about Native language opportunities, increased self-esteem and cultural pride related to native identity, and a sense of purpose and shared community.”

For more information, please contact Melanie Johnson,, 202-878-6284.

First Nation Languages: Why we need them. Language Immersion. Arthurson, V. (2012). Manitoba First Nations Education Resource Centre. (Free article PDF.)

First Nations Development Institute, Native Language Immersion Initiative.

In 2017, First Nations Development Institute (based in Colorado, US) started the Native Language Immersion Initiative to support Indigenous language immersion programs, providing them with infrastructure and models that can be used by other programs for their own languages. Contact:


Arviso, M., & Holm, W. (2001). Tséhootsooídi Olta’gi Diné Bizaad Bíhoo’aah: A Navajo immersion program at Fort Defiance, Arizona. In Hinton, L., & Hale, K. (Eds.), The Green book of language revitalization in practice (pp. 203–215). San Diego: Academic.

Bamford, K., & Mizokawa, D. (1991). Additive-bilingual (immersion) education: Cognitive and language development. Language Learning, 41(3), 413-429.

Bishop, R., Berryman, M., & Richardson, C. (2002). Te Toi Huarewa: Effective teaching and learning in total immersion Maori language educational settings. Canadian Journal of Native Education, 26(1), 44–61.

Blair, H., & Fredeen, S. (2009). Putting knowledge into practice: Creating spaces for cree immersion. Canadian Journal of Native Education, 32(2), 62-77,118.

Hermes, M. (2007). Moving toward the language: Reflections on teaching in an indigenous-immersion school. Journal of American Indian Education, 46(3), 54–71.

Hermes, M. & Kawai’ae’a, K. (2014). Revitalizing indigenous languages through indigenous immersion education. Journal of Immersion and Content-Based Language Education, 2(2), p. 303-322. DOI:

Johnston, B., & Johnson, K. A. (2002). Preschool immersion education for indigenous languages: A survey of resources. Canadian Journal of Native Education, 26(2), 107-123,201.

Jones, G. E. (1991). Aspects of the linguistic competence of Welsh immersion program pupils. In K. Herberts, & C. Lauren (Eds.), Multilingualism in the Nordic countries and beyond (pp. 204–212). Vaasa, Finland: The Sixth Nordic Conference on Bilingualism.

Kawai’ae’a, K. K. C., Housman, A. K. (Kaina), & Alencastre, M. (Ka’awa). (2007). Pü’ä i ka ’Ölelo , Ola ka ’Ohana : Three Generations of Hawaiian Language Revitalization. Hulili Journal: Multidisciplinary Research on Hawaiian Wellbeing, 4(1), 183–237.

Kipp, D. (2000). Encouragement, guidance, insights and lessons learned from native language activists developing their own tribal language programs. Browning, MT: Piegan Institute.

Lindholm-Laery, K. & Genesee, F. (2014). Student outcomes in one-way, two-way, and indigenous language immersion education. Journal of Immersion and Content-Based Language Education. 2(2), p. 165 – 180.  DOI:

May, S. (2013). Indigenous immersion education: International developments. Journal of Immersion and Content-Based Language Education. 1(1), p. 34-69. DOI:

May, S., Hill, R., & Tiakiwai, S. (2004). Bilingual/Immersion education: Indicators of good practice: Final Report to the Ministry of Education.

McIvor, O. & McCarty, T.L. (2017). Indigenous Bilingual and RevitalizationImmersion Education in Canada and the USA. In García O., Lin A., May S. (eds) Bilingual and Multilingual Education. Encyclopedia of Language and Education (3rd ed.). Springer, Switzerland.

Morcom, L. A., Roy, S. (2017). Is early immersion effective for Aboriginal language acquisition? A case study from an Anishinaabemowin kindergarten. p. 1-13. International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism.

Pease, J. (2004). New voices ancient words: Language immersion produces fluent speakers, stronger personal and cultural identities. Tribal College Journal of American Indian Higher Education, 15(3), 15-18.

Peter, L. (2007). “Our beloved Cherokee”: A naturalistic study of Cherokee preschool language immersion. Anthropology & Education Quarterly, 38(4), 323–342.

Reyhner, J. (2010). Indigenous language immersion schools for strong indigenous identities. Heritage Language Journal, 7(2), 138–152.

Tedick, D. J. & Björklund, S. (Eds.). (2014). Language immersion education: A research agenda for 2015 and beyond. Journal of Immersion and Content-Based Language Education, 2(2), 155-164.

Walsh, M. (2005). Indigenous languages of southeast Australia, revitalization and the role of education. Australian Review of Applied Linguistics, 28(2), 1-14.

Williams Fortune, T. What the Research Says About Immersion. Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition (CARLA), University of Minnesota.

Yamauchi, L.A. & Andrea K. Ceppi (1998) A Review of Indigenous Language Immersion Programs and a Focus on Hawaii, Equity & Excellence, 31:1, 11-20, DOI: 10.1080/1066568980310103