Students who acquire a new language in an immersion program are engaging in an extremely challenging task. Their ability to accurately and effectively learn the target language is dependent on many factors, of which, the quality of the instruction, the range of the classroom and instruction discourse as well as the effectiveness of the feedback for learning are most significant.
Without these, persistent and long-term problems develop in students’ language use patterns.
In his 2007 book Learning and Teaching Languages Through Content, Roy Lyster warns that incidental attention drawn to language during the instruction of subject areas is insufficient and may even mislead student learners. He states on page 29:
“without having their attention drawn more systematically to the target language, the cognitive predispositions of second language learners interact with classroom input in ways that restrict the incidental assimilation of specific target features and grammatical subsystems, such as verbs, pronouns, and gender in the case of French immersion students.”
In French Second Language classrooms, According to Brigitte Harley’s research (1993), an explicit focus needs to be drawn on:
• Unexpected and non-obvious features that differ from students’ first language
• Irregular and infrequent features in the second language input
• Features that do not carry a heavy communicative load
Lyster explains that using Harley’s research explains persistent difficulties experienced by French Immersion students, specifically: verbal systems, pronominal reference and gender attributions. These difficulties, he explains, are due to incongruence with students’ first language, lack of prominence in instructional discourse and redundancy in communicative interactions.
Of significant note for teachers, students eliminate language forms that they perceive to be redundant which explains why immersion students prefer perfective verb forms, singular forms of pronouns and masculine gender forms. Immersion teachers therefore need to create opportunities, explicitly model, and offer useful feedback for immersion students so that they may build a clear understanding of the form and function of these language features. Other researchers have affirmed the belief that target language features that create a misleading similarity between the first and second language should be explicitly taught to students because these students demonstrate long-term difficulty acquiring these through communicative interactions and that these are most often infrequent in classroom discourse.