Myths and Misconceptions about Second Language Learning

As the school-aged population changes, teachers all over the country have the challenge of trying to teach an increased number of children, who may have limited English skills. All teachers need to understand how children learn a second language (L2). Intuitive assumptions are often incorrect, and unrealistic expectations of the process of L2 learning can be actively harmful in the development of learning.

As any adult who has tried to learn another language can verify, learning a second language can be a frustrating experience. This is no less the case for children, although there is a widespread belief that children learn second languages much easier. While this might be true for a child growing up from birth with many languages around them at all times, it is just not the case when learning in school or in a classroom environment.

This article discusses commonly held myths and misconceptions about children, learning a second language, and the implications for classroom teachers.

Myth 1: Children learn second languages quickly and easily

Typically, people who assert the superiority of child learners claim that children’s brains are more flexible (e.g., Lenneberg, 1967). Current research challenges this biological imperative, arguing that different rates of L2 acquisition may be a sign of certain psychological and social factors that favor children in the learning process (Newport, 1990). Research comparing children to adults has consistently demonstrated that adolescents and adults perform better than young children under controlled conditions (e.g., Snow & Hoefnagel-Hoehle, 1978). One exception is pronunciation, although on this subject debate rages, as a portion studies still do show better results for older learners in this area.

Nonetheless, people continue to believe that children learn languages faster than adults, and this may well be an illusion. Let us consider the criteria of language proficiency for a child learner and an adult learner. A child does not have to learn as much as an adult to achieve communicative competence. A child’s sentence constructions are shorter, simpler, with a smaller vocabulary. Therefore, although it appears that the child learns more quickly than the adult, research results typically indicate that adult and adolescent learners perform better. The comparative proficiency is clearly discrepant.

So to apply this knowledge practically, teachers should not expect miraculous results from children learning English as a second language (ESL) in the classroom. At the very least, they must understand that learning a second language is as difficult for a child as it is for an adult, even if that difficulty lies in different areas. It may be even more difficult, since young children do not have access to the memory techniques and other strategies that more experienced learners use in acquiring vocabulary and in learning grammatical rules. However, this is purely speculative. What we do know is that it cannot be assumed that children will pick up languages quickly.

Nor should it be assumed that children have fewer inhibitions than adults when they make mistakes in learning a second language. Children can be more likely to be shy and embarrassed around their peers than adults are around theirs. Children from certain high-pressure cultural backgrounds can become extremely anxious when singled out to perform in a language they are in the process of learning. Teachers should not assume that, because children supposedly learn second languages quickly, such discomfort will readily pass. In other words, even if we follow the fallacy that children learn second languages quicker than adults, certain aggressive teaching techniques should be avidly discouraged.

Myth 2: The younger the children, the more skill they have in acquiring an L2

Some researchers argue that the earlier children begin to learn a second language, the easier it will be for the child (e.g., Krashen, Long, & Scarcella, 1979). However, much research does not support this hypothesis in an actual school setting. For example, a study of British children learning French in a school concluded that, after 5 years of exposure, the older children were better L2 learners (Stern, Burstall, & Harley, 1975).Similar results have been found in other European studies (e.g., Florander & Jansen, 1968).

These findings may reflect the mode of language instruction used in Europe, where emphasis has traditionally been placed on formal grammatical analysis. Older children are more skilled in dealing with this approach and therefore may do better when confronted with this kind of cognitive testing.

However, this argument does not explain findings from studies of French immersion programs in Canada, where little emphasis is placed on the formal aspect of grammar. On tests of French language proficiency, Canadian English-speaking children in late immersion programs (where the L2 is introduced in Grade 7 or 8) have performed as well or better than children who began immersion in kindergarten or Grade 1 (Genesee, 1987).

Pronunciation is one area where the younger-is-better assumption may have validity. Research (e.g., Oyama, 1976) has found that the earlier a learner begins a second language, the more native-like the accent he or she develops.

However, an early start for “foreign” language learners, for example, enables children to view second language learning and related cultural insights as normal and integral. This method normalizes a long sequence of instructions, eventually leading to potential communicative proficiency. In other words, various positives, aside from the language learning itself, can be easily understood in the learning process.

Nonetheless, ESL instruction in the United States is different from foreign language instruction. Language minority children in U.S. schools need to master spoken English as quickly as possible while learning subject-matter content. This suggests that early exposure to English is called for in these situations. However, because L2 acquisition takes time, children continue to need the support of their first language, where this is possible, to avoid falling behind in learning.

Teachers should have realistic expectations of their ESL learners. Research suggests that older students will show quicker gains, though younger children may have an advantage in pronunciation. Certainly, beginning language instruction in Grade 1 gives children more exposure to the language than beginning in Grade 6, but exposure in itself does not ensure language acquisition.

Myth 3: The more time students spend in a second language context, the quicker they learn the language

Many educators believe children from non-English-speaking backgrounds will learn English best through structured immersion, with a combination of ESL classes and content-based instruction in English. These programs provide more time on task in English than bilingual classes. Research, however, indicates that this increased exposure to English does not necessarily speed the acquisition of English. Over the length of the program, children in bilingual classes, with exposure to the home language and to English, acquire English language skills equivalent to those acquired by children who have been in English-only programs (Cummins, 1981; Ramirez, Yuen, & Ramey, 1991). This would not be expected if time spent on task was the most important factor in language learning.

Researchers also caution against withdrawing home language support too soon and suggest that although oral communication skills in a second language may be acquired within two or 3 years, it may take 4 to 6 years to acquire the level of proficiency needed for understanding the language in its academic uses (Collier, 1989; Cummins, 1981).

Teachers should be aware that giving language minority children support in their home language is beneficial. The use of the home language in bilingual classrooms enables children to maintain grade-level school work, reinforces the bond between the home and the school, and allows them to participate more effectively in school activities. Furthermore, if the children acquire literacy skills in the first language, as adults they may be functionally bilingual, with an advantage in technical or professional careers.

Myth 4: Children have acquired an L2 once they can speak it

Some teachers assume that children who can converse comfortably in English are in full control of the language. Yet for school-aged children, proficiency in face-to-face communication does not imply proficiency in the more complex academic language needed to engage in many classroom activities. Cummins (1980) cites evidence from a study of 1,210 immigrant children in Canada who required much longer (approximately 5 to 7 years) to master the dis-embedded cognitive language required for the regular English curriculum than to master oral communicative skills.

Educators need to be cautious in removing children from programs where they have the support of their home language. If children who are not ready for the all-English classroom are mainstreamed, their academic success may be hindered. Teachers should realize that mainstreaming children on the basis of oral language assessment is inappropriate, and should offer a comprehensive spectrum of testing to determine the true level of the child’s ability.

All teachers need to be aware that children who are learning in a second language may have language problems in reading and writing that are not apparent if their oral abilities are used to gauge their English proficiency. These problems in academic reading and writing at the middle and high school levels may stem from limitations in vocabulary and syntactic knowledge. Even children who are skilled orally can have such breaches in their knowledge.

Myth 5: All children learn an L2 in the same way

Most teachers would probably not admit that they think all children learn an L2 in the same way or at the same rate. Yet, this assumption seems to underlie a great deal of practice.

Cultural anthropologists have shown that mainstream U.S. families and families from minority cultural backgrounds have different ways of talking (Heath, 1983). Mainstream children are accustomed to a deductive, analytic style of talking, whereas many culturally diverse children are accustomed to an inductive style. U.S. schools emphasize language functions and styles that predominate in mainstream families. Language is used to communicate meaning, convey information, control social behavior, and solve problems, and children are rewarded for clear and logical thinking. Children who use language in a different manner, such as casually or colloquially, often experience frustration in being told that they are mistaken.

Social class also influences learning styles. In urban, literate, and technologically advanced societies, middle-class parents teach their children through language. Traditionally, most teaching in less technologically advanced, non-urbanized cultures is carried out nonverbally, through observation, supervised participation, and self-initiated repetition (Rogoff, 1990). There is none of the information testing through questions that characterizes the teaching-learning process in urban and suburban middle-class homes.

In addition, some children are more accustomed to learning from peers than from adults. Cared for and taught by older siblings or cousins, they learn to be quiet in the presence of adults and have little interaction with them. In school, they are likely to pay more attention to what their peers are doing than to what the teacher is saying.

Individual children also react to school and learn differently within groups. Some children are outgoing and sociable and learn the second language quickly. They do not worry about mistakes, but use limited resources to generate input from native speakers. Other children are shy and quiet. They learn by listening and watching. They say little, for fear of making a mistake. Nonetheless, research shows that both types of learners can be successful second language learners.

In a school environment, behaviors such as paying attention and persisting at tasks are valued. Because of cultural differences, some children may find the interpersonal setting of the school culture difficult. If the teacher is unaware of such cultural differences, their expectations and interactions with these children may be detrimental to the learning of the child.

Effective instruction for children from culturally diverse backgrounds requires varied instructional activities that consider their diversity of experience. Many important educational innovations in current practice have resulted from teachers adapting instructions for children from culturally diverse backgrounds. Teachers need to recognize that experiences in the home and home culture affect children’s values, patterns of language use, and interpersonal style. Children are likely to be more responsive to a teacher who affirms the values of their home culture, and while this is difficult when engaging with a whole class, it must be attempted interpersonally.

Research on second language learning has shown that many misconceptions exist about how children learn languages. Teachers need to be aware of these misconceptions and realize that quick and easy solutions are not appropriate for complex problems. Second language learning by school-aged children takes longer, is harder, and involves more effort than teachers may realize.

We should focus on the opportunity that cultural and linguistic diversity provides. Diverse children enrich our schools and our understanding of education in general. In fact, although the research of the National Center for Research on Cultural Diversity and Second Language Learning has been directed at children from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, much of it applies just as well to mainstream students.

Myth 6: You learn a language quickest if you live in the country.

I’ve had to learn a new language for work twice in my life. First time was way back in 1971 when I went to Italy to live. In my local bookstore at home there were two books on the shelf. One was called ‘Teach Yourself to Learn a Foreign Language’ way past its sell-by date, the other, ‘New Ways to Learn a Foreign Language’ by a distinguished Professor at a famous US university.

This second one told me that after a month or two of total immersion I would be able to pick out words and phrases from conversation and gradually be able to reproduce them myself. The first book, written I think in the 1950s said that if my Italian didn’t improve rapidly in the first couple of months then the chances were it would be a slow process. The first book was correct.

I found it wasn’t just me. I got friendly with a group of English university language students on their year abroad. Far and a way the best said she’d never bothered to read a grammar. Others spent hours studying but still couldn’t speak Italian well. I only started to improve when I went back home and studied the grammar hard. Only then was being back in Italy a real advantage, but I reckon it still took me 10 years to speak Italian with any degree of fluency.

This experience did teach me to distrust linguists. And just to annoy them even more, I’d say that they don’t have much idea why some people find it easy to learn a second language and others don’t (probably goes for children as well). I personally cannot learn a new language just by listening to it. I’m in China now and my experiences are exactly the same.

Even if I know every single word of a conversation, I usually don’t understand it unless the person speaks very slowly. I have to learn to SPEAK the language first, and only then do I begin to understand it when it is spoken. What improved my Italian was spending many hours translating from English into Italian. I can see the linguists throwing up their hands in horror, but total immersion methods don’t work for me.

3 thoughts on “Myths and Misconceptions about Second Language Learning”

  1. Well, I’m not a linguist, I can only go on my own experiences.
    First was in the 1970s when I went to language school in Italy. I stayed with an Australian friend who had a small child in an Italian school. At the end of a year I still couldn’t speak Italian. After a few months the child was speaking pretty good Italian with excellent pronunciation.
    Another friend had a similar experience in China. She used to take her child to the supermarket to do the translation for her. Kid used to stand by exasperated saying ‘muuuumm!’ They were there for 6 years. The grown up kid speaks faultless Mandarin, mother…well you’ll have to ask her.
    Question: Did they learn the second language so well because they were kids or because they were put in an environment in which they could survive ONLY by speaking the target language?

  2. I, too, have a copy of “Teach Yourself to Learn a Language”, by Peter Glendening, published in 1965. It’s full of sound advice, and manages to encourage learners and give good advice while also emphasising that there is no way to learn a language without putting in time and effort.


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