Myths and misconceptions about learning a second language - effective language learning (2023)

Myths and misconceptions about learning a second language - effective language learning (1)

As the school-age population changes, teachers across the country are faced with the challenge of teaching growing numbers of children who may have limited English skills. All teachers need to understand how children learn a second language (L2). Intuitive assumptions are often wrong and unrealistic expectations of the L2 learning process can actively hinder learning development.

As any adult who has tried to learn another language can attest, learning a second language can be a frustrating experience. This is no less true for children, although it is widely believed that children learn second languages ​​much more easily. While this may be true for a child raised with many languages ​​around them from birth, this is simply not the case when learning at school or in the classroom.

This article discusses common myths and misconceptions about children, second language learning and how it affects teachers in the classroom.

Myth 1: Children learn second languages ​​quickly and easily

Typically, people who assert the superiority of children's learners claim that children's brains are more flexible (eg Lenneberg, 1967). Recent research challenges this biological imperative, arguing that differential rates of L2 acquisition may be indicative of certain psychological and social factors that favor children's learning (Newport, 1990). Research comparing children to adults has consistently shown that adolescents and adults perform better than young children under controlled conditions (eg, Snow & Hoefnagel-Hoehle, 1978). One exception is pronunciation, although there is much debate about this subject, as some studies still show better results for older students in this area.

Despite this, it is still believed that children learn languages ​​faster than adults, and this may be an illusion. Let's look at the language proficiency criteria for a child learner and an adult learner. A child does not need to study as much as an adult to acquire communicative competence. A child's sentence structures are shorter, simpler, and have a smaller vocabulary. Therefore, although it appears that children learn faster than adults, research results generally indicate that adult and adolescent learners perform better. Comparative performance is clearly discrepant.

Therefore, to put this knowledge into practice, teachers should not expect wonderful results from children learning English as a Second Language (ESL) in the classroom. At the very least, they need to understand that learning a second language is just as difficult for a child as it is for an adult, even if that difficulty lies in other areas. It can be even more difficult because young children don't have access to the memorization techniques and other strategies that more experienced students use to acquire vocabulary and learn grammar rules. However, this is purely speculative. What we do know is that children cannot be assumed to learn languages ​​quickly.

It also cannot be assumed that children have less inhibitions than adults when they make mistakes when learning a second language. Children are more likely to be shy and shy around their peers than the adults around them. Children from certain cultural backgrounds can be extremely anxious when chosen to act in a language they are learning. Teachers should not assume that such discomfort will pass quickly because children are considered fast second language learners. In other words, even if we follow the fallacy that children learn second languages ​​faster than adults, certain aggressive teaching methods are to be strongly discouraged.

Myth 2: The younger children are, the more proficient they are at acquiring an L2

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

These results may reflect the type of language teaching used in Europe, where the emphasis has traditionally been on formal grammar analysis. Older children are more comfortable with this approach and therefore may perform better when presented with these types of cognitive tests.

However, this argument does not explain the results of 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 grades 7 or 8) performed as well or better than children who began immersion in kindergarten or in 1st grade (Genesee, 1987). .

Pronunciation is one area where the assumption that younger is better may apply. Research (eg, Oyama, 1976) has found that the earlier a learner begins a second language, the more native accent he develops.

However, an early start, for example for 'language learners', allows children to see second language learning and related cultural perceptions as normal and integral. This method normalizes a long sequence of instructions and eventually leads to potential communicative competence. In other words, several positive aspects, in addition to language learning itself, can be easily understood in the learning process.

However, teaching ESL in the United States differs from teaching foreign languages. Language minority children in US schools need to master spoken English while learning the subject as quickly as possible. This suggests that early exposure to English is necessary in these situations. However, as L2 acquisition takes time, children still need support in their first language whenever possible so they don't fall behind in learning.

Teachers must have realistic expectations of their ESL students. Research suggests that older students make faster progress, although younger children may have an advantage in pronunciation. Certainly, starting language lessons in 1st grade gives children more exposure to language than starting in 6th grade, but exposure alone does not guarantee language acquisition.

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

Many educators believe that non-English speaking children learn English best through structured immersion, with a combination of ESL instruction and content-based English instruction. These programs provide more time for assignments in English than bilingual classes. However, research shows that this greater exposure to English does not necessarily accelerate English language acquisition. Over the course of the program, children in bilingual classes exposed to both their mother tongue and English acquire English proficiency equivalent to children attending English-only programs (Cummins, 1981; Ramirez, Yuen, and Ramy, 1991). This would not be expected if time spent on a task were the most important factor in language learning.

The researchers also caution against phasing out first language support too soon and suggest that while oral communication skills in a second language can be acquired in two to three years, it can take 4 to 6 years to reach the level of proficiency needed to understand the language in its academic use (Collier, 1989; Cummins, 1981).

Teachers should be aware of the benefits of supporting language minority children in their mother tongue. The use of the mother tongue in bilingual classes allows children to maintain school work at the class level, strengthens the bond between home and school, and allows them to participate more effectively in school activities. If children also acquire literacy skills in their first language, they can be functionally bilingual as adults, with an advantage in technical or professional careers.

Myth 4: Children acquire an L2 as soon as they can speak

Some teachers assume that children who can converse well in English will be fully proficient in the language. For school-aged children, however, mastery of face-to-face communication does not mean mastery of the more complex academic language required to participate in many classroom activities. Cummins (1980) cites evidence from a study of 1210 immigrant children in Canada that it took much longer (approximately 5 to 7 years) to master the non-embodied cognitive language needed for the regular English curriculum than it did to master communication skills. oral.

Educators need to be careful about removing children from programs where they support their native language. Enrolling kids who aren't ready for English-only classes can hurt their academic success. Teachers should be aware that it is not appropriate to integrate children based on an oral language assessment and should provide a full range of tests to determine the child's true level of ability.

All teachers need to be aware that children learning a second language may have literacy problems that are not apparent when their oral ability is used to assess their English proficiency. These problems in academic reading and writing in primary and secondary education may be due to limitations in vocabulary and syntactic knowledge. Even gifted children can have these knowledge gaps.

Myth 5: All children learn an L2 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. But this assumption seems to be based on a lot of practice.

Cultural anthropologists have shown that traditional American families and families from minority cultural backgrounds have different ways of speaking (Heath, 1983). Average children are used to a deductive and analytical speaking style, while many culturally diverse children are used to an inductive style. US schools emphasize the characteristics and language styles prevalent in traditional families. Language is used to convey meaning, convey information, control social behavior and solve problems, and children are rewarded for thinking clearly and logically. Children who use language in other ways, e.g. B. casual or colloquial, often get frustrated when told they are wrong.

Social class also influences learning style. In urban, educated, and technologically advanced societies, middle-class parents teach their children through language. Traditionally, instruction in non-urbanized and less technologically advanced cultures has been conducted non-verbally, through observation, supervised participation, and self-initiated repetition (Rogoff, 1990). There is no test of information by questions that characterize the teaching-learning process in urban and suburban middle-class households.

Also, some children are more used to learning from their peers than from adults. Cared for and tutored by older brothers or cousins, they learn to keep quiet and interact little with adults. At school, they probably pay more attention to what their peers are doing than what the teacher says.

Individual children also react to school and learn differently within groups. Some children are outgoing and sociable and pick up the second language quickly. They don't worry about errors, but use limited resources to generate feedback from native speakers. Other children are shy and quiet. You learn by listening and watching. They say little for fear of making mistakes. Still, research shows that both types of learners can be successful second language learners.

In the school environment, behaviors such as attention and persistence in tasks are valued. Due to cultural differences, some children may find the interpersonal structure of school culture difficult. If the teacher is not aware of these cultural differences, their expectations and interactions with these children can be detrimental to the child's learning.

Effective teaching to children of different cultural backgrounds requires varied classroom activities that take into account their diverse backgrounds. Many important pedagogical innovations in current practice have emerged as teachers have adapted instruction for children from culturally diverse backgrounds. Teachers need to recognize that family experiences and home culture influence children's values, language use patterns, and interpersonal styles. Children are likely to respond best to a teacher who affirms the values ​​of their home culture, and while this is difficult when dealing with an entire class, it should be attempted interpersonally.

Research on second language learning has shown that there are many misconceptions about how children learn languages. Teachers need to be aware of these misconceptions and realize that quick and easy solutions to complex problems are not appropriate. Learning a second language by school-aged children takes longer, is more difficult and requires more effort than teachers can imagine.

We must focus on the opportunities offered by cultural and linguistic diversity. Diverse children enrich our schools and our understanding of education in general. While research by the National Research Center on Cultural Diversity and Second Language Learning was aimed at children from diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds, much of it applies equally well to students in mainstream schools.

Myth 6: The fastest way to learn a language is to live in the countryside.

I had to learn a new language for work twice in my life. The first time was there in 1971, when I went to live in Italy. There were two books on the shelf at my local bookstore at home. One was called "Teach Yourself to Learn a Foreign Language" well past its expiration date, the other "New Ways to Learn a Foreign Language" by a respected professor at a famous American university.

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

I found out it wasn't just me. I made friends with a group of English students during their year abroad. By far the best said she never bothered to read a grammar. Others spent hours studying but still didn't speak Italian well. I only started to improve when I returned home and studied the grammar intensively. Only then was it a real benefit to be back in Italy, but I think it took me another 10 years to become reasonably fluent in Italian.

That experience taught me to distrust linguists. And just to piss them off even more, I would say that they don't have much of an idea why some people find it easy to learn a second language and others don't (probably applies to kids too). Personally, I cannot learn a new language just by listening. I'm in China now and my experience is exactly the same.

Even if I know every word of a conversation, I usually don't understand unless the person is speaking 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 to Italian. I can see linguists raising their hands in dismay, but full immersion methods don't work for me.

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