ERIC Identifier: ED350885
Publication Date: 1992-12-00
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Languages and
Linguistics Washington DC.
Myths and Misconceptions about Second Language Learning. ERIC
This Digest is based on a report published by the National Center for
Research on Cultural Diversity and Second Language Learning, University of
California, Santa Cruz: "Myths and Misconceptions About Second Language
Learning: What Every Teacher Needs to Unlearn," by Barry McLaughlin. Copies of
the full report are available for $4.00 from Center for Applied Linguistics,
NCRCDSLL, 1118 22nd St. NW, Washington, DC 20037
As the school-aged population changes, teachers all over the country are
challenged with instructing more children with limited English skills. Thus, all
teachers need to know something about how children learn a second language (L2).
Intuitive assumptions are often mistaken, and children can be harmed if teachers
have unrealistic expectations of the process of L2 learning and its relationship
to the acquisition of other academic skills and knowledge.
As any adult who has tried to learn another language can verify, second
language learning can be a frustrating experience. This is no less the case for
children, although there is a widespread belief that children are facile second
language learners. This digest discusses commonly held myths and misconceptions
about children and second language learning and the implications for classroom
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 reflect psychological and social factors that favor child
learners (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 even here some studies show better results
for older learners.
Nonetheless, people continue to believe that children learn languages faster
than adults. Is this superiority illusory? Let us consider the criteria of
language proficiency for a child and an adult. A child does not have to learn as
much as an adult to achieve communicative competence. A child's constructions
are shorter and simpler, and vocabulary is smaller. Hence, although it appears
that the child learns more quickly than the adult, research results typically
indicate that adult and adolescent learners perform better.
Teachers should not expect miraculous results from children learning English
as a second language (ESL) in the classroom. At the very least, they should
anticipate that learning a second language is as difficult for a child as it is
for an adult. 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.
Nor should it be assumed that children have fewer inhibitions than adults
when they make mistakes in an L2. Children are more likely to be shy and
embarrassed around peers than are adults. Children from some cultural
backgrounds are 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
MYTH 2: THE YOUNGER THE CHILD, THE MORE SKILLED IN ACQUIRING AN L2
Some researchers argue that the earlier children begin to learn a second
language, the better (e.g., Krashen, Long, & Scarcella, 1979). However,
research does not support this conclusion in school settings. For example, a
study of British children learning French in a school context concluded that,
after 5 years of exposure, 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 hence might do
better. However, this argument does not explain findings from studies of French
immersion programs in Canada, where little emphasis is placed on the formal
aspects 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.
The research cited above does not suggest, however, that early exposure to an
L2 is detrimental. An early start for "foreign" language learners, for example,
makes a long sequence of instruction leading to potential communicative
proficiency possible and enables children to view second language learning and
related cultural insights as normal and integral. Nonetheless, ESL instruction
in the United States is different from foreign language instruction. Language
minority children in U.S. schools need to master English as quickly as possible
while learning subject-matter content. This suggests that early exposure to
English is called for. 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 content area 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 predict language
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, where they have ESL classes and content-based instruction
in English. These programs provide more time on task in English than bilingual
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 on task were 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 2 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
the 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 disembedded cognitive
language required for the regular English curriculum than to master oral
Educators need to be cautious in exiting 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.
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 gaps.
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 often experience frustration.
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
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 influenced.
Effective instruction for children from culturally diverse backgrounds
requires varied instructional activities that consider the children's diversity
of experience. Many important educational innovations in current practice have
resulted from teachers adapting instruction 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 the home culture.
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 many
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
equally well to mainstream students.
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