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Myths About Second Language Learning

Learning a new language can be hard. And many people have their own ideas about what the best way to learn this new language is. Some say that you should study the grammar really well and others say that you should just watch television shows and movies and that that would make you learn the language quicker and better. Most of these ideas come from myths about second language learning that are just simply untrue. In this article I will debunk some of these myths so that we do not let these myths affect the way that we learn languages.

The first myth is that children learn a second language easier than adults. Many people think a child’s brain absorbs a second language easier because their brain is still flexible. This is known as the ‘critical period hypothesis’. The critical period hypothesis has been questioned by many researchers in recent years. The biological evidence for this hypothesis has been challenged and this has led to the argument that children learn a language quicker due to social and psychological differences rather than biological differences. One of these social differences is that children are more often than adults put in situations where they have to speak a second language with no other option. In a controlled environment, however, adults outperform children in tests on second language learning. It might also be an illusion that children learn quicker than adults because a child has to learn less of a language to speak to their peers than an adult. This myth is debunked in controlled research, where adults perform better than children in both formal and informal settings.

Another related myth is that children should start learning a second language as young as possible. The thought behind this is that the younger a child is, the better they will absorb the language. However, this is not true, at least not in traditional school settings. In these settings the research shows that older children are better foreign language learners than younger children. The study of Stern, Burstall, and Harley in 1975 showed that of 17,000 British children learning French in school that after fi ve years the children who had started learning French at age eleven performed better on tests than children who had begun at eight years. This shows that older children are better second language learners than younger children. This may be because in European countries language education is formal and has a heavy focus on grammar and older children are more equipped to apply this. The only aspect of second language learning where younger children have an advantage is pronunciation. The younger children start speaking a language, the more native their accent sounds. This may be because there currently are no good methods for teaching phonology to students of a foreign language. Another reason may be that for pronunciation there is actually a critical period. This is because pronunciation involves motor skills that are based on the native language. People may develop motor patterns that they cannot break out of when speaking a second language.

The last myth is that students learn a language quickest by being immerged in the language. This would mean that during a lesson a student would only be exposed to the second language and not to the first language. Teachers do this by giving instructions in class in the second language and not speaking the first language. However, this is not the most effective way of teaching a language, because many students need the support of their native tongue to understand what they need to learn in the second language.

There are many misconceptions about learning a new language. It is important to learn which myths are untrue so that those myths no longer influence the way languages are taught and learnt. Some untrue myths are that children learn a new language better than adults, that the younger a child starts learning a language the better it will learn it, and that the best way to teach a new language is immersion technique without the support of the native language.

by Julie Notenboom



Works Cited


McLaughlin, Barry. “Myths and Misconceptions about Second Language Learning: What Every Teacher Needs to Unlearn.” Rep. University of California, Santa Cruz, 1992. Web. Nov. 2015.

Nunan, David, Ph.D. “The 7 Myths of Language Learning.” N.p., 2011. Web. Nov. 2015.