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Karen S. Rigdon
International Falls Masters Cohort
Research and Writing Position Paper
Myths and Misconceptions About Second Language Learning
ERIC Digest, December 1992
Based on Myths and Misconceptions about Second Language Learning: What Every Teacher Needs to Unlearn, by Barry McLaughlin
It is a wide spread belief that children learn second languages quickly and easily. Proponents of this belief claim that childrens brains are more flexible (e.g., Lenneberg, 1967). Current research, however, contends that different rates of second language, L2, acquisition may reflect psychological and social factors that favor child learners (Newport, 1990). In addition, comparative research has proven adolescents and adults to be superior to children in second language performance (e.g.,Snow and Hoefnagel-Hoehle, 1978). Hence, my stance is that teachers should not assume that children are facile L2 learners: it is just as difficult to learn an L2 for children as it is for adults.
A second myth - - The younger the child, the more skilled in acquiring an L2 (p. 2), was exposed after research was conducted in school settings. For example, Canadian English speaking children in grade 7-8 French immersion programs, performed as well or better on language proficiency tests than children who were in immersion programs from kindergarten (Genesee, 1987). The one area where the younger-is-better assumption may have validity is in pronunciation. Research has found that the earlier a learner begins a second language, the more native-like the accent he or she develops (p. 2).
This digest further debates that students learn an L2 quicker if they spend more time in an L2 context. The author, Barry McLaughlin, asserts his stance citing research findings that studied language minority children in US grade schools. McLaughlin contends that home language support should not be withdrawn too soon and that this support enables children to maintain grade-level school work, reinforces the bond between the home and the school, and allows them to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 (p. 3). I agree that this would be the ideal situation if funding were available in school districts to implement home language support programs. Also, the choice of which classes to withdraw the students from in order to attend the support programs would have to be carefully made.
A fourth common misconception is that second languages are learned in the same way by all children. In Ways with words, language, life and work in communities and classrooms, S. B. Heath demonstrates that mainstream US families and families from minority cultural backgrounds have different ways of communicating. Mainstream children are accustomed to a deductive, analytic style of talking, whereas many culturally diverse children are accustomed to an inductive style, summarizes McLaughlin (page 3). McLaughlin also offers research based implications arguing that social class influences learning styles, that some children are more in the habit of learning from peers than from adults, and that some children may find the interpersonal setting of the school culture difficult.
A final assumption, according to this article, is that children who can converse comfortably in an L2 have acquired that language. This assumption is weak because proficiency in face-to-face communication does not imply proficiency in the more complex academic language needed to engage in many classroom activities (p. 3). McLaughlin suggests that teachers should not use oral language assessments to mainstream minority children and/or remove them from programs that support their home language. Oral language assessments would likely result in problems in academic reading and writing stemming from limitations in vocabulary and syntactic knowledge (p. 3).
In summary, the myths debated in this digest are that children learn an L2 quickly and are more skilled in acquisition, that students learn an L2 quicker if more time is spent in the L2 context, that all children can learn a second language in the same way, and that the ability to converse in an L2 proves proficiency. I firmly agree with McLaughlins strongly supported stands versus the myths. I contend that the learning of second languages by school age children is a long, hard and involved process: just as it is for adults. I also believe that these misconceptions can be detrimental to children learning second languages because of the possibility that their teachers may have resulting expectations that are unrealistic concerning the learning process involved with second language acquisition and its connection to the appropriation of other academic skills.
This article has been an eye-opener for me because the driving purpose of my group research project is to convince our school district to add a Spanish language program to the early elementary curriculum. Originally my thesis group intended to promote the program from the premise that younger children could learn an L2 faster than high school students. The multitude of referenced research findings in this article convinced me that our approach would have to be reframed with a cultural enrichment focus as outlined in the following quotes. 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 (p. 2). We should focus on the opportunity that cultural and linguistic diversity provides. Diverse children enrich our schools and our understanding of education in general (p. 4). Our future elementary L2 curriculum proposals goals will be refined to persuade the school district that young children learning an L2 enhance our schools and that learning a second language is desirable in the era of multi-cultural consciousness.
Genesee, F. (1989). Learning through two languages: Studies of immersion and bilingual education. New York: Newbury House.
Newport, E. (1990). Maturational constraints on language learning. Cognitive Science, 14, 11-28.
Snow, C.E., & Hoefnagel-Hoehle, M. (1978). The critical period for language acquisition: Evidence form second language learning. Child Development, 49, 1114-1118.
-- Anonymous, May 01, 1999