Myths and Misconceptions about Second Language Learning:

What Every Teacher Needs to Unlearn

Barry McLaughlin

National Center for Research on Cultural Diversity

and Second Language Learning

University of California, Santa Cruz

As more and more children enter schools from families in which

English is not the language of the home, teachers face the daunting

challenge of instructing children who have limited skills in the

English language. It is becoming increasingly obvious that this is

not an experience that is limited to teachers in certain schools or

certain parts of the country. All teachers need to know something

about how it is that children learn a second language. Intuitive

assumptions are often mistaken and children can be harmed if

teachers have unrealistic and incorrect expectations about the

process of second language learning and its relationship to

learning other academic skills and knowledge.

As any adult who has tried to learn another language can

verify, second language acquisition is a frustrating and difficult

experience. This is no less the case for children, although there

is a widespread belief that children are facile second language

learners. This is one of a number of myths that this paper intends

to debunk.

The purpose of this paper is to clarify a number of important

issues in the area of second language learning by discussing

commonly held myths or misconceptions. Throughout, I will try to

show the implications of research on second language learning in

children for classroom teachers. A thorough discussion of these

issues in not possible here; the interested reader will find more

detailed exposition of each of these points and a more extensive

bibliography in my books: Second language acquisition in child-

hood. Volume 1. Preschool children and Volume 2. School-age

children. (Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1984,


Myth 1: Children learn second languages quickly and easily .

One frequently hears this proposition in various forms. It is

asserted that children can learn languages faster than adults; that

immigrant children translate for their parents who cannot learn the

language; that child learners speak without accents, whereas this

is impossible for adult learners.

Typically, when pressed, people asserting the superiority of

child learners resort to some variant of the "critical period

hypothesis." The argument is that children are superior to adults

in learning second languages because their brains are more flexible

(Lenneberg, 1967; Penfield & Roberts, 1959). They can learn

languages easily because their cortex is more plastic than is true

of older learners. (The corollary hypothesis is the "frozen brain

hypothesis," applied to adult learners.)

The critical period hypothesis has been questioned by many

researchers in recent years and is presently quite controversial

(Genesee, 1981; Harley, 1989; Newport, 1990). The evidence for the

biological basis of the critical period has been challenged, and

the argument made that differences may reflect psychological and

social factors, rather than biological, that favor child learners.

For example, children may be more motivated to learn the second

language than are adults--there is probably more incentive in the

playground and school to communicate in the second language than

there is for the adult on the job or with friends (who may speak

the individual's first language anyway). It frequently happens

that children are placed in more situations where they are forced

to speak the second language than are adults.

However, experimental research in which children have been

compared to adults in second language learning has consistently

demonstrated the inferiority of young children under controlled

conditions. Even when the method of teaching appears to favor

learning in children, they perform more poorly than do adolescents

and adults (e.g., Asher & Price, 1967). One exception is pronunciation, although even here some studies show better results for

older learners. Similarly, naturalistic research comparing

children and adults learning second languages as immigrants does

not support the notion that younger children are better at second

language learning (e.g., Snow & Hoefnagel-Hoehle, 1978).

Nonetheless, people continue to believe that children learn

languages faster than adults. Even the United States Supreme

Court, in one of its decisions, cited the superiority of the child

in language learning. Is this superiority illusory? One diffi-

culty in answering this question is that of applying the same

criteria of language proficiency to both the child and the adult.

The requirements to communicate as a child are quite different from

the requirements to communicate as an adult. The child's construc-

tions are shorter and simpler, and vocabulary is relatively small

when compared with what is necessary for adults to speak at the

same level of competence in a second language as they have achieved

in their first language. The child does not have to learn as much

to achieve competence in communicating as the adult does. Hence

there is the illusion that the child learns more quickly than the

adult, whereas when controlled research is conducted, in both

formal and informal learning situations, results typically indicate

that adult (and adolescent) learners perform better than young


What does this mean for the teacher? One of the implications

of this line of research is that teachers should not expect

miraculous results from children who are learning English as a

second language in the classroom context. At the very least, they

should expect that learning a second language is as difficult for

a child in their class as it is for them as adults. In fact, it

may be more difficult, as young children do not have access to the

memory techniques and other strategies that more experienced

learners can use in acquiring vocabulary and in learning the

grammatical rules of the language.

Nor should it be assumed that children have fewer inhibitions

and are less embarrassed when they make mistakes in a second

language than are adults. If anything, children are likely to be

more shy and more likely to be embarrassed before their peers than

are more mature adults. Certainly children from some cultural

backgrounds are extremely anxious when singled out and called upon

the perform in a language they are in the process of learning.

Teachers need to be sensitive to these feelings and not assume

that, because they supposedly learn the second language quickly,

such discomfort will quickly pass.

Myth 2: The younger the child, the more skilled in acquiring a second language.

A related myth concerns the best time to start language

instruction. Certainly the optimal way to learn a second language

is to begin at birth and learn two languages simultaneously.

However, when should a young child who has acquired a first

language begin a second? Some researchers take a younger-is-better

position and argue that the earlier children begin to learn a

second language, the better (e.g., Krashen, Long, & Scarcella,

1979). However, at least with regard to school settings, the

research literature does not support this conclusion.

For example, a study of 17,000 British children learning

French in a school context indicated that, after five years of

exposure, children who had begun French instruction at age eleven

were more successful language learners than children who had begun

at eight years of age (Stern, Burstall, & Harley, 1975). The

investigators in this study, the largest single study of children

learning a second language in a formal classroom setting, concluded

that older children are better second language learners than are

younger ones. Similar results have been found other studies by

European investigators--studies of Swedish children learning

English (Gorosch & Axelsson, 1964), of Swiss children learning

French (Buehler, 1972), and of Danish children learning English

(Florander & Jansen, 1968).

Now it may be that these findings reflect the mode of

instruction used for language instruction in European countries,

where traditionally heavy emphasis has been placed on formal

grammatical analysis. Older children are more skilled in dealing

with such an instructional approach, and hence might be expected to

do better. However, this argument is contradicted by findings from

French immersion programs in Canada, where English-speaking

children in late immersion programs (in which the second language

is introduced in grades seven or eight) have been found to perform

just as well (or better) on tests of French language proficiency as

children who began their immersion experience at kindergarten or

grade one (Genesee, 1981, 1987). This is a specially telling

finding because in Canadian immersion little emphasis is placed on

the formal aspects of grammar, and therefore, older children should

have no advantage over younger ones. The research does not always

show an advantage to children who begin at an older age, but

differences in performance are by no means as great as relative

amount of classroom exposure would lead one to expect.

One aspect of language learning where the younger-is-better

hypothesis may have validity concerns accents. A number of studies

have found that the younger one begins to learn a second language,

the superior the accent in that language (Asher & Garcia, 1969;

Oyama, 1976). This may be because pronunciation involves motor

patterns that have been fossilized in the first language and are

difficult to alter after a certain age because of the nature of the

neurophysiological mechanisms involved. It may also be that we do

not understand very well how to teach phonology in a second

language. Perhaps if we could develop more advanced (computer-assisted) methods of instruction, older learners might do better at

acquiring the accent of the second language.

Aside from the question of accents, however, the younger-

is-better hypothesis does not have strong empirical support in

school contexts. The research suggests that younger children do

not necessarily have an advantage over older children and, because

of their cognitive and experiential limitations when compared to

older children, are actually at a disadvantage in how quickly they

learn a second language--other things being equal.

What does this mean for the teacher? The research cited above

does not mean that early exposure to a second language is in some

way detrimental to a child. Instruction of children with limited

English proficiency in the United States involves different

considerations from foreign language instruction in Europe or

French immersion in Canada. Children in American schools need to

master English as quickly as possible while at the same time

learning subject-matter content. This suggests that in the

American context early exposure is called for.

But teachers should not expect miracles of their young

children. The research suggests that older children will show

quickest gains, though younger children may have an advantage in

pronunciation. Certainly beginning children in kindergarten or

first grade gives them more exposure to the language than beginning

in fifth or sixth grade. But exposure in itself does not predict

language acquisition. This is the next myth.

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

For many educators, the most straightforward way for children

from non-English-speaking backgrounds to learn English is for them

to be in an environment where they are constantly exposed to the

English language. This is the rationale behind what is called

"structured immersion," an instructional strategy in which children

from language minority backgrounds receive all of their instruction

in English, and have the additional support of ESL classes and

content-based instruction that is tailored to their language


Such a program has the advantage that there is more time on

task for learning English than in a bilingual classroom. On the

face of it, one might expect that the more English the child hears

and uses, the quicker English language skills develop. However,

there is research evidence that indicates that this is not neces-

sarily the case. Over the length of the program, children in

bilingual classes, where there is exposure to the home language and

to English, have been found to acquire English language skills

equivalent to those acquired by children who have been in English-only programs (Cummins, 1981; Ramirez, et al., 1991). This would

not be expected if language learning were simply a question of time

on task.

Furthermore, many researchers caution against withdrawing the

support of the home language too soon. There is a great deal of

evidence that, whereas oral communication skills in a second

language are acquired within two or three years, it takes up to

four to six years to acquire the level of proficiency for under-

standing the language in its instructional uses (Collier, 1989;

Cummins, 1981). This is a point I shall return to in the next


What does this mean for the teacher? The implications of

research is that teachers should be aware that giving children the

support of the home language, where this is possible, is not doing

them a disservice. The use of the home language in bilingual

classrooms enables the child to avoid falling behind in school

work, and it also provides a mutually reinforcing bond between the

home and the school. In fact, the home language acts as a bridge

for children, enabling them to participate more effectively in

school activities while they are learning English. Over the

long run, the research indicates that children in bilingual

programs will acquire as much English as other children who have

more exposure from an earlier point in time. Furthermore, if the

child is able to achieve literacy skills in the first language,

there is the possibility that as an adult he or she will be

functionally bilingual, with a unique advantage in technical or

professional careers.

Myth 4: Children have acquired a second language once they can speak it.

For school-aged children there is much more involved in

learning a second language than learning how to speak the language.

Simply because a child has proficiency in face-to-face communica-

tion does not mean that the child has achieved proficiency in more

abstract and disembedded communication. In the classroom,

especially in the later grades, children need to engage in many

activities that involve such abstract and disembedded language.

For example, the child needs to learn what nouns and verbs are and

what synonyms and antonyms are. Such activities require the child

to separate language from the context of actual experience and to

bring it under the control of meanings that are encoded in the

linguistic message alone.

There has been a great deal of research on the differences

between embedded and disembedded language, and the consensus is

that the distinction is a real one, although we are dealing with a

continuum of linguistic skills rather than with a dichotomy (Snow,

1987; Wong Fillmore, 1982). The Canadian educator, Jim Cummins

(1980a) cited research evidence from a study of 1,210 immigrant

children in Canada indicating that it takes these children much

longer to master the disembedded cognitive skills required for the

regular English curriculum (approximately five to seven years) than

to master oral communicative skills. Cummins and others speak of

the "linguistic facade," whereby children appear to be fluent in a

language because of their oral skills, but have not mastered the

more disembedded and decontextualized aspects of the language.

What does this mean for the teacher? The implication of these

research findings is that teachers and other staff need to be

cautious in exiting children from programs where they have the

support of their home language. Prematurely exiting children who

are not ready for the all-English classroom may be harmful to the

children's academic success. In fact, Cummins (1980b) has argued

that it is inappropriate for programs to exit children into the

second language on the basis of language assessment instruments

that tap only oral communication skills.

Aside from this question, all teachers in all programs need to

be aware that a child who is learning in a second language may be

having language problems in reading and writing that are not

apparent if the child's oral abilities are used a the gauge of

English. It is conceivable that many of the problems that children

from minority language backgrounds have in reading and writing at

the middle school and high school levels stem from

limitations in vocabulary and syntactic knowledge in the second

language. Even children who are skilled orally can have these

gaps. As we have seen, learning a second language is not an easy

enterprise and is not finished in a year or two. Children should

not be assumed to have miraculous powers that adults do not have.

Myth 5: All children learn a second language in the same way.

Most likely, if asked, teachers would not admit that they

think all children learn a second language in the same way or at

the same rate. Yet this assumption underlies a great deal of

practice. There are two issues here--the first relates to

differences between linguistically and culturally diverse groups

and the second to differences between learners within these groups.

Research by cultural anthropologists indicates that different

ways of talking predominate in mainstream American families than in

the families of many children from minority cultural backgrounds

(Heath, 1983; Ochs, 1982). Mainstream children are accustomed to

an analytic style in which the truth of specific arguments is

deduced from general propositions. Many children from culturally

diverse groups are accustomed to an inductive style of talking, in

which fundamental assumptions must be inferred from a series of

concrete statements.

Schools in America emphasize the language functions and styles

of talk that predominate in mainstream families. Language is used

to communicate meaning, convey information, control social

behavior, and solve problems. In the upper grades especially, the

style of talk is analytic and deductive. Children are rewarded for

clear and logical thinking. It is no wonder that children who come

to school accustomed to using language in a manner that is very

different from what is expected in school experience tension and


Furthermore, there are social class differences. In urban

centers of literate, technologically advanced societies, middle-class parents teach their children through language. Instructions

are given verbally from a very early age. This contrasts to the

experience of immigrant children from less technologically advanced

non-urbanized societies. Traditionally, teaching in such cultures

is carried out primarily through nonverbal means (Rogoff, 1990).

Technical skills, such as cooking, driving a car, or building a

house, are learned through observation, supervised participation,

and self-initiated repetition. 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 in some cultures are more accus-

tomed to learning from peers than from adults. From their earliest

years, they were cared for and taught by older siblings or cousins.

They learned to be quiet in the presence of adults, and had little

experience in interacting with them. When they enter the school,

they are more likely to pay attention to what their peers are doing

than to what the teacher is saying.

Besides these differences between cultural groups, there are

also differences within groups in how children react to school and

learn. Some children are out-going and sociable and learn the

second language quickly because they want to be like their English-speaking peers. 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 by attending to

what is happening and being said about them. They say little, for

fear of making a mistake. Nonetheless, research shows that both

types of learners can be successful second language learners. In

classrooms where group work is stressed, the socially active child

is more likely to be successful; in the traditional, teacher-oriented classroom, children who are "active listeners" have been

found to be more successful than highly sociable children (Wong

Fillmore, et al., 1984).

What does this mean for the teacher? The implication of this

research is that teachers need to be aware of cultural and

individual differences in learner styles. Many culturally and

linguistically diverse children enter school with cognitive and

social norms that differ from those that govern the mainstream

classroom. These differences, in turn, affect the teacher's

expectations of the child's ability and the teacher's response to

the child. Within the school environment, behaviors such as paying

attention and persisting at tasks are valued. Because of their

cultural background, however, some children may be less able to

make the functional adaptation to the interpersonal setting of the

school culture. Unless the teacher is aware of such cultural

differences, the child's lack of attentiveness and lack of per-

sistence can influence the teacher's expectancies and the way the

teacher interacts with these children.

Effective instruction for children from culturally diverse

backgrounds requires a variety of instructional activities--small

group work, cooperative learning, peer tutoring, individualized

instruction, and other strategies that take the children's

diversity of experience into account. Many of the important

educational innovations in current practice--such as de-tracking

and mixed-age grouping--are the direct result of teachers adapting

their teaching to the challenge posed by children from culturally

diverse backgrounds.

Finally, teachers need to be aware of how the child's

experiences in the home and in the home culture affect values,

patterns of language use, and interpersonal style. Children are

likely to be more responsive to a teacher who is sensitive to their

culture and its behavioral patterns. This means going beyond such

cognitive activities as history lessons, slide shows of life in

Mexico, Cambodia, or the like. Such cognitive activities, while

important, do not reach children affectively. Effective education

of children from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds

affirms the values of the home culture and develops in children a

positive emotional attitude toward their background.

Where Do We Go from Here?

Research on second language learning has shown that there are

many misconceptions about how children learn languages. Teachers

need to be aware of these research findings and to "unlearn" old

ways of thinking. For the most part, this means realizing that

quick and easy, simple solutions are not appropriate for complex

problems. Second language learning by school-aged children takes

longer, is harder, and involves a great deal more than most

teachers have been led to believe. We need consciously to rethink

what our expectations should be.

Too often one hears of the "problem" of culturally and

linguistic diversity in our country's school system, rather than

the "opportunity" that diversity provides. Children from diverse

backgrounds enrich our schools and our other students. Student

diversity challenges the educational system, but the educational

innovations and instructional strategies that are effective with

diverse students will benefit all students.

In fact, much of the research of the National Center for

Research on Cultural Diversity and Second Language Learning, as

well as the research of other investigators throughout the country

on "instructional conversations," "active learning," "mixed ability

groupings," "collaborative learning," "holistic instruction" and

"authentic assessment" has been directed at children from cultural-

ly and linguistically diverse backgrounds, but applies equally well

to mainstream students. The challenge of educating diverse

students effectively promotes needed educational reform at all

levels and for all students.


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