Myths and Misconceptions about Second Language Learning:
What Every Teacher Needs to Unlearn
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
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
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
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
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
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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