13 common misconceptions about foreign language learning

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  1. If language learners are exposed to a foreign language before puberty they will learn it with a native accent – There is strong evidence that this is true below the age of 7 provided that the learners receive masses of second language input (e.g. in a full immersion learning environment like an international school). Whether this can happen between this age and the onset of puberty is highly controversial; there is mounting evidence which suggests that sensor motor processing loses plasticity much earlier on than other cognitive processing (such as those responsible for grammar and vocabulary learning) and native pronunciation becomes fossilized well before puberty.
  2. Children learn foreign languages better than adults – This is true of pronunciation, but not of vocabulary or grammar. Given the same amount of instruction, there are no significant differences in uptake between children and adults. Also, there is evidence that some adults can indeed acquire native proficiency.
  3. Women’s brain is biologically better equipped for foreign language learning than men’s. That is why our female students are better than boys – This is also quite controversial. Brain imaging shows that whereas males tend to lateralize language processing (i.e. they only use one brain hemisphere) women use both hemispheres, which may, at least in theory, constitute an advantage. But whether this actually causes women to perform better than men is controversial. Other sociological and affective factors seem to play a more crucial role in determining female language learners ‘superiority’ at language learning ( see my blogpost: here)
  4. When we think, we think in our dominant language – Unless we engage in inner talk and subvocalize, the brain does not think in any particular language. When we think, we create ‘entities of information’ called propositions, which are not made up of words (scientists are still trying to figure out what they are made of ); we transform them into words as we speak (which has enormous implication for L2 processing. See my article: here .age during oral production or in writing their brain activates all of the languages they master, simultaneously; the language being used will receive stronger activation whilst the others will be less activated. This phenomenon explains why language learners, in unmonitored speech, often use words from their L1 whilst speaking the L2 even though they know the L2 word. (For more on this, read: here)
  5. Students should be taught in sync with their dominant learning style(s) as this will enhance their learning – Most psychologist/neuroscientists refute the learning-style and multiple intelligences constructs maintaining that they are not valid representation of how the brain works. No credible evidence has ever been put forward in support of the hypothesis that teaching learners in their ‘learning-style’ actually enhances language proficiency development
  6. Foreign language words similar to first language words (cognates) are easier to learn – This is true to a certain extent. It is true that cognates are easier to learn receptively; however, in terms of recall, when the spelling and/or pronunciation of an L1 and L2 word are very similar, they can cause ‘cross-association’ issues whereby the learner is confused as to which one is the correct spelling or pronunciation (due to the fact that the two items are very closely associated in Long-term memory).
  7. If we do not correct our students’ errors we ‘fail’ them – Although we may ‘fail’ them in terms of not fulfilling their expectations (as most of them do ask for corrective feedback), there is absolutely no conclusive evidence that error correction works. Most of the evidence put forward in support of the efficacy of error correction as it is traditionally carried out is not strong enough to justify the time spent by teachers correcting (see my article: here )
  8. Asking students to self-correct their errors is more effective than simply providing the correction – This is another belief that many teachers hold about error correction. Research suggests not only that it does not usually ‘work’ but that it can be, in some cases, detrimental to learning (see my article: here  )
  9. Mistakes in student written output that the students can self-correct are due to ‘carelessness’ – This is the case for a minor percentage of the mistakes found in our students’ written (and even oral) output. What we term ‘careless mistakes’ are in most cases due to processing inefficiency caused by cognitive overload on Working Memory, the inability, that is, for the brain to juggle all the cognitive demands posed by a task simultaneously (see my blog post: here )
  10. Learning-to-learn (training foreign language students in learning skills) enhances proficiency – Many books and articles have been written promoting the benefits of Strategy Based Instruction for language learning. We are told by many scholars and educators that we should instruct our students in learning strategies and life-long learning skills. Although there is some (fragmented) evidence that certain strategies or combinations of strategies may help learners at some level, the results of the studies carried out to date are mixed and controversial. This is due to a number of issues, one of them being that we do not really know what strategies work and which ones do not and how they interact with individual characteristics and different contexts.
  11. Some foreign language learning strategies are better than other – Some educational consultants make a living out of suggesting what learning strategies are effective in performing certain tasks. However, the issue is not which strategies are ‘good’ or ‘bad’. The issue is which strategy works best with specific students or tasks and whether they are applied at the right time, in the right context. This complicates the implementation of Strategy Based Instruction and makes one question whether the time invested into trying to figure out all these variables, deciding which strategies to teach and how and then implementing the training is actually justified by the gains one may obtain in the end.
  12. Children learn languages through an innate module of the human mind called LAD (Language Acquisition Device) that makes the acquisition of subsequent languages possible, too – The LAD is a system of principles that children would be born with that helps them learn language, and accounts for the order in which children learn structures, and the mistakes they make as they learn. According to the LAD proponents this device exists separately from any other cognitive mechanism of the brain. Just like our faith in a supernatural being, the belief that such a ‘magical’ device actually exists has never been proven scientifically. Nor has any reasonably detailed account of how it may work even been provided by his proponent, Stephen Krashen, or his supporters. Yet, many language educators swear by it and several teaching methodologies (e.g TPRS and CLIL) are based on the belief that LAD exists.
  13. First language and second language acquisition involve the same processes – This cannot be the case as L2 learners, are not ‘tabula rasa’ (clean slates); they have already acquired a language and, as masses of research show, they use that language to formulate hypotheses and make inferences about how any new (target) language works. The existence of Language Transfer evidences the importance of pre-existing languages in the acquisition of a subsequent one.

You can find more on these topics in my book ‘The language teacher toolkit’ , co-authored with Steve Smith and available for purchase on http://www.amazon.com

Gender and social class – how do they affect foreign language learning?

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Much has been written about the underperformance of boys in Modern Foreign Language Learning in England and much attention has been given to how gender and social class act as a variable in male adolescents’ attitudes and motivation. A lot of assumptions have been made about the causes of this phenomenon. In this article I intend to discuss to what extent such assumptions are true, in the light of the most reliable studies carried out in this area. In view of my discussion of the limitations of educational research in a previous post (see below ‘Ten reasons why you should not trust research’) the reader should not take the findings I will be reporting as conclusive and irrefutable evidence. Research in this area is still quite fragmented and not always generalizable and fully transparent as to the data elicitation procedures adopted.

Is the common assumption that girls are significantly better than boys at foreign languages actually true?

Research indicates that girls in Britain do on average outperform boys when it comes to language learning (they do in all subjects in general, anyway, but the differences are more acute in this subject). However, a study by Clarke and Trafford (1996) noted that in some schools some students did equally well as girls. The researchers found that social class seemed to correlate positively with lower disparity between the sexes, boys from middle class background doing as well or not significantly less well than girls. The interviews they carried out found that these boys had a clearer idea of how a foreign language could be useful to them in business and international affairs. Moreover, several pupils spent their holidays abroad and had contact with foreigners on a regular basis. In other words, they had higher level of extrinsic motivation and empathy with and interest for the target language country.

Clarke ad Trafford’s finding coincides with my own personal and professional experience and explain why, in international school settings where parents are not only quite affluent but also more used to travelling and more frequently in contact with foreigners, boys’ motivation to learn a foreign language is substantially higher than it was in the inner city schools I taught in in Britain.

Are girls’ brains better equipped for foreign language acquisition and production than boys’?

Several studies attempted to answer this question. Although there is a strong body of evidence indicating that females do have an advantage over males in first language acquisition, (Burman, Bitman, & Booth, 2008; Roulstong & Northstone, 2002), not much is known about gender differences in foreign language learning. As Callaghan (1998) and other researchers have noted, there is some evidence of brain lateralization in boys (the belief boys tend to use one hemisphere when processing language processing whereas girls tend to use both). There also seem to be differences in the high cortical functions of the female brain which would facilitate language processing. However, there is no conclusive evidence for either claim.

Do boys’ and girls’ attitudes towards MFL differ substantially?

Gender appears to be, according to researchers a critical individual a social variable in second language learning (Brantmeier, Schulle and Wilde, 2007). So what do we know about the gender-specific affective factors which affect L2 learning?

Research findings diverge slightly in some areas, but most of the studies carried out in England found that:

  • Boys have a less positive attitude to foreign languages than girls; A British study conducted by Williams, Burden and Lanvers (2002) supports this notion. They found that girls had a significantly higher degree of desire to learn French than did the boys, and they also put forth more effort to learn the language;
  • Girls are more likely to find languages important than boys (e.g. Jones and Jones, 2001);
  • Boys perceive the subject as more difficult than girls do. Their expectancy of success in the subject  is lower than girls’ (Callaghan, 1998; Jones and Jones, 2001; Macaro, 2007). In schools were students are set, this phenomenon is exacerbated by the fact that in England most top-set classes are made up mostly by females, which reinforces boys’ perception of languages as out-of-boundaries for them;
  • Females are more likely than boys to attribute success to hard work rather than ability;
  • Boys appear to be more instrumentally motivated than girls. This is interesting as research in gender differences in language use in general indicate that in general women are more likely to use verbal interaction for social purposes with verbal communication serving as an end in itself. Whether teachers are male or female is not identified as a factor influencing attitudes;
  • Finally, English boys (and the same has been found for other cultures) seem to perceive certain languages as having negative associations for males in their society.

The findings above point to important affective factors which can be powerful inhibitors of motivation. I do not discount physiological differences in the language-processing of females, as brain imaging has indeed identified greater activity in both cerebral hemispheres in females whilst processing language . This is a very important finding in that implies that females can recruit more support from areas of the brain that boys cannot access during L2 performance.

However, in England, the affective issues related to cultural schemata, mentioned above (i.e.  the societal views of what is ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’, which makes ‘French’ for instance, or other languages, more of a female concern) play, in view of the research I reviewed, a greater role in inhibiting boys’ learning than biological differences. The following excerpt from Kissau’s (2012) study of gender differences in L2 learning with students of French, is very enlightening in this regard (http://www.aclacaal.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/6-vol-9-no1-art-kissau.pdf, page 85):

As the study progressed, it became apparent that traditional, societal views of what is appropriate for a male and what is appropriate for a female were weighing significantly on the results. Boys were reporting that they felt less capable than girls in French because society has told them in no uncertain terms that they are not supposed to be as capable. Boys reported being less interested in learning about French culture because society has made it clear that that is more of a female concern.

As we know from many sociological investigations, stereotypes – all stereotypes, not just those about masculinity – are stronger further down one goes the social ladder. This explains why upper middle class children are likely to be, as Clarke and Trafford (1996) found, less constrained by masculinity and/or xenophobic stereotypes. This is compounded by the fact that middle class boys are more likely to have a stronger first language base, which, according to recent research constitutes a real advantage for foreign language learners.

The fact that the vast majority of teachers are female does not make the situation any better, as it reinforces the stereotype that language learning is a female-dominated subject.

In a study whose author I could not locate (source: www.ling.lancs.ac.uk/groups/crile/docs/crile57court.pdf), another very important point is made, which relates to the notion of masculinity, the fact that is, that in speaking in front of the class public error-making may cause more embarrassment for a boy than for a girl and therefore more anxiety. As the authors puts it:

Finally, because speaking is a skill that has to be practiced, there are plenty of opportunities to make pronunciation errors, which can lead to embarrassment and a loss of social status. When all these factors are combined with perceptions of foreign languages as unimportant and irrelevant to future lives and careers, the puzzle that is boys’ under-representation becomes a little bit closer to being pieced together.

The perception of foreign language as difficult, identified by research, stems from a vicious circle generated by lack of motivation, as without strong positive ‘arousal’, learning cannot occur: students will leave MFL lessons with a sense of failure, will go into the next lesson with low expectancy of success, will leave with a greater sense of failure and so on…

The finding that boys need an instrumental goal for their foreign language learning experience is crucial, too. Language teachers do not often make explicit to learners, both male and female, the connection between what they teach and how it can be useful in the real world. The connections, one may argue, are not always obvious and they are easier to make in some contexts than others (e.g. international schools like the one I work at) than in others (e.g. inner city area schools with children from less privileged background).

Boys being more goal-orientated, they tend to want lessons to work towards a clear objective and find the ‘so-what?’ effect of a learning activity off-putting. Often the activities MFL teachers stage in lessons do not give the learners a sense of achieving a clearly specified goal by the end of the lesson. Boys, more than girls need to see that goal clearly and need to have evidence, every step of the way that the work they are engaging in is leading steadily towards that goal. That is why, boys prefer to know, before starting an activity, the rationale behind it (how it is going to beneficial to the achievement of that goal).

What are the implications for teaching? I will discuss them in another post…