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: https://gianfrancoconti.wordpress.com/2015/06/01/gender-and-social-class-how-do-they-affect-foreign-language-learning/ )
  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: https://gianfrancoconti.wordpress.com/2015/05/19/why-do-our-learners-often-get-prepositions-articles-and-verb-endings-wrong/ ) . In fact, there are theories that when multilingual individuals use a language 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: https://gianfrancoconti.wordpress.com/2015/05/26/words-in-the-mind-how-lexis-is-stored-and-organized-in-our-brains-and-the-implications-for-the-mfl-classroom/ )
  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, below: https://gianfrancoconti.wordpress.com/2015/05/07/why-teachers-should-not-bother-correcting-errors-in-their-students-writing/)
  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, below: https://gianfrancoconti.wordpress.com/2015/05/20/why-asking-our-students-to-self-correct-the-errors-in-their-essay-a-waste-of-valuable-teacher-time/ )
  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 (see my blog post: https://gianfrancoconti.wordpress.com/2015/05/19/why-do-our-learners-often-get-prepositions-articles-and-verb-endings-wrong/)
  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

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