Language learning myths/misconceptions for ESL teachers

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As a trainee or novice ESL teacher, you will no doubt have some cherished beliefs and ideas on how children learn a second language (L2). This article looks briefly and simplistically at five myths/misconceptions (which could also be some of your cherished beliefs and ideas) about how children learn an L2.

The first popular myth/misconception is that children can learn an L2 more quickly and more easily than adults; however, research has shown that adults and adolescents perform better under controlled conditions, except perhaps in pronunciation. The second myth/misconception holds that the younger the child the more skilled it will be in acquiring an L2.

Again, research does not support this view in school environments, but pronunciation seems to be one area where this view has some validity. In view of the foregoing myths/misconceptions, the ESL teacher should not be overly ambitious: children will experience at least as much difficulty as adults in learning ESL; they may even experience more difficult because they do not have the experience in learning that adults have.

The third myth/misconception seems to be entirely counterintuitive: the more time children spend in a structured L2 environment, the quicker they will learn the language; if ESL students are placed in a purely L2 speaking class, they will learn faster than in a bilingual class. Research, however, would tend to indicate that increased exposure only to an L2 class does not necessarily lead to a more rapid acquisition of English.

Thus the ESL teacher should not prohibit the use of the mother tongue (L1) in the classroom since its use also functions as a social link between the home and the school. The fourth myth/misconception holds that once children can speak, they may be considered to have acquired an L2, i.e. some ESL teachers assume that if a child can speak English, it has acquired the language.

Unfortunately, this does not guarantee that the child will be able to engage in more cognitively demanding classroom activities; therefore, as an ESL teacher, you should not be overly impressed simply by a child’s everyday spoken English, and you should avoid streaming a child purely on the basis of oral assessment because it does not reveal any difficulties the child may have in reading and writing.

The last myth/misconception takes the view that all children learn an L2 in the same manner: this is one myth/misconception which can definitely be debunked. ESL teachers must recognise that the children’s cultural experiences influence their values, patterns of language usage, and interpersonal behaviour. As an ESL teacher, you should always try to encourage the values of the children’s cultures – this will produce a more appreciative and amicable classroom environment.

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