ELNG 200

Myths about Acquiring a Second Language

        In “Myths about Acquiring a Second Language” is fundamentally about dispelling common misconceptions around learning a second language. Throughout their article, Katherine Davies Samway and Denise McKeon break down six common misconceptions, or myths, that many individuals experience when exploring a new language. These myths usually spawn from the difficulties and hardships that individuals face and act as a means to explain or justify the difficulty they are experiencing. At their core, each of these myths’ centers around a different manifestation of same common belief: that learning a second language is much more difficult than learning one’s native language. Samway and McKeon use practical research and experience to show that in reality, the process for acquiring a new language is similar regardless of weather it is an individual’s first or second.

Myth #1– Leaning a second language is an entirely different proposition from learning one’s own native language. 

     This first myth revolves around the perception that children seem to learn their first language quickly and with relative ease. However, the authors are keen to point out that research suggests that contrary to the commonly held belief that children learn through repetition, they learn language by actively constructing principals and regularities in the speech they hear – just as adults do when learning a new language (Brown 1973). These similarities extend deeper as individuals progress through a new language. Understanding a new language often comes before the ability to communicate and when communication comes, it is often filled with errors as their understanding grows. In fact, the only difference the authors point out is the fact that children learn a language with little to no accent while adults are heavily influenced by their previous communication experience. Research from authors such as Nina Spada and Patsy Lightbown support this point. In their book, How Languages are Learned, they point to many of the same conclusions and add that second languages are learned at relatively the same pace as a person’s native language when it is a necessity, such as when studying in a new language or living in another country (Spada and Lightbown 1993)

Myth #2– Younger Children are more effective language learners than older learners.

      The myth that young children are more effective language learners is fundamentally about perception. Young children appear to pick up language quicker because the standards that are expected are often lower. For instance, children are often given tasks that are easier to complete and more rudimentary in understanding. They are often more easily forgiven for any minor mistakes, albeit verbally or grammatically, than adults. On the other hand, adults are often expected to complete much more complex tasks and understand more sophisticated language skills. They are also more readily criticized for mistakes in understanding or pronunciation. In contrary to popular belief, adults are much more efficient language learners (Cummins 1981). The lower expectations expected from children lead to the perception that they are picking up languages at a faster rate, when in reality the methods used to teach children result in a slower mastery of sophisticated language skills (Cummins 1981).

Myth #3– Once second language learners are able to speak reasonably fluently, their problems are likely to be over in school.

    This myth focuses on the perception that the ability to communicate in a new language is a fundamental determinant to one’s mastery of a language. The reality is that while communication is a key component to any language, using a new language in an academic setting requires a full understanding of the many nuances each language possesses. These linguistic subtilties make a major difference in an academic setting that are not necessarily required for daily communication. The author’s highlight this principal by pointing out that “school language becomes more complex and less contextualized in successively higher grades” (Samway and McKeon 2002). This emphasizes that while children at lower grade levels have passible communication skills, there are many complex language skills that are not required for basic communication.

Myth #4– Learning academic English is equally challenging for all second language learners.

      Another common misconception is that all students face the same equal challenge learning a second language. This implies that any student, regardless of background, should be able to learn language under the same teaching principals. However, the reality is that there are many different factors, such as culture, history, and environment, that are key to academic success. The author’s show this contrast by using an example or two students – one raised in a stable environment and a strong foundation in learning, and another raised as a refugee with no formal educational training. In this example, it is clear that the first student’s background will allow them to learn a new language much more readily than the second. Contrary to what this myth states, research has demonstrated that learning a new language is much easier for individuals who have previous schooling and who can perform similar level tasks in their native language (Collier 1995).

Myth #6– Students from Asian countries are better English languages learners and more academic successful than other students from Spanish- speaking backgrounds

     The myth that students from Asian countries are somehow better at learning English than those of other regions is again an attempt at downplaying the role society and culture plays in education. The authors use several research studies to demonstrate that individuals of any background are equally capable of learning English as a second language.  However, they do point out that on average, students from Asian countries tend to perform better in English speaking schools throughout the United States. To explain phenomenon, they emphasize that academic achievement is a complex function of many different inputs: “The question of school achievement is not solely a linguistic one; the cultural messages received by children from both the school and the larger society may influence their feelings about school as well as their feelings about themselves in relation to school” (Samway and McKeon 2002). To further support their conclusion, the authors use examples from other countries – while Asian students perform above average in American schools, they perform relatively poorly in Japanese schools, which suggests that culture, not ethnicity, is the determining factor.  

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