Fact or Fiction: 4 Common Perceptions About Language Learning

There are a lot of misconceptions about foreign language learning. How often have you heard these from students, families, and colleauges? Do you believe any of them? Below I will briefly touch on 4 common perceptions of foreign language learning and acquisition. It’s important to dispel these falsehoods for your students, so that they don’t use it as an excuse for why it’s impossible to learn a second language. Links to relevant academic research and newspaper articles are provided.

1. Children can learn/master a foreign language more quickly than teens or adults.

False: Current studies actually argue that teens and especially adults attain fluency in a second language more quickly than children. This myth likely originated because past studies didn’t account for the disparities in what passes for fluency in children vs adults (ie. that the standard we hold for adults is much higher than for children). The standard for fluency for adults is achieved when adults have mastered complex sentence structures, can utilize a large set of vocabulary, can express complex ideas on a variety of topics, and can read, write, and speak with very few mistakes. Children can achieve native-like speech more quickly than adults because they are expected to speak in simple sentences with relatively limited vocabulary even in their native language. However, teens and adults have better developed meta-cognitive skills, the ability to focus for longer periods of time, and, because of their more advanced grasp of their native language, can make comparisons that help them learn both languages more deeply.

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2. You should teach the TL to teens and adults in the same way you would children:

False: A child learning a second language only has rudimentary mastery of their native language. Therefore it’s a lot harder for children to understand abstract ideas and make complex, intellectual connections between their 1st and 2nd language. Because children haven’t developed these complex skills yet, teaching methods often cater to the stage of cognitive development that children are in. So games, songs, and dances may work well with children, but adults can benefit from more complex tasks that focus on meaningful communication. Teens and adults are more disciplined; moreover, they are more self-aware and know what study strategies work best for them. Within these different age groups we also need to acknowledge that individuals have different learning styles and patterns, so a one-size fits all strategy is more harmful than helpful.

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3. You Will Never Sound like a Native Speaker:

Mixed: Whether this statement is true or false for a student learning a foreign language really depends on a lot of things, including age, the levels of motivation, exposure, and patience/persistence. Young children do have an easier time producing native-like speech and greatly eliminating their accent. By about age 5 we lose the ability to produce some non-native sounds and as we get older it becomes harder to distinguish between new sounds. Nonetheless, teens and adults can learn to produce near-native speech, but they will have to work much harder at it than children. And, depending on the students’ native language, the techniques for helping them acquire near-native speech are different. A student who has continual exposure to the TL, has high levels of motivation, and is patient/persistent can reach the goal of native-like fluency and speech. Of course, the goal when learning a new language should be comprehensibility, not perfection. Adults can learn to speak a language well enough to be easily understood by native speakers, even if they have a slight accent.

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4. The Best Way To Learn A Language Is To Go Abroadstudy abroad

True and False: People tell students this all the time. It certainly can help. But, living abroad isn’t going to magically make a student more fluent in a foreign language. In fact some immigrants never fully master the language after moving to a new country. The statement is only true if a student is motivated and goes the extra mile to learn the TL while abroad. Taking immersion classes, working with a language partner, and creating situations where you’re forced to effectively communicate in the TL will get you farther than just general exposure. Additionally, a very motivated student can achieve fluency without going abroad, if they work hard. Living abroad will give a student a better understanding of another culture and help them widen their worldview, as well as give them more opportunities to engage in authentic, meaningful communication in the TL, but it won’t get them to automatic foreign language fluency.

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4 Tips to Help Students Problem Solve in the TL

Here I want to expand a little bit more on one of the tips discussed in the blog post about ways in which teachers can help students reach elementary proficiency in a year. Being able to problem solve in the TL is a pivotal skill for students to learn. But what are some strategies that you can use to help students develop this ability? Below are 4 tips to help your students learn how to problem solve in the TL.

1. Give students a questionnaire at the start of the school year:

Creating an engaging questionnaire for your students in the beginning of the year will enable you to learn the problem solving areas in which individual students struggle. The questionnaire should be in the native language and give students a variety of scenarios to try and solve. The questions on the questionnaire should get students to evaluate a problem, brainstorm possible solutions, and identify what knowledge or tools are necessary to accomplish a task. For example teachers can ask questions like: “How would you explain to someone how to tie their shoes?”, and “If you had to teach an exchange student about a unique American holiday, how would you teach it and why?”. Here is a Critical Thinking Sample Lesson and here is a Critical Thinking Exercise.

2. Create fun and appropriately leveled problem solving exercises in TL:

Before undertaking this activity make sure your students have enough vocabulary in their back pockets. The more words they know that describe a specific person, place, thing or idea, the better your students will be able to successfully complete this exercise. The possibilities are limitless for what you can come up with for this exercise. Ideally after a few practice runs, youcan begin to grade students. The scenarios should get more difficult as the semester or year goes by. If you need to get your creative juices flowing here is an SampleExerciseinTL and Example TL Scenarios.communication

3. Learn not to engage in over correction:

The one thing that can really demotivate students is when a bad examteacher engages in too
much correction. So instead of lots of correction during the exercise, it may be beneficial to give an overall assessment at the end of the skit. Giving students feedback like th
e picture at the right is unhelpful. Also it’s probably a good idea not to make corrections in red for certain grade levels. However, if you want to give individualized assessments for each group member feel free to do so. You will have to find the right balance for your classroom environment.

4. Encourage persistence:

Practice makes perfect! For some students this exercise may be extremely challenging. One way to encourage persistence is to celebrate class milestones with prizes or treats. If your students thrive best when given incentives, take advantage of them to get students to persist in their foreign
language journey.

5 Language Activities to Beat the Summer Slide

Check out this post on what causes students to lose language skills during summer break, then read these 5 ideas to increase students’ exposure to the TL and help them retain their skills over the summer.


1. Change the Native Language (NL) Settings to the TL

Tablets, phones, computers, social media websites, and other apps allow the user to switch the language settings. Changing the language settings forces the student to communicate in the TL, and also enables the student to learn new vocabulary.

2. Interact with the TL in Different Mediums

Foreign language teachers should encourage students to remain exposed to the TL by listening to music or podcasts, reading magazines or books, and watching familiar programming with no subtitles. For example, livestation.com allows users to watch live TV from anywhere in the world. You can also create a playlist on Spotify and share it with your students, or encourage them to make their own playlist and share it with you.

3. Practice Communicating in the Foreign Language

If your student is able, encourage them to enroll in a summer language course. Another alternative for those who can’t afford a language camp is to find a local community center or Meetup.com group to practice with other learners. However, if a student simply cannot commute anywhere and has access to internet they can use websites like penpalschools.com to practice communicating with a native speaker.


4. Write in the TL

Encourage your students to keep journals so that they can practice vocabulary and grammar over the summer. Ask your students to write weekly journal entries and then turn their summer highlights into a fun project to present during the fall. One great website where super dedicated students can go is lang-8.com, where students can write entries in the TL and then a native speaker corrects grammar and spelling.


5. Be Creative and Have Fun

Keep in mind that assigning drill worksheets and “busywork” almost never has the desired effect. If you give students the flexibility to do fun activities, they are more likely to engage in TL learning over the summer. Giving students options to create posters, music videos, presentations, or discuss a topic of interest can make a big difference.Tell them about websites or apps like ClassTracks where they can practice vocabulary in a game-like web app.