List of common misconceptions about language learning

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The subject of language learning is subject to several misconceptions. It is common for people to rely on their own intuitions about language learning, though they would not do so with other technical subjects such as physics (a phenomenon known as folk linguistics).[1] However, these intuitions are often contradicted by scientific research.[2]

Childhood language acquisition[edit]

Children learn their first language effortlessly[edit]

Learning a first language is not rapid for children. Children spend years learning their mother tongue, and the process continues well into their school years. At seven years old, for example, many children have difficulties creating passive-voice sentences.[3]

Second-language acquisition[edit]

Younger learners learn languages more easily than older learners[edit]

It is often assumed that young children learn languages more easily than adolescents and adults.[2][4] However, the reverse is true; older learners are faster. The only exception to this rule is in pronunciation. Young children invariably learn to speak their second language with native-like pronunciation, whereas learners who start learning a language at an older age only rarely reach a native-like level.[4]

Intelligent people are better at learning languages[edit]

General intelligence is actually quite a poor indicator of language-learning ability. Motivation, tolerance for ambiguity, and self-esteem are all better indicators of language-learning success.[5]

Immersion is the best way to learn a language[edit]

The ability for learners to develop their language skills depends to a large extent on the type of language input that they receive. For input to be effective for second-language acquisition, it must be comprehensible. Merely being immersed in a second-language environment is no guarantee of receiving comprehensible input. For example, learners living in a country where their second language is spoken may be lucky enough to interact with native speakers who can alter their speech to make it comprehensible; but equally, many learners will not have that same luck, and may not understand the vast majority of the input that they receive.[6]

In addition, adult learners living in a foreign country may not have very high linguistic demands placed on them, for example if they are a low-level employee at a company. Without the incentive to develop high-level skills in their second language, learners may undergo language fossilisation, or a plateau in their language level.[6]

Classroom instruction can be useful in both providing appropriate input for second-language learners, and for helping them overcome problems of fossilisation.[6]

Grammar study is detrimental to second-language acquisition[edit]

The study of grammar is helpful for second-language learners, and a lack of grammar knowledge can slow down the language-learning process. On the other hand, relying on grammar instruction as the primary means of learning the language is also detrimental. A balance between these two extremes is necessary for optimal language learning.[7]

Bilingual education[edit]

Learning a second language hinders the development of the first language[edit]

Learners can learn two or more languages without their first language development being adversely affected. There is no such thing as a "fixed amount of space" for languages in the brain. In reality, learners' first languages and their additional languages become part of an integrated system.[8]

Once a child can speak a language, the language-learning process is complete[edit]

Learning to speak a language conversationally is only part of the way towards becoming fluent in it. Just because a child can speak a language does not mean that they are yet capable of writing and understanding academic language. This kind of language is particularly important in school in the later grades. One study of 1,200 Canadian schoolchildren indicated that it may take between five and seven years longer to master academic language than to master conversational language.[2]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Dicker 2003, p. 85: People would never pontificate about a physics issue, because they would acknowledge that you need to consult an expert. But they wouldn't hesitate to pontificate about language.
  2. ^ a b c McLaughlin 1992.
  3. ^ Dicker 2003, pp. 86–87.
  4. ^ a b Dicker 2003, pp. 88–92.
  5. ^ Johnson 2008, p. 64.
  6. ^ a b c Dicker 2003, pp. 92–97.
  7. ^ Johnson, p. 67.
  8. ^ Matthews 2006, p. 16.


  • Dicker, Susan J. (2003). "Common Misconceptions About Language Learning". Languages in America: A Pluralist View. Multilingual Matters. pp. 82–114. ISBN 978-1-85359-651-3. Retrieved 2 September 2015.
  • Johnson, David (2008). How Myths about Language Affect Education: What Every Teacher Should Know. University of Michigan Press. ISBN 0-472-03287-9. Retrieved 2 September 2015.
  • Matthews, Michael S. (2006). Working with Gifted English Language Learners. Prufrock Press. ISBN 978-1-59363-195-6. Retrieved 2 September 2015.
  • McLaughlin, Barry (1992). "Myths and Misconceptions About Second Language Learning: What Every Teacher Needs to Unlearn" (PDF). Educational Practice Report. Santa Cruz: University of California. 5. Archived from the original (PDF) on 17 September 2012. Retrieved 2 September 2015. Cite uses deprecated parameter |deadurl= (help)