Language learning myths

This page lists various misconceptions about language learning and examines two of them in detail.


A myth, in one of its senses, is a belief that is shared by many people, but which in fact happens to be untrue or only partly true.

Virtually all adults have mastered the fundamental grammar of their own language by the age of 4 to 5 without any conscious effort. So they may consider themselves justified in claiming that children are the best language learners and hence that childhood is the best time in which to start learning a second language. These beliefs are not supported by current research, however, and have been labelled myths by various linguists in the field of second-language acquisition.

Myth 1: Young children are the best learners of a second language

One reason why this myth has arisen may be that we are more tolerant of the mistakes of children than of older learners or adults. Parents tend to correct their child's factual errors much more often than their grammatical errors. And in any case children, unless they have misguided parents, are much less fearful of making mistakes than adults are.

Adults do not often make factual mistakes and so most of the corrective feedback they receive when speaking in a foreign language is grammatical in nature. This may lead adults to believe that they have more trouble learning than children.

A second reason for the origin of the myth is based on adults' observations of how easily, naturally and unselfconsciously most children interact and play with others of a different mother tongue. However, @ young children's comparative ease in new language situations is not evidence of their superior language learning ability in general ~. The cognitive and linguistic demands made on a young language learner are different from those which confront the adult.

With young children, everything is in the here-and-now. If they are having a dolls picnic, for example, most of the communication will centre around the concrete objects they can see and handle. They also have the right to not to speak and just watch what is happening, or take part silently. They do not need to read or write.

Contrast this with the problems confronting the adult who has an appointment with her doctor and has to fill out medical and data protection forms. She does not have the option of being silent, and the vocabulary during the consultation will be abstract and technical. This is a significantly more difficult cognitive and linguistic task.

So these were two reasons why the myth may have originated. But what does research into the issue tell us? In fact, @@ studies have shown that adolescents and adults are in many ways better at learning a new language than children. ~~

Among other things this is true because they are further developed cognitively, already literate in their first language and can use some of their knowledge about the world in general and language in particular when learning the second language. So, the strong claim that Young children are the best learners of a second language is simply untenable.

Nevertheless, there is one element of truth in the myth. Young learners are better at acquiring native-like pronunciation in the foreign language than older learners.

Note:It is a problem when important decisions are based on myths. The myth of the superiority of children as second language learners may lead teachers and administrators to underestimate the challenge facing young ESL students in acquiring academic proficiency in English. This misconception may result in these students not being offered the necessary support to ensure their emotional well-being and academic success.

There is more about this in the article on Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP).

Myth 2: Childhood is the best age to start a learning a second language

This second myth is related to the first one. After all, if children are the best language learners, then it seems obvious that childhood is the best time to start learning the second language.

In fact, the consensus of current research is that early adolescence is the best age at which to start formal instruction in a foreign language. Foreign language programs in primary or elementary schools have not been found to be particularly successful.

Indeed, if instructional time is devoted to teaching a second language, then this is at the expense of some other subject in the early education curriculum that may in fact be more valuable.

The kernel of truth in the claim that childhood is the best time to start a new language is that those who start early are likely to ultimately become somewhat more proficient that those who start learning in adulthood.

Note: ESL students have no choice but to learn a second language from an early age, since English is the language of instruction. This is generally not a problem if they are given sufficient support and their teachers are aware of the challenge in acquiring CALP (see above).

But it is very important that English does not replace the mother tongue, since this may lead to a failure to attain full proficiency in either language. This unfortunate phenomenon has been called semi-lingualism.

Further language learning myths

It is worth noting that it is not only the 'common man' who is susceptible to myths about language learning. Teachers (even language teachers) and language learners may also succumb to misconceptions about the best ways to teach and learn a new language. There are several books with the word myths in the title that attempt to debunk some of these common problematic beliefs. For example:

  • Second Language Acquisition Myths: Applying Second Language Research To Classroom Teaching
  • Myths and Realities: Best Practices for English Language Learners
  • Vocabulary Myths: Applying Second Language Research to Classroom Teaching
  • Culture Myths: Applying Second Language Research to Classroom Teaching

Problems with the term 'myth'

For many of the myths covered in the 'myth' books above I think it is more accurate to speak of theories, generalisations or simplifications rather than myths, which is a somewhat derogatory term. For example, Myth 3 of the first book above is You can acquire a language simply through listening and reading.

The chapter of the book devoted to debunking this myth is essentially focused on Stephen Krashen's very influential Comprehension Hypothesis (formerly called the Input Hypothesis). The hypothesis postulates that we acquire language in one way only: when we are exposed to input (written or spoken language) that is (made) comprehensible to us. Comprehensible input is the necessary but also sufficient condition for language acquisition to take place. It requires no conscious effort on the part of the learner and no explicit focus on grammar.

Krashen's hypothesis is certainly open to critique in many of its aspects. But I consider it to be a very useful insight into the process by which second language acquisition takes place. And I will leave it to epistemologists and semanticists to judge whether it and the other beliefs about language learning covered in the books listed above can justifiably be called myths.

General problems with myths

@@@ Whatever term you choose for a misconception, simplification or unfounded generalisation about language learning, the problem arises when action is taken based on it. ~~~ This is seen in the failure, mentioned above, to support young ESL students because of the misconception that they will learn naturally and easily.

A further example is Myth 4 in the first book listed, namely Practice makes perfect. However practice and perfect are defined, you are certainly wrong to believe that perfection in English grammar is attainable, no matter how long and hard you practice. A problem caused by this misconception lies in the amount of time you would be wasting on practice grammar exercises that could, for example, be much better spent just reading in the new language.


The best advice is to regard with suspicion any short and simple generalisations about the teaching and learning of a new language. It is rare that such statements apply to all language learners and all learning contexts, even if they be partially.

Finally, it can be extrapolated from the above discussions that mainstream teachers of subjects other than languages should be cautious about giving their ESL students advice on how and how not to learn English.

Further reading

There are numerous articles on the internet on the topic of language myths. Here are just two of them. Both cover myth 1 discussed above.

Common Misconceptions about Language Acquisition

Five Common Language Learning Myths Dispelled


  • ^ 3 ^ (8 myths)
  • ^ 27 ^ (8 myths)
  • Marinova-Todd, S; Marshall, D and Snow, C Three Misconceptions about Age and L2 Learning. TESOL Quarterly Vol 34/1, 2001.
  • ^ 55 ^(50+ myths)
  • Scovel T. The younger the better myth and bilingual education In: Gonzalez, R (ed.) Language Ideologies: Critical Perspectives Urbana, IL: NCTE, 1999.
  • Snow, C and Hoefnagel-Hoehle, M (1978) The critical period for language acquisition: evidence from second language learning. Child Development 49/4. (Quoted in Lightbown, P and Spada, N (1999) How Languages are Learned, Oxford)