Article Review: “Myths about Acquiring a Second Language”

I took a really great class last semester entitled, Language, Identity, and the Politics of Schooling by Dr. Anne Haas Dyson.  I learned so much about dialects and language differences from a sociolinguistic standpoint.  After meeting an ESOL teacher in MD this past weekend and learning about her challenges, I decided to write about an article I read for class.

The article, Myths about Acquiring a Second Language, is an excerpt from a book published in 1999 entitled, Best Practices for Language Minority Students by Katharine Davies Samway and Denise McKeon.

My goal is to give you a very cursory summary of the article, highlighting key points that I found to be important, give you my perspective from an SLP, and then if you have more questions, feel free to look up the actual article or write.

This introductory piece really just hits on 6 myths that have been perpetuated in the world of second language acquisition.

Myth #1 – Basically, that learning a second language is entirely different from learning your first.

Reality – There are many similarities between learning a first and second language.

Key points I took away: Language learning takes place in real life situations through listening to and partaking in conversations with family members and other individuals in people’s lives regardless of the language.  Learners who are figuring out a new language will often make the same mistakes as a monolingual person has made.  Additionally, children who are learning a second language often times experience a phenomenon called the “silent period.”  This is where a child may not be verbally expressing himself, but is processing what’s happening in their environment, linguistically and in other areas.

My SLP hat:  This information is critical to understand for teachers and SLPs.  If you know that a child is learning a new language and understand that he may be quiet for a few days to a few months, then you may not be as quick to make a referral for special education.  Also, understanding the types of errors they may make will seem like he may have a language disorder, when in fact, he just may be learning the new language and making predictable errors.

Myth#2 – Essentially, that younger kids learn a second language easier than older folks.

Reality – Younger kids learning a new language may do so with little or no accent, but us older folks are usually more efficient at learning a new language-Score! J

Key points I took away:  Young children learning a language have many context clues to help them learn the language and the communication is often times much simpler than for older children and adults.  As children get older the social and academic situations get more advanced and challenging which therefore requires more sophisticated language use.  Whereas younger children are using language that fits their developmental stage, older kids must use and understand language at a much higher level than their command of the second language. This creates a mismatch between their ability to understand the language and their ability to understand conceptually.

My SLP hat:  Crucial information people, especially when working with older kids who are learning a second language for the first time.  And I’m not talking about the required foreign language elective, I’m talking about the kid who has just moved from another country and is doing her best to grasp the English language as well as Chemistry concepts.  It will be important to determine whether a student is having difficulty due to the linguistic barrier or the actual concepts.  Perhaps by putting more multimodality cues into the lesson (e.g. visual, tactile, kinesthetic) you can help make the concepts more accessible to the student.  This also works for the child with a language disorder.  As far as determining whether it’s the language difference or a language disorder, that’s a whole other blog for a whole other day :-)

Claymanthinking

Myth#3 – When you can speak fluently, then all is well.

Reality – Speaking a second language fluently does not mean you will succeed in academic environments.

Key points I took away: When I was getting my M.A. in Communication Sciences and Disorders, I learned the difference between BICS and CALPS.  BICS is Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills and CALPS is Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency Skills.  Here’s a site that explains it in more detail: http://www.everythingesl.net/inservices/bics_calp.php

Basically, just because the student is able to hold a conversation with you or his peers, this does not mean that he will do well academically.  The type of language skills required for conversations (e.g. talking about the weekend or your favorite TV show) is different than the skills required to explain why World War II happened.

My SLP hat: While understanding the grammar and syntax of a language is an important part, my own personal experience tells me that semantics, vocabulary, pragmatics, etc. are also a critical pieces of taking someone’s understanding of a language from one level to the next.

Myth #4 – It is equally hard to learn academic English for all second language learners.

Reality – Many variables determine the ease or challenge of learning a second language.

Key points I took away:  Consider where the child is coming from and that may help to determine what challenges she may face when learning a second language.  Does her first language have a written form?  Did he have formal schooling in his first language?

My SLP hat:  The issue of language is such a complex one.  Understanding a child’s background is key to understanding about that child’s language experiences and how best to reach that child in an academic setting.

Myth#5- Just focus on teaching English, understanding in all the other subjects will start to emerge and faster too.

Reality – Learning a language is a developmental process.

Key points I took away: This is not just a simple cause/effect situation, there are multiple variables that are involved regarding the rate and the degree to which a student learns a second language.  Factors can be age of initial exposure, prior schooling in first language, or even the kind of instruction given in the second language. The article goes into greater detail regarding these factors and others.  One of the main points of this section is that just because a child learns English, does not guarantee he will be successful in school.  As stated above, the child who is speaking English at a fluent level on the playground (excelling in a more contextualized language environment) may be asked to show her linguistic skills in the classroom (a more decontextualized learning environment) and not be as successful.

My SLP hat:  Many SLPs will probably get referrals for children who are doing just this.  Hmmm, this child now “knows” how to speak English, yet he is still not “getting it”, perhaps he has a language disorder?? Again, this may or may not be the case.  Our job is to be able to determine whether this child is developing appropriately given the variables involved in learning a second language or does this child have a language disorder that will benefit from speech and language services.

Myth #6 – Asian students are better at learning English than Spanish-speaking students.

Reality – All students are equally capable of learning English regardless of race, ethnicity, or culture.

Key points I took away: I found this part of the article to be particularly interesting, citing numerous historical and political aspects as to why this myth even started in the first place.  Whereas Asian students may often times be seen as the “model minority”, it is important to understand that this is not an issue of who is “smarter”, but may be due to issues of colonization, the country they are living in, or even the connection between education and other societal institutions.  The article provides more information about caste-like societies and

My SLP hat:  It is so critical to our clinical practice to learn about other people’s cultural and familial backgrounds.  I can’t stress this enough.  I’m not saying you need to know the history behind each individual’s ethnic and racial background, but understand enough info about the student’s background to make informed decisions about screenings, assessments, interventions, or even just ways to assist in the classroom.

This is a great article to read for SLPs or teachers working with students who are learning English. It may not necessarily be their second language, but the points are still valid.  If you would like to read the full article

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Okay, so I plan on writing blogs that will vary from summarizing articles that I find important for educators/SLPs/parents to know about to current event topics or even just my opinion on issues concerning culture and language.

If there is a topic you feel that you’d like me to address, email me and I’ll see what I can do.

~Megan-Brette