Nine Language-Teaching Myths

Found at TPRS Making Japan Fluent, 9 myths about language teaching. What do you think, agree or disagree with them? There is some merit to some of the points, but I don't fully agree or disagree with any of them. Let me know what you think.

Are your language students silent? Do they never seem to improve? Do they learn words one day and forget them the next? If your answer to any of these is yes, then you may have unwittingly subscribed to one of the nine language-teaching myths. A lot of these myths are counter-intuitive, and some seem so obvious that teachers can believe in them for years without ever suspecting they are false. Yet every day, in small and subtle ways, teachers who believe in these myths are damaging their students' chances of success. This article is dedicated to teachers young and old who have managed to fall under the spell. Without further ado, I present to you the nine most common myths in language teaching.

Myth Number One: If students don't know grammar, they won't be able to speak.

Many teachers who are frustrated with their students' inability to speak fluently point the finger at too much memorizing of grammar rules -- and rightly so. But still, there are still a great many teachers who make grammar study the main part of their language programmes. The reason why teachers insist on grammar is the title of this myth: teachers think if their students don't learn grammar rules, then they won't have learned the language. There is a big problem with this viewpoint, and this goes to the core of the real nature of language learning.

Conscious versus subconscious learning

Real speech is subconscious. There's no getting around it. When you are chatting to your friends over a beer, apologising to your boss after missing the deadline, or whispering sweet nothings to your lover, you are not thinking about which particular adverb to use or about which verb ending matches the tense of your subject. And think about it; you were speaking perfectly fluently and correctly in your native language by the age of five, and how many grammar rules had you learned then? Do you even know all the grammar rules of your native language now? To be sure, second languages are not exactly the same as first languages. But there is a growing body of research that shows that the grammar patterns that show up in a persons speech are immune to the effects of direct instruction.

Immune to the effects of direct instruction.

That means that no matter how much time you spend teaching your students grammar, they won't actually learn it so that they can use it in speech. Sure, they can learn the rules, and they might be able to remember them if they have enough time to think, and are relaxed enough that they can remember the rule. (This situation could arise in, for example, a grammar exam.) But this does not mean that they have actually learned it in the true sense of the word.

You may think that if they just practise one grammar rule until it has been internalized, then practise the next until it has been internalized, and so on, and so on, then at the end you will have a fluent speaker. Unfortunately, language is simply too complicated for this. For a start, no-one even knows all the grammar rules in English, or any other language, for that matter. We know a lot of them, sure, but linguists will be the first to admit that we don't know everything. Just look at the grammar rule for the word "the". In any decent grammar book the explanation will take up several pages. Are learners even able to learn this one rule well enough that they can use it in speech? If they are learning it from a teacher or a textbook, I have my doubts.

Another thing is that there is more that language learners need to worry about than simply grammar. Someone who is truly fluent needs to master not only grammar but also pronunciation, rhythm, intonation, stress, semantics, situational context, how to judge the other speaker's mood, the culture of the people being spoken to, and more. Even if our students were all super-intelligent and never stopped studying, there is simply no way they could master all these things. That is, there would be no way if they tried to do it consciously. If they stop trying to learn grammar consciously, and teachers stopped basing the whole of their lessons on it, then students would progress in the language much faster.

There is some place for conscious learning in the study of language, true. But it should be kept to a minimum. Studies done with high school students in the USA show that the ratio should be 5% conscious learning to 95% subconscious learning.

Myth Number Two: Correcting students' errors improves their language skills.

It seems so obvious. If a student makes a mistake, how will they know about it unless we correct them? Actually, there's more to it than this. We've already learned that we don't think about grammar while we speak. Guess what correcting students' errors encourages them to think about? You guessed it, it makes them think about grammar! So what happens when you manage to get someone to think about grammar while they speak? They stop being able to speak, that's what. Or at least, they stop being able to speak fluently. Here's an example. If you don't believe that, then try giving someone a new "grammar" rule. Ask a native English speaker to tell you what they did yesterday, with one catch - they aren't allowed to use words containing the letter 'e'. You'll find that their fluency just vanishes.

If you keep correcting students grammar when they talk, or when they write, you will find they will get more and more concerned about grammar, and will be able to speak less and less fluently. This is not to mention the fact that having your speaking corrected just feels horrible. As students realise they aren't getting fluent in their new language, their motivation decreases, until you have a class where the only students who care about learning the language are the straight A kids -- and they only care because they don't want your class to be the only one where they get a B. The rest of the students spend their time talking, daydreaming, sleeping... anything to keep their mind off the fact that they can't speak the language you're trying to teach them. Does this sound like a familiar situation to some people? The solution, or rather part of it, is to stop correcting your students' errors.

By this point you may not be surprised to know that there is extensive research out there that shows that correcting student errors does not help them improve. Students improve just as fast, or faster, without any error correction at all. It turns out that just as the learning of language structures is immune to direct grammar instruction, it is also immune to error correction. There is another process at work here that explains how people get better at language. That doesn't mean to say that error correction is absolutely useless. I recommend that you correct students if the meaning of what they say is wrong, or if a native speaker wouldn't understand. Just do it gently. Do it indirectly, model the correct structure, do it with a smile, and make sure the student feels good about herself.

Myth Number Three: Students improve by speaking the language.

This is perhaps the biggest mistake that language teachers make, and probably the most counter-intuitive thing about language teaching. I can see the legions of teachers out there, urging students to Speak, Speak, SPEAK! Actually, speaking the language only helps students to improve indirectly. To see why, let us consider these facts:

Speaking is the number one cause of anxiety for students learning a new language.
Infants go through a period of silence before they start to speak, and when they do speak they only speak single words. This is the same for children under the age of ten or so who move to a country where they don't speak the language. Both of these groups invariably gain native-like fluency.
There are multiple cases of children who have never been able to speak due to brain damage or illness, but have developed perfect listening, reading, and writing abilities in their language.
The vast majority of students studying foreign languages using speech-focused methods drop out or graduate without actually becoming able to speak.
If speaking made students better at language, then those students wouldn't have dropped out, and those kids that couldn't speak would never have developed their other language abilities. And yet we see this is not the case. So what is the common thread running through these points? The answer is input.


Infants and migrant children both receive vast amounts of language input, first from listening and later through reading. Children with no speech still receive input, even though they can't respond to it. On the other hand, most students learning foreign languages in school often don't get a great deal of listening and reading in their classes - the focus is usually on grammar and speaking. If the focus was shifted to input, then the students would progress more and would be less anxious about learning.

This all comes back to the idea that language learning is subconscious. If we eliminate all conscious forms of learning language -- learning grammar, having errors corrected, and practising rote speech -- then we are left with understanding messages, or in other words, input. This is the real key to fluency. If students are in an environment where they are able to understand written and spoken messages in their new language every day, then they will naturally learn the language without ever being taught. If the conscious attention of the students is on the meaning of what is being said, then the subconscious mind is free to connect sound and meaning, and to build a map of the grammar of the new language. This is the kind of grammar learning that can be used in speech.

Myth Number Four: If students don't study hard, they won't learn the language.
With the answers to the first three myths, I'm sure you can begin to see that studying hard isn't everything in language learning. To be sure, studying hard can be very useful, but the most important thing is how you study. You can study all the grammar rules you like, but you'll never be able to speak fluently. You can practice rote speaking until the cows come home, but you'll be at a loss when the time comes for real communication. On the other hand, if you concentrate very hard on getting lots and lots of comprehensible input, listening to interesting things in the language, and reading books you like and can understand, then you will fly ahead.

Driving this point home is the concept of the "affective filter". This is the idea that negative emotions can interfere with learning languages, while positive emotions create the best learning environment. If you're bored, anxious, or frustrated, as frequently happens when doing conscious study of hard subjects such as grammar, then it is harder for you to learn language structures subconsciously. If, however, you are happy, excited, amused, curious, or enthralled, as frequently happens when reading or listening to interesting content, then it is much easier to learn language structures subconsciously. So really the best advice for language learners looking for best results shouldn't be to study hard, it should be to play hard.

Myth Number Five: Writing new words many times is the best way to remember new vocabulary.

It's a scene common to language classes across the world. Students study a list of words, then write them down many times so that they won't forget. Unfortunately, they do forget. With this kind of learning, the words are separated from their context. The more context you have, the easier it is to remember the words. If you can tie the words to an emotion, to a movement, to an image, or to a story, then it will be much easier to recognise it the next time it comes round. If you hear the word spoken and then see it again written down, then you have another thing for your memory to latch on to. If you hear it and read it enough times while concentrating on meaning, then you'll find your subconscious just knows when to use it and where it should go.

Myth Number Six: Students need a lot of time to practise writing before they can form correct sentences.

This is true only if you are teaching using explicit grammar rules and forcing your students to write. In this case, then certainly students will need a lot of time to practice before they can write. They will also have to think about every sentence, so the writing itself will also take a long time. In fact, it can be agonizing to watch.

Real writing ability, on the other hand, is subconscious, just like speech is. There is more time when writing than when speaking, true, but the best authors don't think about grammar, they think about content. Can you imagine Shakespeare struggling over whether to use "the" or "a" on every page while penning Macbeth; or Dan Brown trying desperately to remember whether his nouns are countable or non-countable as he writes the scene where Robert Langdon escapes his pursuers and finally cracks the Da Vinci Code? I think not.

Of course, we can't expect our students to write masterpieces straight away. So how can they learn to write subconsciously if they don't practice writing? We have already learned the answer. They have to get input, and this time it has to be reading input - and lots of it. The research on reading is very strong. In controlled studies students who only read consistently do better than students who have language lessons. They get better vocabulary, better grammar, and especially, better writing ability. If you want your students to write well, forget writing practice. Get them to read.

Myth Number Seven: The best way to teach reading is to do it in class.

First off, I want to congratulate you if you are teaching reading in class. You are already a cut above the rest. Students who learn to read in class will perform much, much, better than students who don't. Reading in class should be a core part of any language programme. However, if that's all you're doing to teach reading then you're missing out on the very best way. The best way is one that catches teachers out. Again, this has been proven time and time again by the research. The one method that trumps all others, that produces the best gains in vocabulary, grammar, spelling, and writing, is one that doesn't need to be done in a classroom at all. It's the best method of teaching languages on the planet, and it doesn't even need a teacher. I'm talking about free voluntary reading.

Think about it. All you need to do to get that all-important subconscious learning is to read messages and understand them. All you need to do this is read a book. That's it. Any teaching, any comprehension checks, any summaries, and any other of the many things teachers like to do just get in the way. If you're free to just read, and you're free to choose something you like, then the whole of your time will be spent understanding messages. There is no method that is more efficient. And it doesn't even have to be done in the classroom. As long as you can get students interested in reading, and give them interesting books to read, then they will teach themselves. If you don't have a free voluntary reading programme in your school, you are doing your students and yourself a disfavour.

Myth Number Eight: Teachers should save difficult grammar rules until students have mastered the easier ones.

This is another one that is found in a great many language classrooms. It sounds great - no-one likes to learn difficult things before they've learned the easy ones, right? Unfortunately, this doesn't apply when learning foreign languages. You will recall that grammar patterns that people use in spontaneous speech are immune from the effect of direct grammar instruction. You will also recall that with lots and lots of comprehensible input people will learn grammar rules subconsciously and without any instruction. These are not the only things; it also turns out that everybody learns these subconscious grammar rules in roughly the same order. No matter what grammar rules are taught, no matter what the learner's native language is, and no matter what input the learner gets, this order will not change.

This order is based in large part on how much that particular grammar feature affects the meaning of what is said. For example, in English the "-ing" form is learned fairly early, whereas the 3rd person "-s" on the end of verbs is learned a lot later. They both seem simple, but the "-ing" form affects the meaning of what is being said much more. So actually, a lot of the "easy" grammar structures that are taught in the first year of language courses, are in reality anything but.

So how can you know what is the right input to help your students progress? The answer is, you can't. But as long as you give the students a wide range of comprehensible input, using all tenses, all cases, and both "easy" and "hard" grammatical features, then the right input will be included somewhere in it. Learning each grammatical feature is a complex process, and second-guessing by the teacher will not help. So what will happen if you deny the students a chance at hearing more "advanced" grammar? When the time they should have learned it actually comes, they will get stuck, that's what. Rather than helping them acquire the "easy" grammar, this will stop the learning process altogether. What's more, the strange input they have been receiving might lead to fossilization, meaning the students will develop permanent errors in their subconscious map of the language.

So please, when you give students input, keep it natural, use all the tenses, and limit the vocabulary you use. That way, you have the best of both worlds: language that is natural, rich, and that is easy to understand. You will find you have created an ideal environment for learning grammar subconsciously.

Myth Number Nine: Total immersion in the language is the fastest way to become fluent.

Many teachers see that their students aren't fluent, and they see that children who go to other countries become fluent with no lessons, and they think that total immersion is the only way anyone could possibly learn a language. It is true that total immersion can be very good for learners, but for beginners it is almost never the best way. This is because the best input is that which is comprehensible. With total immersion, you are avoiding learning grammar rules and you are getting a great deal of input, but much of this input is incomprehensible. Incomprehensible input cannot become subconscious learning, and to make things worse it is the second biggest cause of language anxiety after speaking. So any time you hear incomprehensible input, you might actually be damaging your chances of success. What's more, there are plenty of situations in total immersion where you might be forced to speak. We have seen the effects of speaking on language anxiety before; when coupled with lots of incomprehensible input, the effects can be severe.

This may go a good way to explaining why children often succeed in immersion environments and adults often do not. Children are not often pressured to speak, and the input they receive is usually quite simple and focused on the here and now. Adults, on the other hand, are often pressured to speak, and they often receive complex input which is separated in time and space from their situation. So for older children and adults in particular, it is important to get them beyond the beginner stage before letting them loose in an immersion setting. The language classroom can be an excellent place to do this if the right methods are used.

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