17 Myths About Second Language Acquisition: Debunked!

1. Languages Are Learned Mainly Through Imitation

This argument is difficult to support. Learners don’t just internalize memorized sentences; they produce sentences they haven’t heard before, based on their understanding of the language system. While some children imitate when learning their first language, they don’t imitate everything. Imitation can be a strategy, but it’s not the defining characteristic of language learners. It plays a key role in developing pronunciation and intonation, especially for advanced learners, but beginners learn through meaningful interaction.

2. Parents Usually Correct Young Children’s Grammatical Errors

This depends on several factors:

  • Children’s age: Parents are less likely to correct grammatical errors in very young children, focusing instead on politeness or nonsensical words. As children reach school age, parents may correct non-standard speech.
  • Parents’ background: Social, linguistic, and educational backgrounds influence how parents approach correction.

Children don’t solely depend on parental feedback for language learning. Parents often prioritize meaning over form, correcting incorrect words or statements but overlooking errors that don’t hinder communication. Adult second language learners face unique challenges; without guidance, they may use ungrammatical forms for years (fossilization).

3. Highly Intelligent People Are Good Language Learners

While IQ tests might predict success in traditional language classes emphasizing grammar rules and vocabulary, they don’t tell the whole story. In natural settings and interactive language classes, learners with diverse intellectual abilities can thrive, especially when oral communication is prioritized over metalinguistic knowledge. Language learning involves a variety of skills and abilities beyond intelligence.

4. The Best Predictor of Success in SLA is Motivation

Motivation is undoubtedly crucial; those who want to learn tend to perform better. However, highly motivated learners can still face challenges, particularly adults who rarely achieve the fluency and accuracy of children acquiring their first language. Teachers have limited influence over intrinsic motivation but can foster a supportive and engaging learning environment that promotes success and positive motivation.

5. The Earlier an L2 is Introduced, the Greater the Likelihood of Success

The optimal time for introducing a second language depends on the program’s objectives:

Native-like Performance:

Early exposure is advantageous for achieving native-like proficiency. However, an early start shouldn’t come at the expense of the first language’s development, as subtractive bilingualism can have negative consequences. For minority language children, promoting the mother tongue at home and school is crucial for long-term second language success.

Basic Communicative Skills:

If native-like proficiency isn’t the goal, a later start might be more efficient, especially when there’s a strong commitment to developing the first language. Older children (around 10 years old) can catch up quickly in programs with sufficient exposure. Realistic expectations about learning time are essential; a”drip-fee” approach with limited hours per week can lead to frustration and slow progress.

6. Most L2 Learner Mistakes Are Due to First Language Interference

While the first language can influence second language learning both positively and negatively, it’s not the sole factor. Knowledge of related languages can be beneficial, providing a head start with alphabet, vocabulary, and syntax. However, transferring patterns from L1 to L2 can lead to errors. These errors, often rooted in perceived similarities, can be difficult to overcome, especially when reinforced by peers making the same mistakes. Other factors contributing to L2 errors include developmental patterns similar to those observed in first language learners and efforts to discover the L2’s structure.

7. The Best Way to Learn New Vocabulary Is Through Reading

Reading is undoubtedly a significant source of vocabulary growth, especially during school years. However, simply reading isn’t enough. Learners benefit most when they read extensively, receive guidance from teachers, and develop strategies for learning and remembering words. Focusing solely on extracting the main ideas from texts won’t maximize vocabulary acquisition.

8. Learners Must Pronounce All Individual Sounds in L2 Perfectly

Research suggests that intelligibility in a second language depends more on reproducing stress patterns than perfectly articulating individual sounds. Moreover, the prevalence of various dialects makes it unnecessary to teach learners only one specific dialect.

9. Knowing 1000 Words and Basic Grammar Enables Fluent Conversation

While conversational language uses a limited vocabulary, knowing words and sentence structures alone isn’t sufficient for understanding and being understood. Learners also need to grasp the pragmatic features of the target language, such as how speakers express respect, apologize, or make requests. Cultural differences can lead to misunderstandings even when grammar is correct.

10. Teach Grammar Rules One at a Time, With Practice Before Moving On

Second language development isn’t linear. Learners may use a form accurately initially, struggle with it later, and eventually master it. This non-linear progression reflects the integration of new information and the gradual refinement of language skills. Isolating structures without providing opportunities for discovery and integration can hinder learning and lead to forgetting. Language learning is a dynamic process of connecting vocabulary, patterns, and adjusting until mastery is achieved.

11. Teach Simple Language Structures Before Complex Ones

Research indicates that certain structures are acquired before others, regardless of their perceived complexity. Judging complexity beforehand without considering natural acquisition order can be misleading. Learners benefit from exposure to modified speech from native speakers, which often includes both simple and complex structures, facilitating easier interaction.

12. Correct Learners’ Errors Immediately to Prevent Bad Habits

Errors are an integral part of language learning, both for children acquiring their first language and for individuals learning a second language. While teachers should address errors and provide feedback, immediate correction isn’t always necessary or beneficial. Excessive feedback can demotivate learners, and sensitivity is crucial. The amount and type of correction should vary depending on the student and their relationship with the teacher. Immediate correction in oral communication can be embarrassing for some, while others appreciate it. Finding the right balance is key.

13. Use Materials With Only Previously Taught Language Structures

While comprehensible input is essential, restricting learners to materials devoid of new vocabulary and structures can be detrimental. It can limit their exposure to authentic language, hinder their ability to develop coping strategies for real-world communication, and stifle motivation. Learners need opportunities to encounter and grapple with unfamiliar elements, gradually developing independence in their language processing. A balanced approach that combines comprehensible input with opportunities for stretching language skills is crucial.

14. Free Interaction Leads to Learners Copying Each Other’s Mistakes

Research suggests that learners don’t make significantly more errors when interacting with peers at a similar proficiency level compared to interacting with more advanced learners or native speakers. While learners at similar levels might not always provide accurate corrections, group work offers valuable opportunities for language development. Combining group work with individual tasks and teacher-led activities creates a well-rounded learning experience.

15. Students Learn Only What They Are Explicitly Taught

Learners acquire language knowledge that extends beyond explicit instruction. While some teaching methods might limit exposure to specific words and sentences, richer language input, though beneficial, doesn’t guarantee immediate acquisition. Language development follows a natural sequence, and learners are more receptive to certain features when they are ready. Attempting to teach concepts beyond their current stage can be frustrating. Vocabulary, however, can be taught effectively at any time with engaging methods and learner interest. Learners possess internal mechanisms to decipher language rules, enabling them to learn far more than what is directly taught.

16. Rephrasing Errors Is Better Than Explicitly Pointing Them Out

Recasting, or correctly rephrasing a learner’s error, is a common feedback technique in L2 classrooms. Its advantages include maintaining the flow of interaction, providing indirect and polite correction, and offering information without causing embarrassment. While recasts can be effective for adult learners in structured classes, research suggests that explicit feedback might be more beneficial in content-based classes (immersion) and communicative instruction for young learners. Recasts in these contexts can be misinterpreted as confirmation rather than correction, requiring teachers to adjust their delivery with gestures and tone of voice for clarity.

17. Language and Academic Content Can Be Learned Simultaneously

Content-based instruction, where the subject matter is taught in the second language, offers several advantages:


  • Increased motivation as learners find the material relevant and see the need for language acquisition.
  • Opportunities to learn L2 while continuing academic instruction.
  • Exposure to a wider range of vocabulary.
  • Improved comprehension skills and vocabulary development, as confirmed by research.


  • Understanding content doesn’t guarantee improvement in all aspects of L2, particularly accuracy.
  • Students in language immersion programs may not achieve native-like accuracy even after years of exposure.


  • Provide guidance to help students improve both content comprehension and language proficiency.
  • Recognize that content-based language instruction is still language teaching, requiring attention to form and accuracy.