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POPULAR IDEAS ABOUT LANGUAGE LEARNING REVISITED: In the Introduction, we presented a number of commonly expressed opinions about how languages are learned. We asked you to indicate how strongly you agreed with these opinions. Now that you have read about some of the theory and research in second language acquisition, take another look at those ideas. Have you changed your mind about the importance of imitation or feedback on errors, or whether starting second language instruction early is the best approach? Do you feel that your views about second language acquisition have been changed or only confirmed by what you’ve read in the preceding chapters?. To conclude this introduction to second language acquisition research, here are some of our own reflections on these popular ideas about language learning.

1 Languages are learned mainly through imitation: It is difficult to find support for the argument that languages are learned mainly through imitation. For one thing, learners produce many novel sentences that they could not have heard before. These sentences are based on their developing understanding of how the language system works. This is evident in children’s sentences such as ‘l’m hiccing up and I can’t stop’, and “It was upside down but I turned it upside right’, and with second language learners who say ‘The cowboy rided into town’, or The man that I spoke to him is angry’. These examples and many others provide evidence that language learners do not simply internalize a great list of imitated and memorized sentences. This does not mean, however, that imitation has no role to play in language learning. Some children imitate a great deal as they acquire their first language, but they do not imitate everything they hear. Instead, they selectively imitate certain words or structures that they are in the process of learning. It is also the case that children who do little overt imitation learn language as quickly and as well as those who imitate more. Thus, imitation may be an individual learning strategy but it is not a universal characteristic of language learners. Like first language learners, second language learners produce many sentences that they could not have heard. Some may find that they benefit from opportunities to imitate samples of the new language, and imitation is clearly important in developing pronunciation and intonation. For some advanced learners who are determined to improve their pronunciation, careful listening and imitation in a language laboratory can be very valuable. But for beginning learners, the slavish imitation and rote memorization that characterized audiolingual language approaches to language teaching can lead to a dead end. Learners need to do more than recite bits of perfectly accurate language. They learn as they make the effort needed to understand and make themselves understood in genuinely meaningful interaction. Otherwise, they may have acquired little more than a collection of sentences, waiting for the moment when those sentences will be useful!.
2 Parents usually correct young children when they make grammatical errors: There is considerable variation in the extent to which parents correct their children’s speech. The variation is based partly on the children’s age and partly on the parents’ social, linguistic, and educational background. When children are very young, parents rarely comment on grammatical errors, although they may correct lapses in politeness or the choice of a word that doesn’t make sense. As children reach school age, parents may correct the kinds of non-standard speech that they hope their children will outgrow, for example, ‘Me and Fred are going outside now’. Extensive observations of parents and children show that, as a rule, parents tend to focus on meaning rather than form when they correct children’s speech. Thus, they may correct an incorrect word choice, an incorrect statement of the facts, or a rude remark, but they do not often react to errors that do not interfere with communication. What this tells us is that children cannot depend on consistent corrective feedback in order to learn the basic structure (the word order, the grammatical morphemes, the intonation patterns) of their language. Fortunately, they appear to be able to acquire the adult form of the language with little or no explicit feedback. The case for second language learners is more complex. On the one hand, both children and adults can acquire a great deal of language without any formal instruction or feedback on error. On the other hand, the evidence suggests that, without corrective feedback and guidance, second language learners may persist in using certain ungrammatical forms for years.
3 Highly intelligent people are good language learners: The kind of intelligence that is measured by IQ tests is often a good predictor of success in classrooms where the emphasis is on learning about the language (for example, grammar rules and vocabulary items). People who do well on IQ tests may do well on other kinds of tests as well. However, in natural language learning settings and in classrooms where interactive language use is emphasized, research has shown that learners with a wide variety of intellectual abilities can be successful language learners. This is especially true if the emphasis is on oral communication skills rather than metalinguistic knowledge. Most important, perhaps, is the fact that language learning involves a great variety of skills and abilities. Students should not be excluded from opportunities to learn another language on the grounds that they do not have the academic ability to succeed. In many educational contexts, students from immigrant or minority groups have no choice about learning a second language. What is essential is finding ways to engage the different kinds of ability that students bring to the learning environment.
4 The best predictor of success in second language acquisition is motivation: Everyone agrees that learners who want to learn tend to do better than those who don’t. But we must not interpret this too rigidly. Sometimes, even highly motivated learners encounter great challenges in language learning. We know, for example, that learners who begin learning a second language as adults rarely achieve the fluency and accuracy that children do in first language acquisition. This should not be taken as evidence that adult second language learners are not motivated to learn. It may be a reflection of changes that come with age or of other individual differences such as language learning aptitude or how the instruction interacts with individual learners’ styles and preferences for learning. Teachers have no influence over learners’ intrinsic motivation for learning a second language. Students come to classrooms from different backgrounds and life experiences, all of which have contributed to their motivation to learn and attitudes toward the target language and the community with which it is associated. The principal way that teachers can influence learners’ motivation is by making the classroom a supportive environment in which students are stimulated, engaged in activities that are appropriate to their age, interests, and cultural backgrounds, and, most importantly, where students can experience success. This in turn can contribute to positive motivation, leading to still greater success.
5 The earlier a second language is introduced in school programmes, the greater the likelihood of success in learning: The decision about when to introduce second or foreign language instruction must depend on the objectives of the language programme in the particular social context of the school. When the objective is native-like performance in the second language, then it may be desirable to begin exposure to the language as early as possible. The research evidence is fairly strong that those who begin second language learning at an early age are most likely to eventually be indistinguishable from native speakers. However, even in cases where native-like proficiency is targeted, it is important to recognize certain disadvantages of an early start for second language learning. When an early start means that children have little opportunity to continue to develop their first language, the resulting subtractive bilingualism may have lasting negative consequences. For children from minority-language backgrounds, programmes promoting the development of the first language both at home and at school may be more important for long-term success in the second language than an early start in the second language itself. Research shows that a good foundation in the child’s first language, including the development of literacy, is a sound base to build on. Children who can begin their schooling in a language they already know will have more self-confidence, will be able to learn more effectively in the early school years, and will not lose valuable time in a period of limbo during which they struggle just to understand what is happening in the classroom. For many children, there is no opportunity to have their early schooling in their first language. They are members of small minority groups where it is not practical for schools to offer them an educational programme in their first language, or they live in jurisdictions where legislation has mandated a single language of education for all children, regardless of their background. For these children, it is crucial to have sensitive educators who respect the children’s difficulty, who encourage parents to maintain the home language, and who understand that second language learning takes time and effort. For foreign language instruction or for second language instruction where the level of proficiency that is targeted is not native-like performance by all students, the situation is quite different. When the goal of the educational programme is basic communicative skill for all students, and where there is a strong commitment to maintaining and developing the child’s first language, it can be more efficient to begin second language teaching later. Older children (for example, ten-year olds) are able to catch up quickly to those who began earlier (for example, at six- or seven-years old) in programmes offering only a few hours a week of instruction. This is especially true if the foreign language course includes a period of more intensive exposure to the new language. All school programmes should be based on realistic estimates of how long it takes to learn a second language. One or two hours a week-even for seven or eight years-will not produce advanced second language speakers. This ‘drip-feed’ approach often leads to frustration as learners feel that they have been studying ‘for years’ without making much progress. Sadly, they are sometimes right about this.