How many times have you heard people say, either in person, at a talk or even on social media, things like ‘students need a textbook to learn’, ‘native speakers teachers should teach pronunciation’ or perhaps ‘encourage your learners to think in the L2’? With them all too common place these days, I’m sure many of you have! Too often such misconceptions (or even myths) like these can quickly be set in stone, but how should we really respond to them? We look at the way such myths can be dealt with by looking at how Chiara Bruzzano has responded to some of the most common misconceptions about language teaching and learning to see.
Sometimes I think that English language education is split into two different worlds that only sometimes overlap. The first of these worlds is home to fascinating debates that are meant to move the field forward. These include, among other things, questions around multilingualism, heritage languages, racialised communities, Complex Systems Theory, technology or the seemingly never-ending question of whether corrective feedback works. In this world, we see advancements in theory, research, policy and technology. We discuss them at conferences, we critique them in articles, we give them awards – like we recently did with the British Council ELTons Innovation Awards 2021.
But there is also another world, which often seems unencumbered by these debates and advancements which busy teachers can find themselves brushing up against or being brought into. This world tends to be inhabited by all kinds of stakeholders (such as your students’ parents or corporate clients for business English courses), who by virtue of having been to school or having previously learned a language, have (at times ill-informed) opinions about language teaching and how it should be done. This world has been given a voice through social media, allowing anyone to express an opinion on language teaching, thereby providing a breeding ground for misconceptions to perpetuate.
Does it sound familiar? Recently, I had some interesting discussions on social media where I was told by people whose jobs were not even remotely related to education or languages that because I did not support L1-only policies in classrooms, I did not understand the first thing about how language teaching works and that I had better change jobs.
Admittedly, this was a little extreme even by current social media standards, but it instantly took me back to all the views that people with no knowledge whatsoever of language education or second language acquisition seem so keen to express so confidently – even if no evidence at all exists to support them.
So, here are the four misconceptions I have heard most frequently from non-specialists, plus my personal take on them.
1. The students need a textbook
This one is getting a little boring now … and can include variations like ‘you really should be using the textbook more’ and ‘when I look at my child’s textbook, I don’t think it’s being used enough’.
But in reality, a textbook is not a necessary condition for language learning (and as we know from my recent survey of teachers, lots of teachers would actually love to move on from textbooks if they could). Language acquisition happens when enough good quality input is provided, output is produced and students have plenty of opportunities to negotiate meaning, receive feedback and use language for real or realistic purposes. This can be achieved with the help of a textbook, but also with plenty of other tools, which may in fact be much more motivating and personalised for your learners.
2. We need to learn basic grammar and/or do a grammar course
This one has come from both from universities and businesses. I understand that grammar is regarded as a big building block of learning a language and I do not wish to deny that it is important.
However, you cannot learn grammar independently of other language systems and skills, and a course devoted exclusively to grammar is not likely to have a hugely positive effect on learning. We acquire grammar structures in ways that are fundamentally independent of the way we are taught these structures; therefore, a whole course on direct grammar instruction may not be the best investment!
3. Local teachers cannot teach pronunciation, so we need ‘native speakers’
If you have read my English Teaching professional blog before, you know how I feel about native speakerism. But when it is coupled with baseless criticisms of ‘local teachers’, i.e. non-native teachers, it is even more incomprehensible to me.
Local teachers are no less qualified than ‘native speaker’ teachers to teach anything, including pronunciation. More importantly, these blanket statements just cannot apply to all teachers everywhere: just like there will be local teachers who need to develop professionally in certain aspects of their work, there will equally be ‘native speaker’ teachers who do. Further, local teachers have a wealth of knowledge that our students need: just to get an idea of how innovative and dedicated teachers can be, have a look at the Teachers Research! project and the case studies in the Decentring ELT project.
Finally, although many people do not realise this, pronunciation does not equal accent – pronouncing a language in a way that is understandable is different from having a specific regional accent. In many contexts, adopting a native-like accent is not an appropriate or achievable goal of instruction, whereas becoming intelligible can be.
4. The students’ L1 should be banned from the classroom: students need to think in the L2
As I mentioned at the start, I took a lot of heat for my views on this one. First, I dared to say that it is unlikely that students can in fact think in their second language (L2) all the time, especially if they are beginners or intermediate level students. I understand the frustration that students sometimes voice, for instance when they say that they get ‘stuck’ while speaking and they would like to simply think in English. The reality, however, is that this is not going to happen overnight, so why create an unrealistic expectation?
On the other hand, it is also true that students will not be translating every single thing they hear, read, write or say: chances are that at least some words and chunks will be processed automatically in the L2 or additional language. In my experience, explaining these sorts of mechanisms and establishing more realistic expectations regarding language learning helps students.
Avoiding the use of your learners’ first language (L1) in the classroom will not make it magically disappear from their minds. The L1 can be used judiciously, as Chia Suan Chong reminded us in Fact or myth and creatively, as Michelle Ocriciano talked about in translanguaging and as English Teaching professional did in cross-linguistic mediation practices.
What are the most common misconceptions about language teaching and learning that you hear from non-specialists? Have you addressed them (or possibly burst them), whether in person, via a talk or on social media, and if so, how? Do please let us know in the comments section or on our social media!