Common Myths and Misconceptions about English Language Learners
As part of Concordia’s Thought Leadership Graduate Education Info Session on April 8, 2019, Dr. Juliana Smith shared her top 13 myths about English language learners (ELLs).
Myth #1: English is the second language of students.
A lot of the students we see in the U.S. actually speak several languages already. English may be their third, fourth, or fifth language and, depending on where they come from, they may have a tribal language in addition to the one or two official languages of their country. For us to say that English is their second language would be diminishing a huge part of their lives and who they are. That’s why we don’t use the term “English as a Second Language” or “ESL” anymore.
Myth #2: English-language proficiency is an indicator of intellect.
That is, you don’t speak English with a foreign accent. This myth bothers me a lot personally because I’ve been judged for speaking English with a foreign accent. I learned English from people who have accents and I will always have an accent. I am judged for it every day. Studies show that very few people can actually wipe out their accents if they learn it as a foreign language. Personally, I think that if you have an accent that shows you are pretty intelligent because you speak more than one language. The idea that just because you have an accent you are less intelligent is a huge myth.
Myth #3: Students cannot use their first language in the classroom.
A lot of teachers think that if the kids use their first language, they’re not going to learn English. I think this comes from a place of fear of not being able to understand what they’re saying. Studies have shown that using the first language actually helps them learn English faster and helps them confirm what they heard to make sure they understood correctly. Of course, you want to encourage them to use English, but there is no reason to forbid them from using their first language.
Myth #4: Students need to be corrected when they’re speaking English.
There’s a time and place for correction. I’m much more into modeling – when a student says something wrong you can model it back the correct way. As an adult when I moved here, I was corrected so many times when I said the word “lemonade” that I finally stopped ordering it when I went to restaurants. If this is how I felt as an adult who could speak English very well, image how a child feels who is trying their hardest to learn this language and they’re constantly being corrected. They will shut down and not speak because they are tired of being corrected.
Myth #5: All English language learners are immigrants.
Based on 2015 statistics, 85% of pre-kindergarten to fifth grade ELL students and 62% of sixth to twelfth grade ELL students were born in the United States. That’s a very high number. They may come from households that don’t speak English as a first language, but they were born here. These students are citizens of this country and they deserve to get the education that other students are getting.
Myth #6: To learn English, students must assimilate into North American culture.
I firmly believe that culture and language go hand in hand, and you can’t separate them. It’s very difficult to acquire a language if you don’t understand the nuances of the culture. But understanding the culture is not the same as assimilating it. I think we do a disservice to students if we force them to assimilate because they’re denying their ethnic and cultural background. A lot of kids lose their cultural background because they want to belong so badly. As teachers, we should celebrate and embrace various cultural backgrounds.
Myth #7: All English language learners share a similar background and socio-economic status.
We have students from all over the world. In one school alone you may have up to 150 languages represented. Students can be from anywhere and have completely different backgrounds. In the greater Portland area, some ELL students are here because their parents were transferred here to work for Nike or Intel or Columbia Sportswear or Adidas. These families have a lot of education and their parents speak English, but the kids may have come from anywhere in the world. And then we have many students who came from refugee camps who maybe have never stepped foot in a school. For us to assume that every ELL student is the same is a huge mistake.
Myth #8: Every ELL student is fluent in their native language.
Some students may speak a broken form of their native language or may not know how to read or write in their native language. We should not assume we can give them a task in their first language to solve all their problems.
Myth #9 Social English proficiency equates academic English.
For a child to acquire social language it takes about two to three years. But research has shown it can take up to seven to ten years to acquire academic language. Social language comes faster because it’s a need. As human beings we have a need to belong and we want to have friends.
Myth #10: Teachers should use a classroom buddy as a translator.
It’s not a student’s job to teach another student. Translating is not an easy thing to do; it’s exhausting. You can’t learn when you’re translating for a classmate because you’re so focused on the words that you aren’t really processing the information in the same way. It’s not fair to the student translator.
Myth #11: Communicating with parents will be difficult because of language barriers.
Parents will make huge efforts to understand and communicate with teachers. They really go above and beyond. Some parents will bring a buddy who can translate, and they take care of it themselves. You just have to reach out – a lot of them are willing to go out of their way to get help for their kids if that’s what is needed.
Myth #12: Western history is not a factor in second language acquisition.
Kids who come from a strong linguistic background, have academic language, and have been in school will acquire their second language much faster than a child who is not very strong in their first language. This is why bilingual education and immersion schools are so successful – because students learning their first language can transfer that knowledge to their second or third language.
Myth #13: Students cannot learn subjects like history or math if they don’t know English.
This is not true, and if you were to attend one of my Master of Arts in Teaching program classes, you could see proof of this. In my class, I actually show how you can teach an entire history lesson without speaking the language of the students. It’s all about comprehensible input. You use a lot of pictures, gestures, videos, and graphic organizers. It’s very possible for students to learn a subject matter, even if they don’t speak the language in which it’s being taught.
Juliana Smith is the English to Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) program chair and a full-time faculty member in the College of Education. She teaches ESOL courses, educational technology courses, and the Methods for World Languages course. Originally from Brazil, Juliana came to the United States as an exchange student at age 15. She holds a bachelor’s degree from Wayne State College, a Master’s in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages from Shenandoah University, a Master of Arts in Teaching from Kaplan University, and a Doctorate in International Education from Northcentral University. She has taught English, Spanish, and Portuguese, and is currently learning her fifth language.