Learning English is tough. And it's even tougher because there's lots of bad information about what makes good education. Today, let's look at five myths—things that many people believe, but that are not true—about learning English.
1. We learn vocabulary and grammar in the order that we study.
Many students assume that there is a logical order to the English grammar items and vocabulary words that you should try to study. They think that if we arrange things from "simple" to "complex" and study them in that order, we will learn them in that order. Most English textbooks are designed around this idea, but that simply isn't how it works.
Research shows that, yes, there are some basic patterns. But many factors, such as your first language, can really change the order that you learn grammar or vocabulary. This does not necessarily mean that we should not study grammar or vocabulary directly, but most experts now say that the curriculum should be based around something other than grammar topics.
2. Native speakers are better teachers
There are English schools around the world that advertise, "English Lessons with Native English Teachers!" These are especially common online (see below). And many English learners seem to share the idea that native speakers are the best teachers. But why?
A native speaker of English did not have to study and learn the language as an adult. They haven't necessarily experienced all the same challenges and struggles as someone who learned the language at a later age. Native speakers can often follow English grammar patterns without knowing what that grammar pattern is, so they can do it but they cannot teach it.
They can probably pronounce TH, but they might not be able to tell you how to pronounce TH. In other words, a native speaker might have the ability to speak English very well, but they often don't have the skills needed to teach English well. As linguist David Crystal puts it, "All sorts of people are fluent, but only a tiny proportion of them are sufficiently aware of the structure of the language that they know how to teach it." In many ways, a non-native English speaking teacher can be more helpful than a native speaker! Of course, there are very good native and non-native teachers, but skill and qualification as a teacher is much more important than your first language.
Check out this article at TEFL Equity Advocates to learn more about how we select the best teachers at Ginseng.
3. Accuracy is the most important thing
So many of my students tell me that they want me to correct them every time they make a mistake in their speaking or writing. My response is, "No, no you don't want that." When students ask this, they assume that English is all about accuracy, and that improving your English means eliminating errors from your English.
But English is about a lot more than accuracy. In fact, focusing too much on accuracy can really limit your fluency, your ability to speak rapidly and naturally, and fluency is an important part of language learning. If you are too worried about making mistakes, you might also avoid more challenging, complex structures, and complexity is another important part of language learning. As your understanding of the language develops, you need to try more complex sentences and structures, and you will make mistakes as you experiment. Those mistakes are important, and if you have someone correcting you every time you make a mistake, you won't experiment as much!
Accuracy is important but it's not everything! We need to balance accuracy, fluency, and complexity as we learn English.
4. Learning English should be a constant challenge
Learning a language can be a challenge, but that doesn't mean that everything you do in English class should be as difficult and challenging as possible. Generally, you just want small challenges: new language that is just a little above your current level. This is called comprehensible input. Comprehensible means you can understand it. Input is language that you take in.
But there is also a lot of important language acquisition that happens when you are doing things in English that are not challenging at all! Extensive reading, or easy pleasure reading, is very important to developing your English. So is casual conversation, which can really develop fluency!
Make sure that you spend some time challenging yourself with English that is just above your level, and some time using the English that you already know. Again, it's all about balancing those two!
5. Progress in English is linear
This can be really frustrating, but learning English is not a straight line from no English to fluent English. Some parts of the language you will learn quickly. Others will take years. Generally we learn a lot in the first year or two that we study, and our learning slows down after that. Sometimes it will even seem like your English is getting worse! Don't worry. All of this is common and part of the process.